The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mueller’s testimony crystallized public opinion against impeachment

The Republicans were hostile. The Democrats were friendly. Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III gave them the same response on obstruction. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony before Congress was touted by Democrats as the moment public opinion could shift in favor of impeachment. It will instead likely be remembered as the moment when public opinion crystallized against it.

Democrats hoped that Mueller would either add to or at least provide independent corroboration of his eponymous report. That did not happen. Mueller’s unwillingness to fulfill this partisan task was manifest, extending to even refusing to read sections from that report, thereby avoiding any video of him reciting arguments the president obstructed justice. There will be no “smoking gun” moment, no claim that a “cancer is growing on the presidency,” arising from Mueller’s testimony.

Mueller’s unwillingness to be used as a partisan prop extended to repeated refusals to answer a host of seemingly relevant questions posed by members of both parties. He refused to speculate, demurred from characterizations of the elements of obstruction of justice by members of Congress and even refused to say the word “impeachment.” His report was frequently cited by Democrats as establishing that the president has committed obstruction of justice, but Mueller will not be an active party to that.

That means Democrats will proceed on their own reading of the report, and the reading will inevitably be viewed as a partisan attack — which it would be. The majority of Democratic voters were so consumed with hatred of the president that they favored impeachment months before he committed a single act they now cite as justifying impeachment. It didn’t take long for Democratic members of Congress to join their base on the issue. Even many Americans who dislike President Trump see this for what it is: a partisan witch hunt.

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That was not what happened in the Nixon impeachment investigation. Democrats were political opponents of President Richard Nixon, and many detested him. But they did not start from the position that impeachment was desirable and then fill in the details later. Instead, the investigations discovered evidence of real criminal acts — White House involvement in burglaries and money laundering, to name two — and disclosed evidence of personal acts by the president that were at best shady and at worst criminal. That’s why Nixon’s job approval rating plummeted throughout 1973: Americans, including many Republicans, smelled a rat and wanted it caught.

The current impeachment efforts are similar to the failed Republican efforts to unseat President Bill Clinton. Then-independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation also arguably uncovered crimes committed by Clinton; it remains undisputed that the president at the very least lied under oath, committing perjury. Democrats fought the impeachment, however, as a “vast right-wing conspiracy” and rallied public opinion to their side. They succeeded because there had been a years-long effort by many conservatives to investigate the Clintons driven by partisan animus. The years of vitriol that have been directed at Trump are no different in their origin than those anti-Clinton efforts, and people across the political spectrum clearly see that.

Democrats committed a similar fury-fueled act a few years ago in Wisconsin. They were so angry at Republican Gov. Scott Walker over his legislative triumphs that they sought to recall him. That effort qualified for the ballot but failed despite the fact that more voters disapproved of Walker’s job performance at that time than approved of it. It was clear that a key group of voters thought that Walker’s acts did not rise to the level of justifying the extraordinary remedy of removing him from office midterm. Polls regarding impeaching Trump show an identical pattern.

Most House Democrats argued that Trump obstructed justice when he repeatedly tried to pressure then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to fire Mueller. That will be a weak reed to rely on, in part because that did not mean the investigation itself would end. Trump seemed to believe that Mueller was personally prejudiced against Trump, and the fact that McGahn didn’t agree doesn’t mean the president can’t run his own department as he sees fit. Democrats will obviously disagree, but this is exactly the type of question that partisans on both sides answer differently depending on whose ox would be gored.

All this suggests that Mueller’s testimony will be no game-changer. Democrats have long believed that Trump is so vile, so bigoted, so dishonest that he ought not to be president a minute longer. They view every fact through that lens. Further investigations likely will not uncover any evidence that will dissuade them of this view. They should have the courage of their convictions, push the matter forward and end this sorry moment in our history one way or the other.

Read more:

Got a question about the Mueller testimony? Submit a question for Harry Litman’s Twitter chat.

Harry Litman: Five things we learned from Mueller’s first round of questioning

Paul Waldman: Mueller all but confirmed that Trump committed obstruction of justice

Erik Wemple: Republican lawmaker complains to Mueller about lack of Fox News in his report

The Post’s View: It’s not Mueller’s job to remain silent for Trump’s comfort