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Robert Mueller should testify before Congress

Live video matters — and Wednesday’s statement just drives that home.

FBI Director Mueller Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee Alex Wong/Getty Images

Robert Mueller said he doesn’t want to testify before Congress. Wednesday morning, the special counsel gave his only public statement on his investigation, stating that “the report is my testimony” and the written work should speak for itself. It’s up to Congress to take it from here.

But having punted the issue to the House, Mueller should now cooperate with House leaders’ desire to hear him speak live and in person.

In some kind of hyper-idealized world, that might not be necessary. The report is there in its entire 400-plus-page glory, and every American — and every member of Congress — can read at least a redacted version of it for themselves. The real world, however, is not like that, as evidenced by the fact that today’s Mueller statement was itself big news.

Much of Mueller’s statement contradicts repeated clear, vivid, public statements from the president of the United States, the attorney general of the United States, and congressional Republicans. In the Trump era, facts are not a given, even when printed in black and white. The president himself confirmed this by immediately going on Twitter to mischaracterize what just happened.

Mueller himself raised the question of whether his work was sufficient in holding the president accountable, suggesting that Congress should pick up the baton.

He said, for example, that charging Trump with obstruction of justice was not an option available to him or his team because they were bound by years-old Justice Department guidance holding that the president cannot be indicted.

But the fact that Mueller said it live on camera made a difference. He publicly challenged the administration’s interpretation of events and challenged Congress to face the fact that he did not have limitless powers.

None of this is new in any way. It’s all in the report. But there has been a concerted effort to say that Mueller’s failure to charge is a good reason for Congress not to do an impeachment inquiry. Mueller, however, is saying the opposite of this — that no matter what evidence he found of whatever crimes, he would not have charged Trump, and that it is up to Congress to decide.

The same is true for the rest of the content of Mueller’s appearance today. It was brief and concise but made four clear points:

  1. Russian interference in the 2016 campaign was real, and not fake news made up by Democrats to excuse their own tactical errors as Trump and his allies have claimed.
  2. There was “insufficient evidence” to charge Americans with involvement in a criminal conspiracy — an important legal conclusion but not an exoneration.
  3. Trump was not cleared of obstruction of justice charges. If he had been cleared, the report would have said so.
  4. Trump was also not charged with obstruction of justice because DOJ policy prohibits making criminal charges (even in the form of sealed indictments) against a sitting president.

It’s difficult, of course, not to sympathize with Mueller’s view that having written this all down clearly in a report and then said it should mean he shouldn’t have to say it again before Congress.

But even though Mueller is not a very political person, he’s also not a total naif. He’s held multiple Senate-confirmed positions and served as FBI director for a decade. He knows that media coverage matters to politics and that the presence or absence of video and live drama makes a difference to media coverage.

His legal conclusion is that this matter needs to be handled by the political branches of government — the US Congress — and that means that the politics of it matters. Going to Capitol Hill and answering questions with the cameras rolling won’t produce any new facts or new legal analysis, but it will make a difference.

Of course Mueller, a longtime Republican, doesn’t want to get dragged into a partisan food fight. He probably wishes his co-partisans in Congress would all act like Justin Amash and read the report calmly before reaching conclusions without regard to their political interests.

But that’s not how the world works. Mueller says it’s Congress’s job to determine what should be done, not the DOJ’s. Congress is political, and fundamentally, you can’t take the politics out of politics.