According to much of the early commentary, Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday before two US congressional committees was a disappointment.
Democrats are frustrated the special counsel did not make a clear-cut case for impeaching President Donald Trump. Mueller answered questions in the most minimalist way possible, often suggesting congresspersons simply read his report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats wanted Mueller to testify in the hope the American public would start paying more attention to his findings on how Trump obstructed justice.
It turned out that Mueller’s testimony was more sophistic than animating. But it did again highlight damning things about the president’s behaviour.
During the hearing, Republicans unimaginatively echoed Trump’s claims of a “witch-hunt” and asserted that the Mueller report turned up no evidence of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election or of obstruction of justice.
Like Attorney-General Bob Barr’s disingenuous summary of the Mueller report, these claims by Republicans this week were not true, but they have created a narrative that Trump is innocent. This claim is given ballast by Republicans’ allegations that FBI agents conducting the Mueller investigations were politically biased because some of them had said negative things about Trump in private correspondence or donated money to the Clinton campaign.
If saying highly negative things about Trump behind closed doors disqualified bureaucrats and politicians from doing their job, Washington DC would grind to a halt. However, in public Republicans are sticking with Trump, doing his bidding in the Congress and tying their fortunes to him at least for the foreseeable future.
Democrats may initiate impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives, but the trial ultimately occurs in the Senate, where the Republicans have a 53-47 majority. As a result of these numbers and the need for a two-thirds majority vote to dismiss a president, removing Trump from office via impeachment proceedings is very unlikely.
Republicans are showing no signs of abandoning Trump. It is worth remembering that no president has ever been removed from office by the Senate, although two – Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson – have been impeached by the House of Representatives.
Given these political rather than legal realities, will Democrats continue to push for Trump’s unlikely impeachment? The answer is yes. Although Democratic house leaders led by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the house, are urging caution, the fresh wave of Democratic congresspersons elected in 2018 who rode a strong wave of anti-Trump sentiment in their congressional districts will continue to push hard for impeachment.
However, this divide can be overstated. As Pelosi’s comments following Mueller’s testimony demonstrate, the fact that Republicans control the Senate and are unlikely to convict the president may not factor into future considerations among the house leadership. Pelosi wants a strong case, not an act of political theatre. As she put it:
The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook.
Pelosi knows that the case against Trump continues to build. Democrats are pursuing the president in federal courts for a number of alleged financial improprieties, and the House Judiciary Committee is preparing to enforce a subpoena against Don McGahn – the former White House Counsel allegedly directed by Trump to fire Mueller during his investigation.
In his testimony on Wednesday, Mueller confirmed that Trump pressured McGahn in yet another attempt to obstruct justice. Those who have read the Mueller report would know that there were many such attempts. These include Michael Flynn’s lies to the FBI about his conversations with Russians during the transition, the pressuring and eventual firing of FBI director James Comey, and the attempted cover-up of Don junior’s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016 to get whatever dirt he could on Hillary Clinton.
The challenge for Democrats, if they go ahead with impeachment in the House of Representatives, is to articulate a clear case about why such drastic action is justified.
In legal terms, the case that Trump obstructed justice is strong, whereas the case for collusion with Russia is weaker.
It is easy to impute guilt by association with Trump and the Russians. First, there are Trump’s business dealings with Trump Soho and the push to have a Trump Moscow hotel. Then there is Paul Manafort’s close associations with Viktor Yanukovych. Finally, there is Steve Bannon’s appreciation of Putin’s support for ultra right-wing populists across Europe.
However, the Mueller report and his testimony produced no smoking gun. Mueller rightly warned that the Russians have an ongoing campaign to undermine the faith of Americans in democracy. Given the existing levels of frustration and apathy about politics in America, Mueller’s alarm on this issue should be taken seriously. This was one of the few issues that the reluctant witness Mueller became more animated and forceful about.
Many of us are following the vast cast of characters central to the Trump era, the complex details of the Mueller report and Trump’s financial dealings, as well as the congressional hearings into Trump’s behaviour in office.
However, there is a simpler reality to keep in sight. That is that during the Trump presidency, the truth has been more politicised than ever. Increasingly, the truth is presented as a lie and a lie as the truth.