Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday sent the clearest signal yet that impeachment might be slipping out of reach for Democrats and that the ultimate verdict on President Donald Trump will be rendered by voters in the 2020 election.
Democrats had hoped the former special counsel’s appearance would be a turning point. A Marine who served in Vietnam, Mueller is the kind of square-jawed federal prosecutor to whom Americans might have once listened as a trusted source of authority. But in this era of stark political polarization, galvanizing the public is a difficult task even if Mueller wanted to produce a viral moment, which he never seemed inclined to do. Rather than swoop in to give voice to the 448-page report, Mueller said very few words.
What Mueller did say was striking: Trump was not exonerated of potential crimes. His report found Russia interfered in the 2016 election in “sweeping and systematic” fashion. Accepting foreign campaign assistance is wrong, he agreed. But Mueller’s reluctance to engage, and his one-word answers, deprived the country of a where-were-you-when moment that could bring decisive conclusion to the probe and Trump’s role in trying to obstruct the investigation.
“It was not a hoax,” Mueller testified of Russian election interference.
The result, after more than six hours at the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, was that the sides in Washington were retrenching to their familiar outposts, leaving voters to decide what to do next.
Trump derided Mueller’s appearance—“disaster,” he tweeted—and started fundraising off it. The president’s re-election campaign set a $2 million goal over 24 hours, it said, to counter those trying to “TRICK the American People into believing their LIES.”
Allies of the White House quickly joined in. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Mueller’s appearance “sad.” Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, said the hearing was the “last gasp” of the investigation.
“It’s time for the curtain to close on the Russia hoax,” Nunes said. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”
Much was riding on Mueller’s appearance, coming months after the release of his report in April. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is weighing liberal calls for impeachment against her own instincts for a more measured approach investigating the Trump administration and laying out the findings.
Activists on the party’s left flank have been impatient with what they see as Pelosi’s slow-walking of impeachment—but they have also been deferential to her strategy. More than 85 House Democrats have called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings, and more lawmakers are expected to add their names after Mueller’s testimony.
Yet even though Democrats hold the House majority, they’re far from the 218 votes that would be needed to approve articles of impeachment. With Republicans controlling the Senate, many Democrats warn moving forward is a political dead end.
“If we have a case for impeachment, that’s the place we will have to go,” Pelosi said afterward.
Mueller, in his testimony, didn’t push the issue any further. While Mueller’s team declined to prosecute the president, in part because of a Justice Department opinion against indicting a sitting president, the report also suggested other remedies, including in Congress. Asked about impeachment as an option Wednesday, Mueller refused to comment on it.
The former special counsel was always going to be a reluctant witness who wanted his report to speak for itself. Democrats knew what they would encounter even if they were hoping for a Mueller of a different vintage, from his time leading the FBI after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Instead, they saw a less forceful public presence, hard of hearing at times, hesitant to answer many of the questions, but one still skilled enough in the ways of Washington to not read his report in a way that Democrats could exploit.
When Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., asked if Mueller would read a certain section from the report, Mueller turned the tables: “I’m happy to have you read it.”
Republicans had their own expectations and tried to portray Mueller as an actor in an elaborate attempt to undermine Trump’s election. They revived their long-running theory about the origins of the report during Hillary Clinton’s campaign and posed questions that seemed designed to be replayed on conservative media, even if they, too, found Mueller’s answers were not entirely fulfilling.
It had all the trappings of a classic Washington political drama, yet brought little closure.
Even if Mueller had been a more eager player, he might not have been able to make a more convincing case. Gone are the Watergate-era hearings, when lawmakers crossed party lines to engage critically over then-President Richard Nixon. The impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton changed that dynamic, and the partisan divide since has only deepened to a point of rupturing whatever is left of political comity.
Still, Mueller’s appearance was far from a political loss for either party. Ahead of the 2020 election, both are trying to reach the slice of Americans who have not hardened to partisan positions.
A June poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 31% of Americans said they didn’t know enough to say whether Mueller’s report had completely cleared Trump of coordination with Russia and 30% didn’t know whether it had not completely cleared Trump of obstruction. A CNN poll found that just 3% said they had read the whole report.
Perhaps Mueller’s testimony, with his button-down lawyer’s approach, reached some of them.
As voters consider what they’ll do, Mueller did leave them with one definitive point—a warning about what happened in 2016 and a plea that they pay attention to what might be coming.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. ... This deserves the attention of every American.”
Kyle Tanner sits in his driveway behind an upright Wurlitzer piano that he converted into a bar, serving drinks and smiles.
It’s his fourth year living across the street from the Rock County 4-H Fair, the third year he and wife Tally Bennett have thrown a party to celebrate.
“Yay! It’s fair week! I’m so happy,” said Bennett, who grew up in Janesville but moved away her senior year in high school.
Somehow, the fun happening across the street seeps into the neighborhood of modest houses and well-maintained yards and gardens.
Deep resentment for the Rock County 4-H Fair might lurk somewhere in the quiet neighborhood surrounding the fairgrounds in Janesville, but many who live close by embrace it.
The front windows on four blocks of East Memorial Drive face the fairgrounds’ chain-link fence. Many residents set lawn chairs on their front lawns for a better view.
“It’s just so much fun to be here during the fair,” said Tanner.
“We’re pretty low-key over here,” he said as a siren-like wail emanated from a midway attraction across the street.
Tanner said he will dance with fiery batons and activate a bubble-making machine to entertain guests. They plan to project a movie onto their garage.
“We like to keep it fun, and so many people come by, so many kids,” he said.
The couple sometimes brings coffee or even breakfast for the volunteers who staff the ticket booth in front of their house.
They also enjoy people-watching.
“I don’t know any other place where you can see a cross-section of the community like you can here,” Tanner said. “Everybody comes to the fair.”
Next door is the home of Bill and Linda Dooley, who have lived here for 60 years. Their front stoop has been converted into a small deck where they both can sit and watch.
Bill gives the fair an “A” rating.
“As long as they keep the music going,” Linda added.
“Linda can’t get up and dance like she used to,” Bill said, but they still enjoy the music that drifts across the street.
Bill remembered huge crowds in 2013 when Florida Georgia Line played. They set an attendance record that day with more than 30,000 visitors.
But people were remarkably courteous, Bill recalled.
Less than a block from Memorial Drive, at the corner of Blaine Avenue and Fremont Street, Mike and Jen Amundson are parking cars on their lawn, as many do in the area.
The going rate is $5, although a few charge only $3, Mike said.
The Amundsons used to throw a fair-week party.
“It’s a lot of work. We just got tired of doing it,” Jen said.
They called it Mikey Fest, a nod to the more famous Micky Fest, about two blocks away on Memorial Drive.
Micky and Therese Coogan started having parties in the front yard for friends during fair week sometime in the early 1970s, and Micky Fest was born.
Micky isn’t selling Micky Fest T-shirts this year. He donated proceeds from the shirts to VetsRoll. This year, people were still donating to the organization. By Wednesday, they had collected $140.
Micky said parents of the kids showing their animals and projects at the fair sometimes stop by. There’s no alcohol allowed at the fairgrounds—but Micky Fest is not on the fairgrounds.
“It’s been good. Nobody ever gets out of hand,” Micky said.
Highlights include the soon-to-be country superstar Faith Hill stopping for a beer, Micky said. The late Troy Gentry of the band Montgomery Gentry also stopped by.
“I like it. I hope they never move it,” Micky said of the fair.
The fair neighbors interviewed for this story had a few complaints about the fair, but nothing serious.
“All the people that live here have lived here for a long time, and they get used to it,” Therese said.
That includes a 93-year-old woman, Micky added.
The Amundsons said people sometimes park so close to their driveway that it’s hard to pull into the street.
Tanner is critical of the county, which has a plan to spend tax dollars to upgrade the fairgrounds, while neighbors get what he sees as little access or use of the fairgrounds most of the year.
Tanner also didn’t like the removal of a row of lilac bushes that people enjoyed. The view is now of a rusty, old fence, he said.
Nevertheless, “We’re fair boosters,” Tanner said.
Bill Dooley said one good thing about the fair is its length: “By the time the week is over, you’re ready to have it done.”
For full fair coverage, including a daily schedule, go to GazetteXtra.com/fair.
Two Rock County families who lost children to overdose deaths after traveling to Florida for treatment warn others of the risks addicts face in the Sunshine State.
Janesville resident Mark Stricklin’s son Seth Stricklin died July 14 in West Palm Beach, Florida. His body was found a day later, lying outside with a needle in his hand and another needle in his pocket.
He was 23 years old.
Brooke McKearn of Beloit understands Mark’s pain.
Her son Nikolas Graves died Dec. 22, 2018, in West Palm Beach, blocks away from where Seth died, Brooke said. He overdosed on fentanyl, which he thought was heroin.
He also was 23 years old.
Seth’s and Nikolas’ stories fall in line with reports of addicts and their families falling victim to an insurance fraud mill in Florida.
The New York Times in 2017 reported Midwesterners have gone in droves to Palm Beach County, Florida, seeking treatment for addiction.
Palm Beach County officials responded to 5,000 overdoses and 596 opioid deaths in 2016, according to the Times.
A Palm Beach County grand jury in 2016 found unregulated treatment facilities and sober homes “endangered the health, public safety and welfare of the public and persons suffering from substance abuse disorders.”
According to the Times, drug treatment centers have been illegally paying sober homes money from patients’ insurance carriers. Sober home operators pocket some of the cash and give addicts money, housing, gym memberships and other perks to stay there and recruit others.
Brooke’s insurance while Nik was in Florida was billed $15,000 for a lab test and thousands more in a slew of charges that Brooke, who was an ER nurse for 15 years, felt were grossly overpriced.
Seth was addicted to heroin for six years. He stayed in treatment facilities across Wisconsin, Illinois, Colorado and California before going to Florida in October.
Seth wanted to get sober, Mark said. Seth reached out to Florida treatment centers and learned Mark’s insurance would cover treatment and a plane ticket.
Mark said he noticed red flags when he received calls from Florida treatment centers competing for Seth’s business.
“If I had known what was going on in South Florida, there was no way in the world I would’ve let him get on that plane,” Mark said. “I had no idea I was sending him to death’s doorstep.”
Seth went to an inpatient treatment center in Palm Beach County and was sober for months, Mark said. Things changed after he moved out of inpatient treatment and into unsupervised sober living.
In the weeks leading to his death, Mark worried Seth had been using heroin again, but Seth insisted he was clean.
Seth told Mark the sober homes offered him cash to recruit friends from home to get treatment in Palm Beach County. Mark worries how many people from across the country have been lured into the environment where his son died.
“I would tell them (parents of addicts) to please, please look around here and research and find out who is really going to care for your addicted loved one,” Mark said.
“But do not ever send your addicted loved one to south Florida. They are trading cash for lives.”
Like Seth, Nik went through multiple stints in inpatient treatment only to relapse days or weeks later, Brooke said. Nik had been using Xanax for a year and a half before going to Florida.
The day he died was the first time he tried what he thought was heroin, Brooke said.
A friend recommended to Brooke a program in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Nik was sober for 103 days with help from the program, which Brooke applauded.
But once Nik left the program for a West Palm Beach sober living home, Nik relapsed multiple times.
If Rock County had more resources for people with addiction, Brooke would not have sent Nik to Florida, she said.
In the months leading up to Nik leaving, Brooke had called programs all over Rock County to learn most of them had long waiting lists, she said.
Brooke has contacted the West Palm Beach Police Department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, the Florida Drug Enforcement Agency, Florida lawmakers and Wisconsin lawmakers. She is pushing officials to fix the broken system in Florida and provide resources in Wisconsin.
Brooke has made herself available to anyone struggling with addiction or loss by speaking at support groups and reaching out to others online. She started a Facebook page “Addiction Awareness-What can we do to save a life?” to connect people affected by addiction.
“For any parent who thinks it won’t happen to them, I hope they don’t end up in the club I am in,” Brooke said.
Lori J. (Starks) Coplien
Clyde R. Johnson
James “Jim” Roehl