Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will testify before two House committees on July 17. However tempted you might be by the prospect of a spectacle, I hope you can curb your enthusiasm.
That’s because we are almost certain to learn nothing new from Mueller’s testimony. He has already said that his report is his testimony. A man with his long legal experience is not likely to crack under the furious five-minute barrage of preening representatives reading from a staffer’s list of questions. There will be no breathless revelations of new evidence and no statements providing Mueller’s personal judgment on whether the president obstructed justice. As far as impact goes, this will likely be the most ballyhooed flop since the movie “Ishtar.”
But this won’t stop Democrats and Republicans from trying to use Mueller’s testimony to score political points. Republicans will likely focus on the collusion charges that Mueller chose not to pursue, saying there was insufficient evidence to justify further charges. Democrats will likely push Mueller to recount the evidence of Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election so they can spin what they believe to be President Trump’s inadequate response as a sign of his guilt. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has already said he will try to get Mueller to discuss where he disagrees with Attorney General William P. Barr’s framing of his report. Don’t expect Mueller to take the bait.
Mueller is testifying because he has to. House committees can subpoena testimony from anyone they want, and those subpoenas have the same force of law as those issued by courts. While Mueller’s lawyers negotiated their client’s testimony, which resulted in a pro forma issuance of a subpoena compelling his appearance, if Mueller had resisted a request that he testify, the result was always going to be a subpoena anyway. And Mueller was never going to risk being found in contempt of Congress for resisting that document.
That’s not to say there won’t be “news.” Artful questioning can probably get Mueller to say that there is enough evidence to justify congressional investigation on the obstruction charge, although he will probably studiously avoid taking a stance on whether they should start such an investigation.
That alone would likely lead front pages and broadcast news hours: “Special counsel says enough evidence to begin impeachment investigations” is a sexy headline. But it’s not news. Any intelligent homo sapiens could have figured out already that Mueller believes this, given both his report and his May news conference, in which he pointedly said the report did not exonerate Trump on that charge.
If the past is any guide, this “revelation” will move public opinion regarding the president by about a millimeter. The deafening din over Trump’s alleged atrocities has run nonstop for years. Many, if not most, voters not already suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome have tuned it out. None of the breathlessly reported “revelations” in this sorry saga thus far — including the multiple indictments that resulted from the Mueller investigation, Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian agent and Michael Cohen’s testimony earlier this year — have changed minds. The odds that Mueller’s opinion will have a different impact are not quite as low as Mr. Blutarsky’s grade-point average in “Animal House” — zero point zero — but they are close.
None of this will stop the witch hunters from pursuing their prey. The essence of a witch hunt is the belief that there must be a witch, no matter how flimsy the evidence in favor of witchcraft, and no matter how meticulous the evidence debunking belief in the supernatural. The desire to bring Trump down made many too ready to embrace the Steele dossier, which contained allegations that Trump — a noted germaphobe — watched prostitutes urinate on a bed in a Moscow hotel room. Now, the desire to salvage something from the Mueller report risks distorting a careful investigation into something it is not. The hearings at which Mueller is now scheduled to testify are only the latest effort in this direction, but they are unlikely to be the last.
None of these considerations will stop the inevitable post-Fourth of July holiday buildup to “The Day.” Mueller is testifying — yippee! — the leading lights will chortle. Meanwhile, most of America will sleepily note that Mueller is testifying — yawn — and go back to their summer pursuits. Much ado about nothing is more than just the title of a Shakespeare play; it’s this entire episode’s epitaph.