So Wednesday is Mueller time. The anticipation on cable news and elsewhere is going to be immense. But there is every reason to think the whole thing is going to be a massive letdown.
If Robert Mueller just sticks to the language of his report, as he has strongly indicated he’ll do, getting him to say anything of the remotest interest, let alone anything inculpatory about the president, is going to be like trying to squeeze juice out of a stone.
Ergo the Democrats have one job and one job only Wednesday. They have to try to drag him down off Mount Above-It-All and say something real. Will this be possible?
Seems to me it’ll be awfully hard. Mueller, as I’ve written, is deeply committed to this idea of being above politics. Go read a little about his biography. He comes from an era and a social class—he was once a lacrosse teammate of John Kerry’s—where people were supposed to spurn partisan politics. That was honorable then, and he is of course an honorable man: joined the Marines out of Princeton, asked to be sent to Vietnam (just like Kerry), won high battle decorations, served his country in many capacities under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
But today, sitting on Mount Above-It-All just helps the people who are taking a wrecking ball to the Constitution. Donald Trump obviously didn’t play by the normal rules in 2016. And once in the White House, he’s clearly and obviously obstructed justice right in front of our eyes on a weekly basis. To hide behind legalisms and refuse to say these plainly obvious things is to disserve the country he has previously served so well. Trump, who says falsely that the report completely exonerated him, will take Mueller’s passivity as a green light to do even worse in 2020.
Is that really what this patriot wants? Is fealty to his sadly anachronistic idea of honor more important than protecting the Constitution from a president who will obviously subvert it if that’s he thinks he needs to do?
This is the tension the Democrats have to introduce Wednesday. If it means putting some pressure on Mueller, making him a little uncomfortable, so be it. A good guiding principle, I think, might be this: don’t try to pin him down on legal technicalities. Instead, ask him simple and directly worded questions with common-sense middle America in mind.
For example, take the infamous Trump Tower meeting. Democrats will ask a bunch of questions about the letter of the law and why Mueller found it didn’t constitute collusion. Fine. But it’ll be far more effective to make him explain to the American people in plain English: So Trump representatives agreed to meet with a woman who claimed to be a Kremlin representative and said she had dirt on Hillary Clinton. If you don’t call that collusion, Mr. Mueller, what do you call it?
I’d also like to see someone ask him very simply some questions like these two: Do you think Donald Trump is an honest man? Are you proud, as a citizen, to look at him and think “that’s my president”?
Yes, he may try to punt. But surely he cannot with any honesty say “yes” to either question. And if he fails to say yes, then a) it’s news, and a dramatic moment, and b) it communicates a fundamental emotional truth to the American people that no amount of gotcha legalisms can.
That’s what is important at big hearings like this—communicating those fundamental emotional truths. Those happen, if they do, when the witness is asked a question he wasn’t expecting and either has to depart from his script, or he bullishly sticks to the script and in so doing reveals an inconvenient reality.
The Republicans, meanwhile, are going to do two things. Most of them will probably just be happy to have Mueller confirm that he found no collusion and not enough on obstruction to recommend charges. The more flamboyant among them—Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert, Matt Gaetz—will push the Trump-Hannity talking points very aggressively. They’ll go at him about the 18 angry Democrats or whatever the number is up to, this farkakte notion that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign, and all kinds of other deep-statey conspiracies.
Hopefully, Mueller bats all that away easily enough. The Fox News machine will still lie and edit selectively to keep the deep-state story humming; nothing we can do about that. And if Mueller stumbles at all under questioning from the Republicans, he’ll give the deep-staters a huge opening to press their arguments throughout the presidential campaign.
In that sense, this hearing carries big risks for Democrats. Here’s another risk. Someone is surely going to be tempted to ask: “If Donald Trump were not president, would you have charged him?” Someone is going to want to ask that because we all assume that the answer is “yes.” But what if Mueller says “no”? Or some weaselly version of “it’s hard to say”? Then, the big question has backfired. Lawyers are supposed to know not to ask any questions they don’t know the answer to. But sometimes they roll the dice.
Where will it all lead, in the end? Many Democrats, although not the Speaker of the House, want Mueller’s testimony to pump up the impeachment numbers. Mueller knows this and will resist doling out impeachment fodder. The challenge is to find ways to make him do it in spite of himself—to ask the kinds of questions that might convince him in the moment that his mountaintop is not the right place to be at this time in history. It won’t be easy.