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Joe Henderson: At Robert Mueller hearing, no exoneration for President Trump

I like to boil things to their essence. In that spirit, the seven-hour Robert Mueller hearing Wednesday before two U.S. House committees came down to a few simple points.

Mueller strongly believes the Russians meddled in our 2016 presidential election. He believes it is going today and will continue through the cycle and said every American should be concerned. He believes it benefitted the presidential aspirations of Donald Trump.

And Mueller flatly stated that despite the President’s oft-stated assertions to the contrary, his report into that meddling does not exonerate Trump.

That revelation came near the start of the long process with this exchange between Mueller and House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“The president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction, and that it completely and totally exonerated him,” Nadler said. “But that is not what your report said, is it?”

Mueller’s succinct answer: “Correct.”

That would seem to be a problem for the President, although he declared victory.

Yes, the Mueller hearing was, in a sense, living theatre playing out before a nationwide audience. With that, in my opinion, there was too much emphasis placed by both sides on Mueller’s performance.

The word “confused” appeared in hundreds of tweets about Mueller from both sides of the debate. NBC political editor Chuck Todd said the optics were “a disaster” for Democrats.

Maybe that’s so for the squawkers and analysts who are hip-deep in Washington and political minutiae.

But let’s not forget, the people who matter most in this whole affair – the voters – were working throughout Mueller’s testimony. They will probably filter this through the coverage from their TV news program, website, or newspaper of choice.

That means what they believed today, they likely will believe tomorrow.

There were a lot of bullet-point moments, though, such as this one:

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) noted that Mueller had no more power to declare Trump exonerated than he would “to declare him Anderson Cooper.”

But, see above. Trump himself has said the report exonerates him.

So, what’s it gonna be?

Then, there was this blunder from U.S. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo), who gave Democrats another huge talking point:

Buck: “Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?”

Mueller: “Yes.”

Buck: “You could charge the President of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?”

Mueller: “Yes.”

Oops. Thank you for playing, the Honorable Mr. Buck.

Republicans, as expected, were confrontational and aggressive most of the afternoon, none more than Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida’s CD-1. He tried to hammer Mueller for not investigating the report compiled by Christopher Steele – the so-called Steele dossier.

Gaetz pressed said Mueller should have investigated because it involved Russian interference. Mueller didn’t take the bait. In the end, Gaetz didn’t get the screaming headline he seemed to want.

On the other hand, Florida’s CD-10 Rep. Val Demmings, a Democrat, scored. In response to her question, Mueller said he some of the witnesses in his investigation were “outright liars.”

She also got Mueller to say that Trump’s written responses to questions from Mueller’s office were not always truthful.

“I would say, generally,” he said.

As for the President’s oft-used description for the investigation, Mueller sharply responded to Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., “It is not a witch hunt.”

And when asked about then-candidate Trump’s praise of Wikileaks and its massive dump of Democratic emails during the campaign, Mueller answered, “Problematic is an understatement.”

So, what does everyone really want to know after the Mueller hearing and testimony? Will the President face impeachment?

I still believe that it is unlikely, although I’m equally sure the drumbeat for that will sound louder in some quarters. It’s probably a fool’s errand for Democrats, no matter how much they loathe Trump.

Besides, they did walk away from this with a lot of material they can in the 2020 campaign.

You can expect to see Mueller’s report and, yes, parts of his performance replayed ad nauseam next summer in TV ads. Is Jerry Nadler ready for his close-up?

“That’s not what your report said, is it?”


That could be the victory they were looking after all.

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