Impressions from Mueller’s testimony

I’ve only watched portions of Robert Mueller’s testimony, hoping to get a sense of the proceedings. I don’t intend to waste my day, or even a significant portion of it, on this event.

Here are my impressions of what I have watched:

First, Mueller is an unimpressive witness. I think he is past his prime.

Mueller frequently asks that questions be repeated. That’s understandable. Representatives from both sides are packing a lot into their questions and Mueller is right to want to make sure he gets it all before answering.

The effect, however, is to make him look less than sharp. He also lacks the overall presence one would expect from a man with his background and reputation.

A combination of his lack of desire to be testifying (he would rather be absent than present), his goal of saying nothing beyond what’s in the report, and perhaps his age contribute to the underwhelming impression Mueller is leaving.

Second, the Democrats are doing a good job of highlighting the portions of Mueller’s report that make President Trump look bad. The pattern in the portions of the hearings I’ve seen is to take incriminating (or incriminating-sounding) statements in the report and get Mueller to affirm them.

It’s easy work. Mueller’s report is full of “bread crumbs” the Dems can use to cast the president in a bad light. And, to be fair, some of them cast him in an obstructionist light.

Whether these “crumbs” make out a case of obstruction of justice is another matter. I agree with Attorney General Barr’s conclusion that they don’t.

However, a fair and open-minded person might well come away thinking that Trump, at a minimum, flirted with obstructing Mueller’s investigation. On the other hand, it’s not clear that many politically neutral people are watching this proceeding, or that those who are care much about a potential obstruction of justice offense that isn’t being charged.

Third, the Republican members have used two main lines of attack in the portions of the hearing I’ve watched. They are blasting Mueller for not doing his job — that is, for not deciding whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice. Rep. John Ratcliffe got Mueller to admit that he knows of no other case in which an investigation produced a “non-exoneration because innocence was not established” conclusion.

In defense of this conclusion, Mueller could only say that this case is unique. That it is, because Trump is the president. However, as Ratcliffe said, the president shouldn’t be “below the law” any more than he should be above it.

The other line of attack by Republicans is Mueller’s indifference to possible crimes committed by Trump’s adversaries in connection with the “Russia collusion” saga. Rep. Jim Jordan pressed this line very effectively, as did Rep. Matt Gaetz.

They pointed to key players in the initiation of the collusion theme who (they say) have made false statements, in particular that mysterious professor — Joseph Mifsud — and Christopher Steele. Although Mueller’s team prosecuted a goodly number of individuals for making false statements, it did not prosecute Mifsud or Christopher Steele.

Mueller responded that this was outside his purview. That’s an odd and unpersuasive statement given (a) Mueller’s otherwise sweeping approach to his “purview” and (b) the central role Mifsud and Steele played in getting the “collusion” ball rolling. In all likelihood, there would have been no Mueller investigation absent the work of these two.

Overall, I think both sides did a good job of setting forth their talking points and sound bites. I assume the mainstream media will amplify the Democratic sound bites vigorously. The Republican ones, not so much.

Whether public opinion will be swayed one way or another remains to be seen. I tend to doubt that it will be.