Opinion writer

If for some reason you found yourself watching the House Judiciary Committee hearing featuring acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker on Friday morning, you might have watched the ranking Republican shouting angrily about all kinds of obscure and meaningless matters, then asked yourself, “What is he yelling about, and who cares?” before slipping gently into a stupor and losing consciousness.

Which is a risk at any congressional hearing. But some of the farcical goings-on at the hearing offer a reminder that when it comes to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, Democrats seem to have succeeded. Republicans are shouting about nothing not just because that’s their default mode when the cameras are on, but because they’re genuinely frustrated at how they’re losing the broader battle over the Mueller probe.

The ranking committee Republican, Rep. Doug Collins (Ga.), did make one reasonable point in his ranting: Since it looks like William Barr will be confirmed as the new attorney general in a matter of days, it may not be worth getting too worked up about anything having to do with Matthew Whitaker at this point. But what Democrats are concerned about is whether in his brief time running the Justice Department, Whitaker has done anything to undermine the investigation, or tip off President Trump to its substance.

That question led to this highlight, in which committee chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked Whitaker whether he has had to approve any particular actions by the special counsel, since Mueller must get approval before opening up new lines of investigation or taking certain important steps. Whitaker’s attempt to evade the question was so ham-handed that the entire room burst out in a combination of shock and derisive laughter:

You might take this as evidence that the real answer is “yes.” There’s nothing wrong with that, since for the moment Whitaker is overseeing the investigation. But Whitaker seemed so frightened and flummoxed by having to testify at all that it was hard to tell.

Democrats are trying to do two things simultaneously with this hearing in particular and their broader efforts with regard to the Mueller investigation. The first is to discover whether there has been any improper interference from the White House to limit the probe. The second is to apply enough pressure that even if Whitaker — or the White House, or William Barr — wanted to hinder Mueller, they'd decide that doing so would be too much of a risk.

The truth is that Democrats have probably succeeded in the latter goal, which must be spectacularly frustrating for Trump. He has made no bones about the fact that he he expects his Justice Department appointees to protect him from accountability when it comes to Russia (and anything else). He repeatedly belittled his first attorney general for recusing himself from the investigation, saying that without Jeff Sessions overseeing it and therefore able to quash it or scale it back, “I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad.”

All evidence suggests that after pushing Sessions out, he appointed Whitaker in an acting capacity precisely because Whitaker had been publicly critical of the Mueller investigation. Yet Whitaker was under so much scrutiny on this question from the moment he took that position, he was almost certainly prevented from doing anything significant to impede Mueller. The same is likely to be true of Barr, who despite being critical of the investigation before his appointment now knows that if he really tries to protect Trump, eventually everyone will know and he’ll be disgraced.

If Trump had actually persuaded anyone to obstruct the Mueller probe on his behalf, he wouldn’t be tweeting “Witch hunt!!!” every few days. Those are the desperate cries of a man who wishes his underlings would obstruct justice on his behalf, but isn’t getting what he wants.

That very phrase came up in Friday’s hearing, when Rep. Steve Cohen listed off the many indictments and convictions Mueller has obtained, and asked, “Are you overseeing a witch hunt?” Whitaker said he couldn’t comment since the investigation is ongoing. “But you wouldn’t oversee a witch hunt, would you?” Cohen pressed. “You’d stop a witch hunt, wouldn’t you?" Whitaker didn’t answer directly, but insisted that he hasn’t restricted Mueller in any way.

So as of yet, Democrats have found no evidence that Mueller has been prevented from doing his job. Although it’s possible it happened but we never found out about it, there has been no reason to believe that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the probe until Whitaker took over from Sessions, did so with anything other than integrity and professionalism. Now Whitaker is overseeing it briefly, and every time he appears in public he seems as though he’s crumbling under the stress. Barr will take over soon, but even if he wanted to shut the investigation down to satisfy his boss, it would be too late.

I’m sure Trump plays out an alternate history in his mind over and over, in which he appointed someone else to be attorney general at the beginning of his presidency, and that person not only never appointed a special counsel in the first place but also made sure that any questions about Russia were quietly shelved. Instead, we got Mueller conducting what seems to be a thorough and aggressive probe. No amount of evaded questions or Republican shouting at hearings or angry tweets has been able to stop it.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Why is Matthew Whitaker panic-stricken about testifying before Congress?

Ruth Marcus: Matthew Whitaker is a crackpot

Jennifer Rubin: The Justice Department deserves better than Barr and Whitaker