D.C. DISPATCH-On July 24, 2019, I arrived at the Rayburn House Office building at 7:30 a.m. to witness what I was hoping to be a monumental day in American history -- the day we would get clarity on whether the President of the United States was fraudulently elected with the assistance of the Russian government.
Hundreds of people lined up around Rayburn's never-ending maze of hallways, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former special counsel, Robert Mueller. D.C.’s talking heads and multiple members of the media had publicly warned us to manage our expectations -- that Mueller was by the book and that the contents of his report would not be subject to outside information or speculation.
Mueller's public statements about the “four corners” of his report being the blueprint for his testimony would turn out to be largely true. However, there was always a chance of an outlier, an unexpected, accidental hellfire statement that could ignite the momentum the House Democrats have tried so desperately to generate. Unfortunately for hopeful outside observers, there would be no sightings of Mueller entering or leaving the Judiciary hearing room. The former FBI director would be moved in via a secret entrance and elevator. Absent a subpoena compelling his testimony, it was clear that Mueller wouldn't have been inside the Judiciary Committee hearing room.
On substance, one could argue that the Democrats achieved a modicum of success. They were able to get the reluctant witness to admit that President Trump was not exonerated on charges of obstruction of justice. Mueller’s live testimony also conceded that Russian interference had significantly impacted the election of 2016 and was welcomed by the Trump campaign. Finally, Mueller reiterated that he couldn't charge the President while he was in office because of the Office of Legal Counsel opinion. However, he admitted that Trump could be indicted upon leaving office. Even though Mueller articulated some substantive points, overall, his delivery lacked clarity, conviction, or a sharp rebuke of the President’s conduct.
One month earlier, a 3½ page letter, titled, “A Summary of Conclusions” found no “collusion” and concluded that based on facts in the Mueller report, President Trump had not committed obstruction of justice. Clearly, Attorney General Barr’s false presentation of Mueller’s work product should have compelled the special counsel to vocalize his frustration in detail. However, Barr's first move advantage coupled with Trump’s chants of “no collusion”/no obstruction/complete exoneration” have fooled a large percentage of the public who have lost interest in this topic. Thus, Barr’s mischaracterizing of the Mueller's report was highly effective.
Mueller appeared like a beaten-down mule devoid of any inner "whistleblowing" or the spirit of John Dean in which the will to fight against the corrupt status quo supersedes all. While he was able to relate a number of significant points during his testimony, he was generally disappointing to those who had read the 448 report in detail. As fate would have it, Barr's pre-hearing warning that Mueller be bound by “executive privilege” and not exceed the four corners of the report in his testimony, was heard and heeded by Mueller.
Preceding the Mueller disappointment was the hearing on "Lessons from the Mueller Report: Presidential Obstruction and Other Crimes." The hearing was designed to rebuke and refute the 3½-page summary written by AG Barr but lacked any whistleblowing or any earthshattering “new news.” This was primarily because the direct witnesses who had provided testimony in the Mueller Report were barred by the White House Counsel’s office from testifying before Congress. Instead, we heard from former U.S. attorneys that the President's conduct, if engaged in by anyone else, would meet the standard for criminal indictment.
It was powerful to hear from the key whistleblowing witness in Watergate, John Dean, who had paved the way towards the impeachment of former President Nixon. He remarked on the eerie similarities between the conduct of his former boss and that of our current President, but his observations were hardly probative of how Congress should conduct itself with respect to President’s Trump’s conduct toward his election or his efforts to interfere with and derail the Mueller investigation.
With Michael Cohen's hearing, we heard sordid tales of Donald Trump's affinity for porn stars, greed, and possible criminal conduct. We also learned of Trump's tricks for minimizing his taxes, but absent were any hellfire revelations about money laundering and pay for play. Cohen was not able to provide any direct testimony tying any Russian election interference to members of the Trump campaign.
The Democratic caucus must have hoped that these three hearings, in the collective, would generate the momentum for public support to impeach the President. However, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has been reluctant to push for impeachment absent public support. She has repeatedly urged her members to be cautious and pursue investigation in the Oversight Committees to ascertain whether a full impeachment proceeding is warranted. While this caution is laudable so close to an election in 2020, investigation has been rendered an impossibility. The White House has refused to present a single witness to Congress. AG Barr has refused to appear. Don McGahn, the former White House Counsel, who testified before Mueller for 30 hours has been forbidden from testifying even though he is no longer a government employee and had already cooperated, waiving executive privilege.
Asserting absolute immunity, the White House instructed McGahn to ignore the Congressional subpoena and not testify. That issue will shortly be taken up by the D.C. District Court. Even if McGahn is ordered to testify, it is not certain how illuminating/informative/damning that testimony will be. The former White House Counsel would need to appear with the patriotic enthusiasm of a John Dean and corroborate claims of obstruction that were noted in the Mueller Report. This needs to be kept in the context of knowing that the Department of Justice will never file a criminal case against a sitting President, even if he shoots someone while walking down Fifth Avenue.
The White House is hellbent on stonewalling and stalling until Trump is re-elected in 2020. They plan on fighting Congress at every step and tying up every motion in a convoluted court fight. McGahn is the last potential hellfire witness in the Democratic arsenal and if he implodes like Mueller or misses the target/mark like Dean or Cohen, the maximum ballistic range will have been reached and talk of impeachment will become unrealistic. Democrats have weapons in their arsenal against this President but lack the telemetry skills to guide them to target and the strategic planning skills to identify the impact when their warheads misfire.
(Sara Corcoran writes DC Dispatch and covers the nation’s capital from Washington for CityWatch. She is the Publisher of the California and National Courts Monitor and contributes to Daily Koz, The Frontier Post in Pakistan and other important news publications.) Photo: AP Susan Walsh. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.