Robert Mueller proved Wednesday that he might just be the least cooperative friendly witness Congress has ever faced. During close to six hours of Mueller’s testimony before two committees, House Democrats learned the hard way that you can lead a special counsel to an impeachment hearing, but you can’t make him testify.
The man who had spent the last two years leading the investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, and Donald Trump’s apparent obstruction of justice, had promised—warned, really—that he would not go beyond the four corners of the 448-page report he’d delivered earlier this spring. He lived up to that promise.
“The report is my testimony,” he told both committees. He refused even to read aloud key portions of that report, preferring to have congressional representatives read it aloud themselves, and then confirming in monosyllabic answers whether those portions were accurate. CBS tallied 41 one-word answers in just the first half of the morning Judiciary Committee hearing; Mueller declined more broadly to discuss all manner of other related and unrelated topics.
The day’s most clarifying exchange came during the first five minutes of the hearing, when Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler ran through a rapid-fire series of questions aimed at undermining President Trump’s consistent mantra of “No collusion, no obstruction.”
As Nadler opened, “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?”
“Correct. That is not what the report said,” the former special counsel replied.
Then Nadler proceeded: “The report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?”
“That is correct,” Mueller said.
Nadler: “And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?”
Nadler: “Now, in fact, your report expressly states that it does not exonerate the president.”
Mueller: “It does.”
Nadler: “Your investigation actually found, ‘multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.’ Is that correct?”
Even where Mueller could have said more, he chose not to do so.
Yet after that strong opening, Mueller’s reticence over the following hours made clear that he was not appearing on Capitol Hill to save American democracy. It’s clear Mueller feels like he’s contributed all he needs to the process. He’s done his work, delivering page after page of evidence and hard facts—not to mention three dozen criminal cases, indictments, and guilty pleas. Any further action or conclusions will have to come from the will of congressional Democrats.
While Democrats did manage to draw a troubling pattern of obstructive behavior by the president in the morning hearing, and in the afternoon expounded upon the Trump campaign’s gleeful willingness to accept Russian help in the 2016 election, the totality of the testimony managed to be both damning and underwhelming.
Mueller operated under tight constraints, some imposed by courts—which had issued gag orders in ongoing cases involving the Internet Research Agency and Trump associate Roger Stone—and some imposed by the Justice Department, in terms of avoiding discussions of internal deliberations or ongoing investigations. But even where Mueller could have said more, he chose not to do so. He specifically seemed to go through elaborate verbal gymnastics to avoid saying the word “impeachment.”
There was no bombshell moment, no snappy soundbite easily digestible in campaign ads or cable news, no crisp, succinct verbal indictment of the president’s behavior, nor memorable phrase to be recorded by history books. There was no harsh rebuke of Republican conspiracy theories, akin to a “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” moment, nor did Mueller clearly identify his own feelings about the president’s anti-American behavior. In fact, he seemed to go almost out of his way to avoid providing the soundbites Democrats wanted.
Perhaps the closest such moment came when Mueller went after Trump’s welcoming of the leak of stolen documents by Wikileaks. “Problematic is an understatement,” said Mueller about the president’s embrace of Julian Assange’s website, which Mueller also labeled a hostile intelligence organization. Candidate Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of Wikileaks’ hack-and-dump operation, Mueller said, “gave a boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”
In one of the few other eyebrow-raising comments, he also said he believed that the president was “generally” untruthful in his written answers to the special counsel’s office.
While Democrats tried hard to methodically to build a case for the president’s obstruction—representative Ted Lieu and others carefully walked through the compelling evidence supporting various possible obstruction charges—it’s not clear that the message broke through with the American people, nor is it clear how the upcoming six-week August recess will impact whatever momentum Wednesday’s hearing built up.
Overall, it’s hard to say how the hearing, muddled as it was by conspiratorial non sequiturs from Republicans and sometimes confusing lines of inquiry from Democrats, will play with the millions of Americans who tuned in on radio, television, or the web. The threads of the conversation and the narrative arc of Mueller’s report was often difficult to follow, and much of the day did not represent the best of the legislative branch. Members of Congress mispronounced names of key players, ranging from deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to the shadowy Joseph Mifsud. Arizona republican Debbie Lesko even mispronounced Mueller’s name.
As the hearings unfolded, Republicans especially continued to fail their test for the history books. Unable to discredit the president’s obstructive acts or the Russia attack, GOP members instead focused on muddying Mueller’s team and vague hand-waving outrage about the Steele dossier. Continuing the party’s three-year-long pattern of obfuscation and chosen head-in-the-sand ignorance, most members steered clear of engaging with Mueller at all on the Russian attack on the election. Representative Tom McClintock even went so far in the morning hearing as to express doubts over whether the Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, was connected to the Russian government. The lone exception was representative Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, who kept his line of questioning focused squarely on Russia.
Mueller, his voice more halting and gravelly than the last time he spoke in public years ago, seemed rusty at points—sometimes stumbling over small details and asking for various questions to be repeated—but his energy level seemed to rise through the day, and he was notably more engaged and direct in the afternoon when discussing the Russian attack on the election, and how the country needs to more confidently confront such foreign interference. He reiterated his statement from May that Russia interfered in “sweeping and systematic fashion,” and told the committees, “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
He made clear that even while Democrats remain focused on Volume I of his report, dealing with the president’s obstruction, he’s most focused on Volume II, dealing with the Russian attack. “We have underplayed that part of our investigation,” he said, calling on the nation’s leaders to read it and meet the challenges it poses for 2020: “We need to move quickly.”
As Mueller said, his report was also “a signal, a flag to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don’t let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years.”
Russia’s attacks are ongoing—and America isn’t doing enough to stop it or other adversaries, Mueller told lawmakers. “Many countries have developed capabilities to replicate what Russia has done,” Mueller said. “They’re doing it as we sit here and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
A sphinx for the two years of the investigation, he remained one throughout Wednesday.
Beyond the Russian attack, Mueller’s few moments of sparks—none rose to something one could label fire—came when he defended his investigative team or the integrity of his report. He made clear that he was not leading a “witch hunt,” as the president has long alleged. At one point, he snapped back when representative McClintock charged Mueller that “having desperately tried and failed to make a legal case against the president, you made a political case instead. You put it in a paper sack, lit it on fire, dropped it on our porch, rang the doorbell and ran.”
Mueller replied, snappily, “I don’t think you reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us.”
He pushed back, aggressively, on accusations that his team had any partisan bent. “We strove to hire those individuals that could do that job,” he said. “I have been in this business for almost 25 years, and in those 25 years I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”
Such answers made clear that Mueller was capable of more expansive remarks, but he never came anywhere close to expressing his own unvarnished thoughts about the president’s behavior. A sphinx for the two years of the investigation, he remained one throughout Wednesday. His theory appears to be that his independent fact-finding will stand on its own—and that he won’t let his words be twisted to partisan purposes. The politicians have to do that themselves. President Trump offered his own conclusion on the hearing, having spent much of Wednesday monitoring Mueller’s testimony from the White House; he tweeted, “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!”
Democrats made clear after the hearings that they see Mueller’s testimony as a tentative turning point, a bridge that will begin a fall of further hearings with witnesses, like former White House counsel Don McGahn, who actually participated in the events Mueller described.
“I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what’s happening,” representative Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House oversight committee, told reporters Wednesday evening. “Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children, and your children’s children, and generations yet unborn we’ve got to guard this moment…. This is our watch.”
Cummings’ comment was perhaps more personal than he’d wish—Mueller has clearly left future steps in the hands of Cummings and the other House Democrats.
Indeed, it’s possible that for Mueller, who has spent nearly 40 years in the Justice Department, and nearly 50 years in service to his country, Wednesday’s hearing may represent the final public appearance of his career. It seems likely his 89th congressional appearance will be his last. One of the few outright smiles that appeared on his face during the seven hours on Capitol Hill came when, during the morning hearing, he confirmed he’d resigned from his turn in the public spotlight: “I am no longer special counsel,” he said. Whatever comes next, it’s not Robert Mueller’s problem.