This time, Mueller deadpanned an answer: “I think I heard you mention at least one.”
“Impeachment, correct?” she pressed. But Mueller had given as much as he was going to give, and he reverted to form: “I’m not going to comment.”
The exchange was absurd. By every indication, Escobar correctly intuited that Mueller was referring to impeachment. Mueller knew that Escobar, and most other informed listeners, knew this. As a matter of constitutional law, it’s not even controversial. Yet in the interest of trying to remain apolitical in the midst of an entirely political event, the former FBI director tied himself in knots trying to avoid acknowledging it, except in the most elliptical of ways: I think I heard you mention at least one.
Beyond the tortured dialogue, this exchange illustrates a broader standoff in the drive to hold President Donald Trump accountable. There’s basic agreement between Mueller and Democrats in Congress on the facts of what Trump did, but no one wants to be the person to do something about it.
Mueller believes that Justice Department rules mean he cannot indict a president who committed a crime, that Congress must act, and—though he won’t say so directly—that impeachment is the tool Congress has.
House Democrats, however, are desperate for Mueller to give them cover to forge ahead on an impeachment inquiry by telling them in his own words that Trump committed a crime. Although impeachment places the House in a position akin to a grand jury, investigating and then charging a suspect, Democrats seem to want Mueller, as a prosecutor, to forward charges to them. This leads them to plead with him to say they should act directly, as Escobar did, just as Mueller’s convictions lead him to stubbornly avoid doing so.
This is apparent on obstruction of justice, which is where the case against Trump may be strongest and where there’s the clearest agreement between Mueller and Democrats. As I wrote this morning, the Democrats Hakeem Jeffries and Ted Lieu walked Mueller through the three-prong test for obstruction of justice, showing how his report clearly found that Trump met all three prongs in some cases. Mueller, of course, tried to avoid stating the obvious conclusion: “The only thing I want to add is, going through the elements with you does not mean I subscribe to the—what you’re trying to prove through those elements.”
But why do the Democrats need Mueller to do this anyway? They could just connect the dots themselves and conclude that Trump obstructed justice—in fact, some of them clearly already have. But the House leadership remains unwilling to follow that conclusion to the logical action.
Of course, Mueller may be wrong about whether Trump obstructed justice. Perhaps exculpatory evidence exists that hasn’t emerged yet. That’s the point of the American adversarial justice system: A prosecutor, whether a local district attorney, Mueller, or the House of Representatives, brings an accusation, and a jury, whether 12 local residents, a federal jury or judge, or the Senate, hears and adjudicates it.