Some three months after the Department of Justice released a final report of the special counsel's investigation into the 2016 election, Robert Mueller sat before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and tried his best to say as little as possible. "The report is my testimony," he warned during a press conference in May, while House Democrats were preparing to issue him a subpoena. "I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress." As if to drive the point home, when asked to enter his official testimony into the congressional record, he offered only a copy of his 448-page handiwork.
In his report, Mueller both declined to charge Donald Trump with obstruction of justice and, noting a longstanding Department of Justice policy barring the indictment of sitting presidents, declined to clear him of wrongdoing altogether. Instead, the special counsel extended a not-so-subtle invitation to lawmakers to impeach the president; Congress, he explained, "has the authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice." Either way, in a May CNN poll, 75 percent of American adults reported that they still hadn't read a word of the report, and only three percent of respondents claimed to have read the whole thing. Thus, when lawmakers had the opportunity to ask Mueller questions about it in front of a national audience, his disclaimers did not deter them from trying to make some news.
Trump, citing a dubiously reasoned summary of Mueller's conclusions by Attorney General William Barr, hailed the report as a "complete and total exoneration" before it was even released. To that end, Democrats mostly asked Mueller to reiterate his findings to the contrary in painstaking, almost pedantic detail. Committee chair Jerry Nadler kicked off the proceedings by asking whether the special counsel in fact reached the president's preferred "no obstruction, no collusion" message. Mueller replied simply, "It is not what the report said."
Republicans, meanwhile, used their allotted time on a series of scattered and often creative attempts at misdirection. Texas's Louie Gohmert, who entered into the record a 48-page document titled "Mueller: Unmasked" that he wrote for Sean Hannity's website, argued that Trump's subjective belief of his innocence of underlying crimes makes it impossible for him to have obstructed law enforcement investigations into those alleged crimes. Ranking member Doug Collins of Georgia and Arizona congresswoman Debbie Lesko pointed to the fact that Trump did not, in fact, fire Mueller as proof that Trump did not obstruct justice, as if only successful interference with Mueller's inquiry would have counted as unlawful conduct.
When the president needed attack dogs, Ohio's Jim Jordan and Florida's Matt Gaetz were happy to play that role, floating right-wing conspiracy theories and accusing Mueller of bias, using references that would make sense only to the most dedicated Hannity viewers. "Glenn Simpson testified under oath he had dinner with Natalia Veselnitskaya the day before and the day after this meeting with the Trump team," Gaetz shouted during a representative exchange, invoking, in order, an opposition researcher, a Russian lawyer, and the infamous 2016 meeting in which the Trump campaign sought dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. "Do you have any basis as you sit here today to believe that Steele was lying?!" It was not apparent what, exactly, Gaetz was getting at here, but it all sounded quite nefarious.
Although Mueller uttered no lines that history will remember as evidence of a smoking gun, there was real value in having him walk through his conclusions on live television, instead of counting on Americans to read every paragraph of a voluminous, heavily redacted PDF. (During an extended stretch, CNN blared a "MUELLER: TRUMP WAS NOT EXONERATED" chyron, as if this were breaking news and not already publicly available information.) Even when Mueller responded with some variation of "I rely on the wording of the report," this tended to be more beneficial for Democrats than for Republicans, because, again, the "wording of the report" expressly declines to clear Trump of wrongdoing. All the Democrats had to do was read aloud what Mueller already wrote.
Using this simple, direct method of questioning, Democrats established in a public forum that Trump ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in 2017. They established that lies told by Trump campaign and administration officials impeded the investigation, and that Trump asked staffers to falsify records sought by Mueller's team. Mueller also affirmed that, contrary to Lesko's and Collins's assertions, attempts to obstruct justice need not succeed in order to be criminal, and that the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice after leaving the White House.
Even Republican members occasionally managed to elicit answers that, all things considered, they surely would have preferred not to hear.
This bit of public theater, damaging though it was for Trump's exoneration narrative, will only matter if House Democrats decide to take action after the upcoming August recess. Of the House Judiciary Committee's 24 Democratic members, 15 had come out in favor of opening an impeachment inquiry prior to Wednesday. Immediately after the hearing, at least three more—Florida's Ted Deutch, California's Karen Bass, and New York's Hakeem Jeffries, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—made explicit references on social media to obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.
Near the end of the hearing, Texas congresswoman Veronica Escobar tried gamely to get Mueller to draw this conclusion, asking him to name the "process outside the legal system" that his report euphemistically described as the constitutionally prescribed method for holding presidents accountable. Yet Mueller, true to his word, refused to do the Democrats' work for them. "I'm not going to comment on that," he answered. As he stated repeatedly on Wednesday, his report speaks for itself.
Originally Appeared on GQ