It is impossible to imagine someone as reticent and publicity-shy as Mueller holding a news conference to upbraid Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server even while announcing that he was not recommending an indictment. Even more importantly, Mueller surely would not have sent a letter to Congress announcing he was reopening the investigation just 11 days before the election — a move that may well have tipped a very close election.
On the other hand, Comey would not have been so terse and tight-lipped in presenting the findings of a special counsel report that painted a damning portrait of a president who (as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) skillfully established with his questioning) actively sought Russian campaign help, lied about it and repeatedly tried to obstruct the resulting investigation. Since being fired by Trump, Comey has turned into an eloquent and unsparing critic of the president — and an impassioned defender of the FBI. In a Post op-ed on May 28, Comey denounced Trump’s habit of “ranting about treason and corruption at the FBI” and called the president “a liar who doesn’t care what damage he does to vital institutions.”
There is nothing to prevent Mueller from speaking out in precisely the same way now that he is no longer a government employee. But on Wednesday, Mueller showed an unwillingness to get within a country mile of anything that smacks of politics, thereby making a mockery of the Republican charges that he is the leader of a gang of “18 Angry Democrats” out to get Trump. Mueller is so not out to get Trump that he could barely bestir himself to defend his team from Republican slurs or even to restate the conclusions of his own report.
Before long, all of the exchanges between Mueller and Republican members of Congress started to sound like this:
Republican: “Isn’t it true that you are part of a globalist plot to sap our precious bodily fluids?”
Mueller: “That’s outside the scope of my report.”
I exaggerate but not by much. Republican members threw every imaginable charge, no matter how preposterous, at Mueller in an attempt to smear this apolitical war hero and unstinting public servant. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) dredged up discredited accusations that Mueller’s office had tipped off CNN to film Roger Stone being arrested. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) claimed that Mueller was biased because his report cited the New York Times and Washington Post more than Fox News. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) went full QAnon by suggesting that Mueller was covering up the real collusion — “between Russia and the Democrats.”
This viewer hungered for Mueller to rain down righteous wrath on the unprincipled Republican hacks who put loyalty to their party leader above loyalty to their country. I wanted him to say, as Joseph Welch did at the Army-McCarthy hearings, “Have you no sense of decency?” It would have been an electric made-for-TV moment that could have galvanized public opposition to Trump. But instead of channeling his inner Joe Welch, Mueller was channeling Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
The most he would say in riposte would typically be a laconic, “I wouldn’t accept your characterization” or “I’m not sure I agree with that,” which would then disappear into the ether with scant follow-up from anyone. Mueller had to be cajoled by Democratic members of Congress into denying that he was running a “witch hunt” or that he had filled his team with anti-Trump partisans. Mueller’s reluctance to engage in the cut-and-thrust of political debate made him an ideal civil servant — exactly the kind of person we want running the FBI — but also rendered him an ineffective opponent of rabid Republicans who are willing to trash our democracy to keep a demagogue in the White House.
In Mueller’s defense, one can say that it’s not his job to oppose Trump politically. That would be the responsibility of Democrats. But, sadly, they are failing to hold the president accountable for his manifold violations of democratic norms and even of the law itself. (As Mueller repeatedly stressed, he could not “exculpate" Trump on charges of obstruction of justice.) If Democrats hoped that Mueller would get impeachment back on track, they are sorely disappointed. Wednesday’s hearings had the opposite effect: They effectively put an end to already waning hopes of impeachment.
Mueller has marshaled copious evidence to support impeachment, but the American public doesn’t seem to care. Who can bother to read a 448-page report when the Trump show is on? Being entertaining is more important these days than being virtuous or competent. Mueller may be an infinitely better person than Trump, but he is an infinitely worse television performer, and that is all that seems to matter in our debased age.