Washington * President Trump and his Republican apologists -- including his defense lawyer who moonlights as the nation’s attorney general -- do not believe a single word they have said about former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. The GOP has claimed that it shows “no collusion, no obstruction.” But their behavior at Wednesday’s hearings, not to mention Mueller’s own words, prove they have been lying.
Because the report does not and never did say what Trump and his band of servile attendants claim it says, Trump himself started sending out his nuke-Mueller marching orders to Republicans at 6:50 a.m. Wednesday. He assailed "this illegal and treasonous attack on our Country" -- meaning the effort to hold him accountable -- accused Mueller of being "highly conflicted" and referred to Mueller's "many Democrat Never Trumper lawyers."
GOP committee members slavishly fell in behind the disinformation effort with shameless, reckless and conspiracy-minded assertions against Mueller, even as he observed the gag order issued by Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department that he not discuss matters outside the confines of his report.
It was a heads-we-win, tails-Mueller-loses setup: Mueller is limited in what he can say, and then House Republicans attack Mueller for failing to answer questions he's barred from answering.
But as the day wore on, the outrageousness of the Republican strategy became ever clearer and their core fear ever more obvious: If Americans take seriously what Mueller and his team found, Trump is in a lot of trouble.
And with the passing of the hours, Mueller got increasingly steely. "It is not a witch hunt," he snapped when asked about Trump's favorite locution. Asked if Trump's answers to him weren't always truthful, Mueller replied, devastatingly, "generally." About Trump's encouragement of Wikileaks, he said: "Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity."
Let's be clear about what the Mueller testimony wasn't, and what it was. It was not about books and movies, despite the popularity of the metaphor that those who had not read the words of the special counsel's report would be riveted by a hearing's sounds and pictures. Mueller was not cut out to play the superhero role in a blockbuster film.
But his steadiness in the face of repeated Republican provocations and his unwavering confirmations of his report's genuinely scandalous findings about Trump sent a message: Only a country that doesn't care about the rule of law, has given up on holding presidents accountable and is too cowardly to stand up to foreign interference in our elections would simply let all of this go. Wednesday provided a mandate for pressing on.
Late in the Judiciary Committee session, Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., underscored what was going on. "The attacks on you and your team intensified because your report is damning," Stanton said, "and I believe you did uncover substantial evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors."
This was a kind of coda to the very first set of inquiries from Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, who asked: "Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him, but that is not what your report said, is it?"
Mueller replied: "Correct. That is not what the report said."
And Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., got an answer from Mueller proving the old lawyer’s rule that you should not ask a question if you are not sure you will like the answer. “You could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?” Buck asked. The laconic Mueller replied very simply: “Yes.”
Democrats left no doubt that they see former White House Counsel Don McGahn as the lynchpin of their future efforts, much as John Dean, another White House counsel, was devastating to Richard Nixon in Watergate. In response to several lawmakers, Mueller reiterated that Trump told McGahn to get the special counsel fired and then pushed his staff to falsify records about the request. The fight for McGahn's testimony will be this scandal's Armageddon.
Two moments brought home why Wednesday marked just one step on a long road.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, closed the morning session this way: "It now falls on us to hold President Trump accountable."
And Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ended the afternoon hearing with a peroration on the many questions still unanswered about what Trump had done.
"We must find out," he said of Congress.
It must, and no amount of post-hearing spin can change that.
E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.