It’s unclear what Jerrold Nadler or his overseer Nancy Pelosi wanted, specifically, to accomplish with Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Since this hearing focused on alleged obstruction of justice by President Trump, the portion of Mueller’s investigation that would likely be the principal basis for the articles of impeachment that House Democrats and others have been kicking around for months, they probably figured the event would have a pretty large impact on their course going forward.
While others may disagree, my take on the hearing is that it may have added marginally to the number of people who have heard and comprehended each party’s talking points about the meaning of the Mueller report. Will there be a net surplus of those buying the “Mueller says he did not exonerate Trump” talking point as compared to the “Mueller found no clear evidence Trump obstructed justice” talking point? Maybe. But that’s unclear, along with the number of people who were galvanized by other aspects of the hearing, such as Republican efforts to make a big deal out of Mueller’s failure to go down the Steele-dossier rabbit hole and uncover an FBI/Obama-administration “witch hunt” against Trump.
Most likely, the residual impression of most viewers, which may or may not be accentuated in news coverage, is of a tired and elderly lawyer being baited by hostile Republicans and repeatedly retreating into legally necessary but unattractive evasions like “I won’t get into that” and “I would refer you to the report.”
However you characterize the hearing, though, there’s clearly no reason to believe that it added to the existing momentum for impeachment for obstructing justice. For Pelosi, who has adamantly opposed heading down that path, this could represent the silver lining of a House hearing that otherwise didn’t break any new ground.
To be clear, there are many Democrats in and beyond the House who believe Trump has already been shown to have committed impeachable offenses by the Mueller investigation, which means that the hearing really didn’t need to do anything but further publicize previously known facts. There are others who believe that impeachment proceedings are necessary to dig up the truth behind and beyond the Mueller report, and that this undertaking will make impeachment a more popular and consequential action. There are still others who think Trump should be impeached for misconduct that has nothing to do with obstruction of justice (e.g., Al Green’s impeachment resolution focused on Trump’s racist tweets, which the House set aside last week). And aside from the question of whether impeachment is warranted, there are other Democrats (including, it would seem, Pelosi) who appear to believe it’s just politically fruitless given the certainty that the Republican-controlled Senate won’t even think about removing the president from office.
It’s unlikely that any of these positions were significantly affected by the Judiciary Committee hearing. To the extent that the clock is running down on the time that would be needed for impeachment proceedings before they are entirely subsumed in the 2020-election debate, and assuming Pelosi hasn’t changed her mind, you have to figure impeachment is now even less likely than it was yesterday. Some pro-impeachment Democrats may now throw in the towel, while others may get even more determined on grounds that time’s nearly up. But Mueller did little or nothing to advance their cause, and anyone counting on him to do so must be bitterly disappointed.