Robert Mueller's halting testimony on Wednesday produced no political bombshells and is unlikely to shift American attitudes toward President Donald Trump or his administration. It also appears unlikely to boost efforts by some Democrats to impeach the president, much to the relief of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has repeatedly warned her caucus that such an effort could backfire, absent bipartisan support.
What the former FBI director's appearance before two House committees in back-to-back sessions might do, though, is increase pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to permit votes on several bills aimed at strengthening the nation's voting systems against foreign interference. On Wednesday night, Senate Republicans continued to block two such measures from consideration, claiming that they are redundant. As the 2020 presidential election nears, Democrats may benefit from what they portray as Republican indifference to protecting America's vulnerable voting systems.
If Mueller delivered any powerful message in his shaky seven hours before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, it was that Russia—and unspecified other nations—are already attempting to sabotage American democracy for the second time. According to the Mueller Report, Moscow waged "sweeping and systemic" attacks on America's election infrastructure in 2016 and distributed disinformation through social media. "Over the course of my career," Mueller told Congress, "I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government's effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. This deserves the attention of every American," he warned. "They're doing it as we sit here."
Trump did not respond to Mueller's warning about Russia's ongoing election attacks, but he lost no time in declaring political victory, telling reporters after Mueller finished testifying that it had been a "very good day." The president issued a series of his trademark gleeful tweets during and after the hearings. "The Democrats lost so BIG today," he tweeted. "Impeachment is over," he announced, a claim echoed by pundits across the political spectrum.
The former FBI director's performance was widely criticized, and portrayed as a disappointment to Democrats. At several instances, Mueller appeared uncertain of what his own report had concluded. He stumbled repeatedly, was forced to retract his most explosive initial claim—that he would have recommended accusing Trump of obstruction of justice if Justice Department guidelines did not explicitly bar the criminal indictment of a sitting president—and repeatedly declined to answer specific inquiries about his work and conclusions. Mueller deflected or declined to answer questions about his work 198 times.
Mueller grew more assertive in the afternoon, however, when he repeatedly warned the House Intelligence Committee about the dangers to democracy posed by Russia's election meddling and efforts by other foreign players to interfere in American election contests. He appeared most distressed by Trump's recent statement that he might welcome Russian information about an opponent in the next presidential campaign. Asked about that view, Mueller noted that foreign meddling was a crime. He also told the House panel that he feared a willingness to accept foreign assistance in elections was becoming "the new normal."
Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated by Republican unwillingness to vote on new security and election-reporting requirements. Senator McConnell has repeatedly argued that additional money and measures are unnecessary, since Congress has already acted to improve election security at the state and local level. Congress, McConnell noted, has allocated some $380 million in the past year by passing the Help America Vote Act to help states bolster election security. He has also criticized the media and Democrats for failing to credit President Trump with the lack of apparent security breaches in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.
Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who has sponsored a bill to provide $600 million to update outdated, vulnerable voting equipment, require paper-ballot voting systems, and enact stronger cybersecurity requirements for elections-technology vendors, urged McConnell to set aside partisan politics in the interests of national security. "It is incumbent on Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate to join with House Democrats to pass this essential legislation," she said, "as well as legislation we are preparing to introduce this fall to further combat foreign interference and disinformation in our elections."
The political price for inaction may have increased Thursday after the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released its bipartisan report on Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. The 67-page, heavily redacted report concludes that Moscow directed "extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level." The report also urges Congress to authorize more money and attention to remedy such vulnerabilities once the stopgap $380 million appropriated by Congress is spent. McConnell may be able to dismiss prosecutor Mueller's warning, but ignoring the Senate intelligence committee may be harder.