Opinion: Commentary on the Mueller hearing

3:21 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Mueller's testimony is a nightmare for Democrats

What a nightmare Robert Mueller’s testimony has been for Congressional Democrats and their dreams of impeachment momentum. In his much-anticipated bombshell performance, Mueller bombed. Aside from difficult to watch testimony, there has been no new information and no elaboration on the 448-page report

The former Special Counsel’s testimony is another in a long series of Rorschach tests that essentially has yielded nothing. Democrats still look at the Mueller Report and see corruption; Republicans still look at it and see exoneration.

As for the testimony, the take-away for Democrats was simple: Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asked if Mueller intended to totally exonerate the president, to which Mueller replied, “no.”

The Republican take-away was equally direct: Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, accused Mueller of “perpetuating injustice” as the former argued that Trump had a right to feel he was under attack by a biased investigation. 

President Trump, in fact, did not interfere with this investigation. Trump and the White House cooperated with Special Counsel Mueller and were committed to transparency.

It’s important to remember that the Mueller report, in its own words, “did not establish that the [Trump] campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.” Mueller and his team found no “evidence that any U.S. person who coordinated or communicated with the IRA [the group that carried out Russia’s election interference efforts on social media] knew that he or she was speaking with Russian nationals engaged in criminal conspiracy.”

Despite Democrats’ best attempts to pull Mueller outside the parameters of his report, he did not take the bait. With that, it’s time for Democratic leaders to stop obsessing over this closed case and to put the American people first.

 

Alice Stewart is a CNN Political Commentator, Resident Fellow at the Kennedy School Institute of Politics at Harvard University, and former Communications Director for Ted Cruz for President.

3:21 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

The big picture

3:20 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

The case for impeaching Trump is weak

Robert Mueller has been surprisingly unsteady and often confusing in his presentation. His constant request to repeat questions and his seeming inability to understand relatively straightforward questions was surprising for such a smart guy.

Both Democrats and Republicans have gathered some useful sound bites for damaging political commercials. But one thing is clear. If Trump were a “civilian” rather than the President, he would have been indicted for obstruction, even though Mueller “cleaned up” his answer to Rep. Ted Lieu’s question.

Justice Department policy prohibiting indictment of a sitting president saved the day for Trump. Yet the case for impeachment is weak, as Trump’s defense will be that his obstructive acts were those of an innocent man (no collusion proven by Mueller) angry at having a special counsel relentlessly investigating him and “obstructing” his ability to serve as chief executive.

I don’t see the votes to remove the President from office in the Senate, even if Democrats have the votes to impeach in House, which is also unlikely. So far Trump has been bloodied a bit but a knockout isn’t in the cards. 

Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and of counsel to the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan.

2:51 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Americans finally heard the real story of obstruction

Wednesday’s Mueller hearings had a little bit for everyone. For Democratic partisans, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s opening question pierced through over a year’s worth of statements from President Donald Trump that the Mueller investigation was just a "witch hunt" -- and that he was entirely exonerated of wrongdoing. Mueller, simply and succinctly, laid those claims to rest.

For Republican partisans, Mueller’s refusal to answer questions, despite the fact that the limitations on his testimony were set by the Justice Department, gave them a forum to revel in their conspiracy theories about FBI surveillance before a national audience.  And Mueller’s performance, where he asked for a question to be repeated and at times seemed unfamiliar with his own report, will likely be fodder for Fox News for weeks.

But the bottom line is that these hearings are not about what the partisans and Twitter users think. They made up their minds a long time ago. These hearings brought to life the Mueller report for large swaths of the American population, who did not read the report and may have been heavily influenced by Attorney General William Barr’s mischaracterizations of it. Those Americans heard a very different version today -- a story of lies, obstruction and disloyalty to American democratic values.

Those people in the middle are not likely to run out and call for impeachment, but they can vote in 2020. And today is a strong statement that the President is unfit to hold the office and certainly should not be reelected in 2020.

Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton's administration. He co-hosts the podcast "Words Matter."

2:51 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Mueller and the Democrats have a lot to answer for

2:06 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Democrats asked better questions

Democrats got a big payoff from their practice sessions, as their questions were far more effective than the Republicans’ during Wednesday’s hearings with Robert Mueller. 

Democratic questions reflected the hallmark of good preparation for public questioning: fluidity. They were able to adjust on the fly to (or perhaps had accurately predicted) Mueller’s red-flag issues like impeachment or anything to do with disagreements with Attorney General William Barr -- and, importantly, to Mueller’s lack of superhuman mastery over every detail of the investigation.

While Democrats initially tried to get Mueller to quote from his report or read from it, he declined to do so and Democrats easily adjusted by doing the reading themselves and having Mueller agree with their readings. This accomplished putting the words of the report into the public consciousness in a way the public would attach to an image of Mueller himself. 

Huge home run for Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler in eliciting from Mueller the concrete denial that the report exonerates the President. Even though Trump will keep claiming it does, Mueller’s response will make it much harder for the President's supporters to make the same claim. 

In contrast, Republicans engaged in typical ineffective Congressional questioning consisting of telegraphing the bias of their question ahead of asking it and engaging in speeches or chest-thumping while their time ran out. Mueller simply waited patiently for a question he could answer. Some Republican ineptness was particularly comical, such as when Representative Greg Steube undercut his own attempted cross-exam questioning by asking Mueller: So you disagree with my characterization? Mueller: Yes. 

Lesson learned: Never tell witness on cross that your question is a “characterization” -- it’s like putting a sign on your bottom that says: Kick me.

Shanlon Wu is a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst. He served as counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno. Follow him @shanlonwu

1:19 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Devin Nunes invokes the Loch Ness Monster

1:04 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Schiff's 'disloyalty' opener

2:15 p.m. ET, July 24, 2019

Inch by inch, Mueller gives Democrats what they want

It’s quite possible that Robert Mueller does not want his testimony to become the trigger for a historic indictment of President Trump. But drip by drip, word by word, Mueller has nonetheless—however reluctantly -- produced the case that Trump is lying when he says Mueller exonerated him, that Russia wanted and tried to help Trump to win and that Trump systematically engaged himself and his staff in an effort to obstruct justice, which would be a crime.

Mueller’s discomfort and reticence were visible in his body language and his clipped, one-word answers. He avoided handing Democrats the soundbite they wanted, the one that would perfectly encapsulate their contention that Trump has committed impeachable crimes. But the message was there.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asked, “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Mueller’s answer: “No.” Perhaps that’s news to Americans who have not read the Mueller report, who read Attorney General William Barr’s misleading summary of it, and heard the President declare it a “complete and total exoneration.”

Mueller again said there was insufficient evidence of a conspiracy with Russia. That does not equal innocence.

Mueller confirmed that, contrary to Trump’s claim, Russia expected to benefit if Trump won.

The obstruction questions – despite Mueller’s short answers – were devastating for Trump. “Your investigation found evidence that President Trump took steps to terminate the special counsel, correct?” Mueller: “Correct.”

Congressman Ted Lieu, elicited a three-word bombshell. “The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?”  “That is correct,” Mueller said.

Later, in his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller paused to clarify the exchange with Lieu: "I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said, and I quote, you didn't charge the president because of the OLC opinion. That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."

Democrats wanted Americans to pay attention to Mueller’s report. They wanted the movie to go with the book they didn’t read. They wanted to wash away Barr’s deliberately-distorting report summary.

Anyone watching objectively would agree that Mueller did not want to play politics. Republicans, badgering him, probably turned off non-partisan viewers.

In the end, Democrats did not get the perfect soundbite. But drip by drip, they may just have enough to convince at least part of the country that Trump committed crimes. Enough for impeachment? Maybe. Enough to swing votes in 2020? Definitely.

Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review.

This post has been updated to include Mueller's comments to the House Intelligence Committee on his earlier exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu.