Democrats had high hopes that when Robert Mueller testified to Congress, in person, live on television, he would finally reach those Americans who had not read the entire 448-page report the Special Counsel for the U.S. Justice Department and his team had compiled.
That report investigated two issues: Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the possibility that President Donald Trump had obstructed justice in responding to the investigation.
But Robert Mueller, a Republican, a somber, tight-lipped war hero and former head of the FBI, stuck tightly to his written report, answering many questions from members of Congress with a curt “yes,” “no,” or “that’s not what the report said.”
Finally, Democrats heard what they were waiting for: when asked whether he had exonerated or cleared the President of allegations that he broke the law, Mueller replied “No.” “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime,” he said.
Furthermore, Justice Department policy, he explained, prevented him from indicting a president while that president is in office.
But that type of cautious phrasing was, at times, hard to follow and President Trump soon returned to his barrage of Tweets about Mueller’s “Witch Hunt Hoax,” and attacking Muelleer as inept and incompetent.
The President is eager to put the Mueller investigation behind him and get back to trying to improve relations with Russia. When one reporter asked him whether Russia is continuing to interfere in U.S. elections, Trump brushed that aside, saying “You don’t really believe this. Do you believe this?”
The U.S. President also telephoned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, offering to help Russia fight the forest fires devasting Siberia, and talking about trade – no mention of Russian interference in U.S. elections. The Kremlin interpreted that as a positive sign “that full-fledged bilateral relations could be restored in the future.”
It will not, however, be that simple. Two days later, Trump bowed to bi-partisan Congressional pressure and reluctantly signed an executive order leveling a second round of economic sanctions on Russia for allegedly using a nerve agent in the attempted assassination in London of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The Kremlin has denied the accusation.
President Trump, for all his bravado, still faces two threats: possible impeachment and potential criminal prosecution after he leaves office.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller said that if his investigation had clearly shown that Donald Trump did not obstruct justice, he would have stated that in his report but, he noted, “we were unable to reach that judgement.” Investigators, he said, could not determine that “no criminal conduct occurred.” In essence, Mueller left it up to Congress to decide whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice.
If he did – and most Democratic lawmakers believe he did – then the House of Representatives could begin a formal impeachment inquiry, the first step in the process of impeachment. Shortly after Mueller testified, ironically, support among Democratic voters for impeachment actually fell slightly. A Hill-HarrisX poll showed that 67 percent of Democratic voters now support impeaching Trump, down four points from May. Half the Democratic members of the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats, now support it, although the Party leadership is wary.
Surprisingly, support among Republican voters for impeaching Trump – always low - doubled after Mueller testified in Congress – from 9 percent in May to 17 percent in July. More than a third of Independent voters support impeachment. But the likelihood of the Republican-controlled Senate actually voting to convict the President, at least at this time, is low.
And that second threat to President Trump remains: as Robert Mueller told Congress, once he leaves office, Trump could be prosecuted for any crimes he committed. The 2020 election is only a year and three months away and President Trump already is campaigning fiercely to be re-elected to the White House.