Washington, DC – Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s highly-anticipated testimony to the US House of Representatives on Wednesday may have proved anticlimactic, but Mueller’s few words left important questions on the table.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 presidential election [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
Mueller, 74, gave a halting and at times mumbling performance that did not give the Democrats who favour impeaching President Donald Trump the made-for-TV statement they were hoping for. Instead, Mueller kept most of his responses to one word, and when he did offer more, it was often to refer members of Congress to his 448-page report on his 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible obstruction of justice by the president.
According to Trump, Wednesday’s hearings were a victory for Republicans.
“It was a good day for our Republican party, our country,” Trump said.
“The Democrats had nothing. Now, they have less than nothing,” he told reporters.
According to Democrats, however, Wednesday’s hearings were a “watershed” moment. They pointed to Mueller’s dismissal of Trump’s claims of “total exoneration”.
“Today was a watershed day in terms of sharing the facts with the American people,” said Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which hosted the first of two back-to-back House panels hearings.
House Democrats said Mueller gave them ample reason to continue their sweeping investigations of Trump.
Mueller pointed to areas where Congress, which has a much wider scope of investigative authority, should keep digging – notably Trump’s financial dealings with Russians, Democrats said.
“There was overwhelming evidence that the president obstructed justice. Tried to get people to lie. Tried to get people to cover up. Interfered with witnesses. Tampered with the process. And the American people heard it for the first time,” Democrat Jamie Raskin told reporters after the hearings.
“Where we go next is an open question but, at this point, it is going to sink in with the American public that we have a president who repeatedly obstructed justice,” he said.
Heading into the 2020 presidential election impeachment remains off of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda – for now. She is under rising pressure from within the Democratic Party to move in that direction. In the meantime, the contentious politics in Washington, DC, pitting Democrats against Trump and his Republican allies will expand into more litigation, subpoenas and witnesses.
“Today is the day we close the book on this investigation,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Wednesday. “Democrats have to stop wasting time in trying to have a do-over of the 2016 election.”
The National Republican Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Republicans, used the Mueller hearing as an opportunity to send a fundraising appeal to conservatives who support Trump.
“The past eight months could have been spent continuing to stimulate job growth, strengthen our border, and solve the immigration crisis. BUT instead, Democrats held a pathetic saga to derail President Trump’s legacy all while wasting over $40m of your taxpayer dollars,” Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in an NRCC email to donors.
Republicans say the investigation started because of false information and unwarranted spying by the FBI on people involved in Trump’s campaign committee. Attorney General William Barr has opened an internal investigation at the Justice Department into how the FBI began its inquiry into Trump and Russia. And the department’s Office of Inspector General, an internal watchdog, is preparing a report on whether rules were broken.
“Let’s stop the continuous investigation on something we have already spent three years on,” Jim Jordan, a Republican, said.
But Democrats on Wednesday vowed to continue their push for testimony and documents from key associates of the president, including former White House Counsel Don McGahn. House lawyers plan to file a lawsuit in federal court as soon as Thursday or Friday seeking an order to compel McGahn to testify.
The House has already held McGahn in contempt for his failure to appear before the committee or turnover notes from his time in the White House. Trump had prevented McGahn from appearing before the House Judiciary Committee in its follow-up to Mueller’s report, claiming a broad presidential privilege.
“The case about obstruction of justice was laid out. Now, it is a matter of filling it in” by calling other witnesses, Ted Deutch, a Democrat, told reporters outside Mueller’s hearing on Wednesday.
House committees’ plan to call former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, among more than a dozen others. Each one of them could devolve into a court fight and it is not clear how judges, as referees between two co-equal branches of government, will resolve the disputes
“Unfortunately, up until now, House Democrats have used a bad legal strategy of avoiding using the phrase ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ in their litigation,” Jed Shugerman, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law in New York, told reporters on a conference call.
“It is a significant risk that courts will reject these subpoenas given the balance of executive privilege or the attorney-client privilege or other kinds of prudential concerns,” Shugarman said. “They can be portrayed as a partisan litigation move when the House refuses” to open an impeachment inquiry.
Ted Lieu, who is among the more than 95 rank-and-file Democrats already in favour of impeachment, he wants to see how Americans “internalise” Mueller’s testimony.
“It’s very clear that if you watch these hearings, the Russians attacked us in a sweeping and systematic manner in 2016, that Trump campaign officials embraced that attack, gave them internal polling data, wanted it to happen and then Donald Trump committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice, which are felonies, to stop that investigation,” Lieu told reporters on Thursday.
“Republicans would like to say it’s over, but frankly, this is just the beginning,” David Cicilline, a Democrat, said.
One boundary that could trigger impeachment quickly if Trump crosses it, Democrats warn, would be refusal to comply with court orders as the litigation between the Congress and the White House proceeds.
“My breaking point when it comes to impeachment is when he, if he disobeys court orders,” Democrat Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on Thursday.
“If a court comes back and says ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ and there’s disobedience to that, that’s a whole other thing,” he said.