There were no bombshells. There were no declarations of a “cancer on the presidency” that we heard with President Nixon during Watergate. If, somehow, some way an impeachment of President Trump clears the U.S. House some time between now and the November 2020, there is zero chance for a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The yield from Wednesday’s long awaited testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller was another venue for the political circus in Washington, and a startlingly shaky performance from the star witness.
If you’re a Democrat or someone who distrusts or loathes President Trump, the headline produced by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler was whether Mueller’s Russian collusion probe cleared the president of obstruction of justice.
“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller answered.
In another exchange, Nadler asked directly whether the report totally exonerated the president. “No,” Mueller said. “It is not what the report said. Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the president committed a crime. That was our decision then and it remains our decision today.”
But ranking Republican Rep. Doug Collins was prescient when he observed in his opening statement, “The president did not obstruct justice and nothing will change those facts.”
Republican members attempted to expand the field, peppering the fumbling Mueller with questions about the Steele dossier and the conduct of FBI agents like Peter Strzok.
And Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe took direct aim at Mueller, saying that DOJ mandates were not designed to exonerate Trump, citing “extraprosecutorial analysis” by “Democrats and socialists.” He said, “Volume II was not authorized” and added that while “no one should be above the law, Donald Trump sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where this report puts him.”
As for collusion, which Trump has repeatedly denied, Mueller explained, “We did not address collusion, which is not a legal term.”
Perhaps the most important part of Mueller’s testimony broached the Russian assault on the 2016 election. “Certain points bear emphasis,” Mueller said. “The Russian government interfered in sweeping and systemic fashion. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. This deserves the attention of every American.”
But, he added, members of the Trump campaign “did not conspire.”
Mueller warned that he fears a “new normal” of foreign election interference. “I hope this is not the new normal. But I fear it is,” he said. Earlier this year Trump said he was open to foreign intelligence for his campaign, but eventually backtracked after the FEC chief warned it would be illegal.
Mueller acknowledged during questions from Democrats that the Kremlin wanted Trump to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
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“Did your investigation find that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from one of the candidates winning?” he was asked.
Mueller responded, “Yes.”
“And which candidate would that be?”
Mueller: “Well, it would be Trump. The president.”
Mueller agreed, in answer to Rep. Ted Lieu, that the reason he did not indict President Trump was the DOJ opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. “The reason again that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting President, correct?” Lieu asked.
Mueller: “That is correct.”
An hour into the hearing, President Trump weighed in, tweeting, “This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.” He added, “It has been reported that Robert Mueller is saying that he did not apply and interview for the job of FBI Director (and get turned down) the day before he was wrongfully appointed Special Counsel. Hope he doesn’t say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the ... interview, including the Vice President of the United States!”
So, now what?
President Trump’s political fate will almost certainly be decided by voters in November 2020. Impeachment is a Tom Steyer fantasy. Speaker Pelosi feels vindicated in her decision not to push impeachment.
That’s not saying there won’t be more legal or ethical bombshells between now and the election. Mueller sent a trove of information to the Southern District of New York beyond the scope of the Russian collusion probe. The New York General Assembly has passed a law and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed that could reveal Trump’s state tax returns. There’s the payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels that could collide with campaign finance laws. And there’s the sordid Jeffrey Epstein scandal that could produce shrapnel anywhere from the Clinton to Trump worlds and a variety of blue bloods in between.
Trump is also sliding across the political straight razor. He is charging up his base with the “send her home” rhetoric many deem racist (including 58% in a Morning Consult/Politico Poll).
Trump’s approval should be in the 60th percentile with the robust economy. There are problems on that front, with a U.S./Chinese trade deal nowhere close to be done, which continues to unnerve Hoosier farmers and industrialists who fear a permanent loss of markets.
But from a political view point, this appears to be the final bookend to the Mueller saga.