Writers, politicians, editors, and some of the public rushed to label Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday “a mess” and “a disaster.” They could not be more wrong, unless of course what they wanted was entertainment.
Perhaps that’s the problem; The Washington Post has assigned its theater critic to review the Democratic presidential candidates. But government and politics are serious business, not entertainment, and Mueller doesn’t do theater. His product is nonpolitical findings of fact, raw and plain, and usable in a court of law.
His performance was, in fact, an act of heroism and stamina (more on this later) that may and should be acknowledged when the histories of the Trump years are written decades from now.
In his quiet and vastly understated manner over seven hours he provided a television viewer’s summary of the damning and unmistakably illegal ways in which Donald Trump, with Russian help, got himself elected and how he tried to derail the resulting investigation. If it wasn’t thrills and spills, it was persuasive to anyone paying close attention to the questions and answers—anyone with the attention span to fit the pieces into their logical pattern.
Even on the most superficial level it would have been notable that Republicans, instead of challenging Mueller’s findings of fact, concentrated on discrediting and insulting Mueller and his staff, while Democrats led the prosecutor through detailed narratives of illegal activity to which he replied with one-word confirmations: “true,’” “accurate,” “yes,” correct.”
Those looking for crucial factual material could find plenty. Mueller most notably contradicted Attorney General William Barr’s assurance in May that Trump was cleared of wrong-doing. The Washington Times banner headline on Thursday was “Mueller repudiates Trump exoneration,” a remarkable statement for a conservative daily.
Only occasionally did Mueller venture beyond safe monosyllables, but when he did it was critical. For example he was asked whether knowingly accepting campaign assistance from a foreign power—which Trump apparently did—would be unethical.
Then Mueller volunteered two more monosyllables: “A crime.”
He talked about facts and the law but consistently refused to draw judgments about the actions of Trump or his campaign.
And late in the day he told us that Russia and other countries were working to undermine our 2020 election “as we sit here.” Asked whether future candidates who knew of a foreign power’s effort to interfere in our election would feel no duty to report it—as Trump has said he would—Mueller said, “I hope it is not the new normal, but I fear it is.”
He had just said that would be a crime, and Trump has told us he sees no reason to report foreign help. It may be normal that Trump wants to commit a crime. And the public is uninterested?
So what was heroic about Mueller’s testimony was this: He provided it despite many strong reasons to refuse. Though he had testified before congressional committees more than 80 times in his career, he had not done so for some six years. And this was perhaps the most critical, high-stakes appearance of that long career, affecting the future of an American president, his party, and American elections for years to come.
Mueller had been chosen for this job because of his unimpeachable record as a nonpartisan prosecutor and was welcomed to the post by both Democrats and Republicans. Only after months of silence from Mueller’s office, except for ominous indictments of Trump associates, did the president begin to lob insults.
Having completed his investigation, Mueller handed it over as required to the attorney general, saying that his testimony was the report, that he had nothing to add, and that he hoped not to be required to testify.
He likely knew that, if he were, he would be confronted by partisan members seeking to lead him into statements that could be used to attack him and the report. He was under orders from the Justice Department to stay within the bounds of the report, and most of all he was determined to say nothing that could be deemed political. Under rapid-fire questioning, it would be an immensely difficult and dangerous task.
Perhaps he also knew something else. He, better than anyone, must have known that he wasn’t his old self. He would be slower, less acute, more dependent on help from his assistant, and that he would be more vulnerable to aggressive and much younger partisans trying to trap him. Mueller is within a few days of his 75thbirthday. I am 81 and I saw, in his halting and seemingly uncertain manner, characteristics that I see in myself.
There was probably no one who brought to the investigation the credibility of Robert Mueller. He put together an effective team without interest in members’ politics, immediately firing those who broke his no-politics rule.
His repeated refusal to take sides in the day’s testimony—to the point of sometimes seeming oblivious—brought him criticism from both sides, but it proved the emptiness of President Trump’s repeated insistence that the investigator should be investigated.
To accept the demanding task of Wednesday’s testimony under such circumstances would be indeed a heroic undertaking. The man who earned a bronze star as a young officer in Viet Nam for crossing though enemy fire to rescue a fellow Marine has again served his country with an act of heroism.