Robert Mueller was reluctant to testify before Congress about his investigation in Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 election campaign. His fears, it seems, were warranted. The spotlight was cruel to him: He came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday as a tough and powerful super-detective and left as an old geezer who is slow on the uptake. Instead of a latter-day Elliot Ness from "The Untouchables," he looked like a sidekick to Don Lemon or Walter Matthau in "Grumpy Old Men."
Even though he partially recovered in his second appearance, before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller’s first appearance before the Judiciary Committee was a disaster, at least for his own image. He seemed to be hard of hearing and harder of understanding, incessantly asking for questions to be repeated, hesitating before answering, responding in many cases with a simple "yes" or "no," repeatedly referring his questioners to the 448-page report he submitted in March or, worse, misstating its contents. His lackluster showing came as a surprise, though his admirers claimed it was a ploy to gain time and unbalance his inquisitors.
By the same token, opinions were divided over the gain or pain derived by Democrats or Republicans from Mueller’s surprising feebleness. On Fox News, Mueller’s hesitancy was cited as firm proof of the weakness of his case. On MSNBC, Mueller’s careful answers were depicted as proof of his thoroughness and integrity. In such a polarized setting, both views are probably valid: Reviews of Mueller’s performance are mostly in the jaundiced eyes of its beholders.
The parties reacted to Mueller’s un-forceful testimony in diametrically different ways: the Republicans became tougher and gruffer as time went by, an attitude that will please the White House and their own base but may be seen in retrospect as overly aggressive. The GOP lawmakers used the vacuum left by Mueller’s curt answers to push their favorite conspiracy theory – that his investigation was a blood libel concocted by Democrats and pushed by Russia. They skipped the part about 126 separate meetings between Trump campaign staff and Russian representatives during the 2016 campaign, as well as the 10 separate cases in which Trump is alleged to have tried to hamper or shut down Mueller’s investigation.
As with Likud’s attitude to Netanyahu’s criminal investigations, Republicans refuse to let themselves be bothered by the facts; sinister conspiracy theories that cast doubt on investigators motives are always preferable to facts and evidence uncovered by the state’s proper legal authorities.
Democrats were politer to Mueller, perhaps hoping that he would still submit the “smoking gun” that would wound Trump or at least provide reasonable grounds for launching an impeachment process. They kept their distance from the complex Russian collusion allegations, on which Mueller found insufficient evidence to indict Trump, and focused on issue of obstruction, which is far more comprehensible to any average viewer of TV crime and legal dramas. The Democrats methodically took Mueller through individual examples of Trump’s efforts to curtail his probe, and in each case secured his agreement that they all contained the three cardinal elements needed in order to press charges: The existence of a federal legal proceeding, in which the suspect is implicated and in which he or she tries to intervene. Mueller steadfastly refused to confirm their bottom line – that Trump had indeed obstructed justice – but he confirmed that the elements of the crime were all there.
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Mueller also stated forthrightly that contrary to Trump’s claims, his report had not “exonerated” the president. For a few hours he even seemed to have laid the golden egg that Democrats had been waiting for, asserting that were it not for the Department of Justice’s view that sitting Presidents cannot be indicted, he would have pressed charges against Trump. Retracting his statement a few hours later, one could hear Democrats hopes crash and burn.
Many Democrats were frustrated and disappointed by Mueller’s performance, but it did bring home to millions of Americans who had not read his report the extent of their president’s misbehavior, at least on the obstruction allegations. Republicans, on the other hand, were gleeful, but their joy may be premature as well; outside the hermetically closed world of Trump’s fans, Mueller’s testimony, however frail, was damning.
The final result is likely to be similar to Israel’s: the same facts that convince half the public that their leader is a crook persuade the other half that he is a wrongly accused martyr. The truth is of secondary importance to the question of who can manipulate it best, and in this regard, let’s not forget, Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are the undisputed champs.