If you have read or listened to the Robert Mueller report, there were no surprises today. Democrats made the point, using the report, that the president is not above the law. Republicans attacked the legitimacy of the report.
This exchange between Chairman Jerry Nadler and Director Robert Mueller was emblematic. “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Robert Mueller: “No.” So no matter the victory lap later in the day, it was clear that the president was wrong, but President Donald Trump has lied so often that this seems to be the new normal.
Mueller was clear also that this may be the new normal. And this concerned him, deeply.
Let’s be clear on this critical point. Most Americans have not read the report. I understand why. It is dense, however well written it may be. Also, and this includes many members of the United States Congress, many have made their minds already. Reading the report may prove a bad thing if you are sure that the president did nothing wrong, or that the president is akin to a king. What is called the Unitary theory of the presidency or the imperial presidency. They are not the same, but they are close enough. Essentially this makes the president a king, for the duration of his mandate.
Out of all this, we had one moment that struck me as important. Director Mueller did admit that President Donald Trump could be indicted after he leaves the office. He did not say whether he should, just that he could. This is a critical point that has been made by other observers. It matters because it points to one reason the president is running for re-election. If there is one thing Trump fears is a legal system that may fall like a ton of rocks on him after he leaves the office.
Democrats concentrated on five occasions where the Trump team detailed possible obstruction of justice. It is also quite clear that he did not exonerate the president, which is a talking point from the president’s defenders. This matters in this little intra-Washington war. It will give oxygen to the side of the Democratic Party that wants to impeach.
The big moment came early actually when Chairman Jerry Nadler asked Mueller if the report exonerates the president. Mueller answered no. He added that under the opinion of the Justice Department a sitting president cannot be indicted. They went into this process knowing that they could not indict. In essence, this guidance from DOJ places the president above the law and is in line with the Imperial presidency.
Republicans had a different job. They concentrated on undermining the report, or the origin of the report. They know that this is a holding game. And they intend to play it. In particular, Congressman Matt Gaetz and others concentrated on a conspiracy theory. This one included the idea that the whole thing was made out of Democratic hate for the president. This is why the people involved in the Office of the Special Counsel were all Democrats or supported Democrats.
When all you have to argue is that they are out to get the president because they hate him, it is a bad thing. However, given the nature of the echo chambers in the United States, this is proving to be a test on preconceived notions.
In the end, I suspect Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her flank, and Republicans will keep their echo chambers going. However, this will suppress the votes of an activist middle-class base that voted in 2018 to get a Congress that will hold the president accountable. Impeachment is not just about repeating the history of Watergate. It is about a present and a far more divided nation.
The afternoon session, before the Intelligence Committee, revealed the cracks between the two parties. They are deep. It leads to the perception of two different realities. For Republicans there is nothing the president can do that will lead to any critique. (Yes, there are outliers and Justin Akashi left the party, but most Republicans will stand by the president no matter what.)
When asked by a democrat is the president lied in his answers to the Office of Special Counsel, to those of us who are paying attention this was no surprise. And in another era that would have been enough to trigger a congressional probe.
There were other moments. Mueller was clear that this is not a hoax, the Russians did interfere in the 2016 election. The Russians are still trying to interfere in the American political system. To the Director this was a problem, and it is for Democrats. Mueller was particularly clear in his disagreement in praising Wikileaks from then-candidate Trump.
Wikileaks has been portrayed at times as a foreign intel service. It is hardly friendly to the United States or the western alliance. While Julian Assange makes the point that he is a press editor, the leaks game courtesy of the Russian Federation. His case could be seen as an attack on the first amendment itself, however, that is partially a separate matter.
The testimony this morning was not an exercise in futility. It revealed to most people, who have not read the report, a reality that is troubling. However, we are at a historic moment when populism is on the rise, and deception continues.
Historically what was revealed today should be a John Dean moment, the last impeachment inquiry that led to the resignation of a president. However, it will not. Partly because the system is not working as it should. Why? As polarized as the country was in 1973, it is nothing compared to today. All is seen through partisan glasses and both sides have their preferred media echo chambers.
Yet, for many Americans today was the first time they heard anything about the Mueller report. And that may still move the needle. If nothing else, it is a record of what is happening, including a president still opposed to doing a thing about present Russian interference. Why? He fears that it will take away from his legitimacy as a president. Sadly real leaders would not be concerned about that. But we knew a while ago that this president is not about the country. He only cares about one thing, number one.
Mrs. Pelosi the ball is in your court. What will be your next move? The country is wondering whether you are in this for the country, or for yourself?