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By Frank Bowman

I may have more to say later, but Robert Mueller’s testimony this morning before the House Judiciary Committee generated a couple of off-the-cuff reactions.

First reactions

An hour or so in, I’d say this is going about as I expected. Mueller is rigidly insisting on not going one inch beyond the report. The Republicans are avoiding talking about what’s in the report, focusing instead on conspiracy theories about the origins of the investigation. 

Two modest surprises for me:

1) Mueller himself is more halting and less commanding than I might have expected. Part of this, I think, is that he is so committed to sticking with the report that he’s not focusing on the substance of the questions and answering them on their merits — as would be true for ordinary witnesses or for Mueller himself in any other situation. Instead, he is measuring every question by only two metrics: first, can I answer simply by referring to the report, and second, can I decline to answer at all on the ground that the question asks about internal special counsel or DOJ deliberations. That’s an artificial and unnatural way of thinking about questions, and it makes him seem indecisive.

(I should say in passing that, on many points where Mueller refused to answer, it’s not at all clear that he had any legal right or privilege to do so. It’s hard to imagine any other witness being given this degree of deference on what questions he will or won’t answer. But neither party elected to spend the time or energy to press him. Hence, the Committee, and the rest of us, got no more or less than Mueller wanted to talk about.)

2) Although the media may not score the Democrats very well on their performance today, so far the Democratic members have displayed a pleasantly surprising degree of discipline in walking Mueller succinctly through the major factual components of the obstruction case against Trump. In another era – the era of Watergate for example – the facts they are highlighting would be devastating to a president. But because the facts are detailed and because the attitude of the committee Republicans is that there’s nothing to see here (an attitude that will be reinforced by Fox and other pro-Trump media), these crushingly incriminating facts are unlikely to perceived as such by anyone not already convinced going into the hearing.

Republicans attack Mueller’s team and with it, the Dept of Justice

Towards the end of the hearing Republican Cong. Armstrong raised questions about the apparent political affiliations of Mueller’s team — i.e., 14 of them seem to have donated to democratic political candidates — in an effort to argue that Mueller’s investigation was fatally biased.  

Although this sounds like a plausible line of inquiry, it totally distorts the basic ethos of federal prosecutors, which is that DOJ does not inquire about prosecutors’ political affiliations.  It judges them on their body of work, and it presumes, in the absence of affirmative contrary evidence, that regardless of political leaning or affiliation, prosecutors will pursue the facts and the law wherever they may lead.  DOJ has a long history of impartiality that supports this operating assumption.

The Repub line of attack here implies an absurd rule going forward — that only Republicans or unaffiliated independents can investigate Republicans, and only Democrats or unaffiliated independents can investigate Democrats. Adoption of such a rule, or operational guideline, would shake the foundation of the Department’s professional code and internal esprit.

More importantly, the Republicans are actively contributing to the public’s already-growing distrust of government and the impartiality of justice itself.  There is, in fact, no evidence that Mueller and his team shaded their efforts or their report against Trump & Co.  To the contrary, they treated him with kid gloves relative to regular defendants. And in his report, Mueller bent himself into linguistic pretzels to avoid saying what the evidence proved – namely that Trump obstructed justice.  By attacking Mueller (a lifelong Republican) and his team this way, the Republicans are actively eroding the confidence of the American public in their government — indeed in the very possibility of impartial administration of the law.  Republican members may think this is to their advantage in the short term, but it’s corrosive, and we will all live to regret their short-sighted selfishness. 

That said, I confess to thinking Mueller notably inept in his defense of his own people and of the traditions of the Justice Department.  This line of questioning was easily foreseeable, and Mueller should have had a devastating response ready.  That he didn’t suggests two things about him: First, he is still, stubbornly, living in the world he (and I) grew up in, one in which the honor, probity, and professional competence of long-serving federal law enforcement officers was accepted by both political parties.  Second, he’s gotten old. He simply can’t respond quickly, either with spontaneous argument or even with pre-prepared speeches