On a day House Democrats hoped Robert S. Mueller III’s televised testimony Wednesday would animate the special counsel’s 448-page report for the nation, the star witness eschewed the leading role with a muted performance with few soundbites during the first of two back-to-back hearings.
Mueller’s answers were concise. He often said simply, “True,” or “I rely on the language of the report.” The 74-year-old gray-haired Marine veteran and former FBI director frequently didn’t speak into the mic.
His voice didn’t carry well through the committee room and he asked for questions to be repeated. The famously tight-lipped former prosecutor, who didn’t comment for the duration of the nearly 22-month investigation, often declined to engage with leading questions, telling members “he wouldn’t get into that.”
It was a script that Mueller for weeks had telegraphed he would follow, and reiterated at the beginning of the hearing. Other than a few fleeting moments in which Mueller basically agreed with what his report already said, his approach took the drama out of one of the most anticipated congressional hearings.
“I do not intend to summarize or describe the results of our work in a different way in the course of my testimony today,” Mueller said in an opening statement. “As I said on May 29: the report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text.”
Democrats got several headlines out of the hearing. At the beginning Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., took on President Donald Trump’s often-repeated claims that the Mueller report “completely exonerated” him.
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked. “No,” Mueller replied.
And later, under questioning from Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Mueller answered a question in a way that made it sound like he would have indicted Trump if not for a Justice Department opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel that says a president can’t be charged while in office.
“The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president. Correct?,” Lieu asked.
Mueller replied, “That is correct.” And he did not back away from or clarify that statement under further questioning.
But that fizzled in the afternoon session before the House Intelligence Committee, when Mueller went out of his way to say “that is not the correct way to say it,” because as the report states, “we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
In another exchange, Mueller indicated Trump could be charged with a crime after leaving office, something that is reflected in that OLC opinion.
Those were not so much revelations as highlights of a report that has been public for more than two months. “Even reluctant, I think he laid out the case that in several instances, maybe even five, the president obstructed justice,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., said after the hearing.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., was among Democrats who said Mueller’s performance could push some of their colleagues to back an impeachment inquiry. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have opposed impeachment proceedings, but had pointed to Mueller’s forthcoming testimony as one of the reasons why there hasn’t been an official decision whether to pursue it or not.
“This report came to life and I think it will be a very powerful moment when people reflect on what action is next,” Cicilline told reporters after the hearing. “We believe, many of us, that the time is long past to open a formal impeachment inquiry, to begin the process of considering whether or not articles of impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors ought to be filed.”
But Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, who brought an impeachment resolution to the House floor earlier this month that fell short of adoption, did not seem to think Mueller’s performance would be the kind of “moment in time” to tip the balance.
The Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, said the hearing hurt any calls for impeachment because the public is getting tired of the issue in the absence of new information.
“There was nothing new found out today except what we knew a few months ago, and now we just have Robert Mueller’s take on it,” Collins said. “There was nothing that moved the needle today.”
And Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of Trump’s most vocal backers in Congress, said he got his clues about the hearing not from Mueller, but from the posture of committee Democrats.
“Just look at their body language, they look sullen and demoralized on the dais,” Gaetz told reporters.
There were no blockbuster answers from Mueller on Wednesday. After a question from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., Mueller asked where that was from. Sensenbrenner said he was reading his question, and Mueller asked him to repeat it. After he did, Mueller demurred.
“This is one of those areas I decline to discuss and refer you to the report,” Mueller said.
Mueller stressed he would not be able to answer questions about certain areas that are of public interest, including the opening of the FBI’s Russia investigation, or any matters related to the so-called “Steele Dossier.”
“These matters are the subject of ongoing review by the department. Any questions on these topics should therefore be directed to the FBI or the Justice Department,” he said.
And the former special counsel often declined to engage with leading questions from both Republican and Democratic sides, which sometimes made him appear less familiar with the contents of the report than the lawmakers questioning him.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, became red in the face as he raised his voice and accused Mueller of “perpetuating injustice,” since the investigation went on after the former special counsel had decided Trump could not be charged.
“I take your question,” Mueller replied.
Halfway through the hearing, Cicilline laid out his view of the facts in the report on one allegation of obstruction of justice — how Trump ordered a former aide to talk to the attorney general and ask him to curtail the special counsel probe.
Mueller drew a distinction. “I am not going to adopt your characterization, I’ll say that the facts as laid out in the report are accurate.”
Mueller declined invitations from Democrats to read key sentences from his report, forcing the lawmakers to read them out loud. His much-anticipated comments were, at times, barely loud enough to be heard throughout the committee room.
“Director, could you speak more directly into the microphone please?” Nadler said at one point. “I’m sorry,” the former special counsel replied.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, highlighted on Twitter how Mueller was “being destroyed on credibility, knowledge, competence and numerous ahs, pauses and excuses like ‘beyond my purview.’”
“It’s sad so many stumbles on cross it should be stopped as a TKO,” Giuliani tweeted.
Outside the Rayburn hearing room, a handful of protesters carrying a pro-impeachment banner — one wearing an “It’s Mueller Time” shirt — waited in the hallway, along with congressional staffers. Journalists sat on camp chairs, near a forest of cordoned-off cameras and lighting equipment, awaiting comment from anyone who exited.
But few people — lawmakers and spectators alike — left the hearing room, particularly following Nadler’s warning during the first break in questioning that those in the packed room would not be guaranteed their seat if they leave.
Judiciary Committee members by and large remained on the dais, and the few who left during the break declined to comment on the proceedings, which was the first of two hearings with Mueller on Wednesday.
The first fireworks came from Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, who criticized Mueller for violating Justice Department principles about writing about the potential obstruction of justice charges against Trump.
Ratcliffe asked Mueller if he could come up with another example of the Justice Department not exonerating someone under investigation because their innocence was not conclusively determined.
“I cannot, but this is a unique situation,” Mueller said.
At the outset of the hearing, Nadler focused on Mueller’s long career in public service to bolster the former FBI director as “a model of responsibility” who conducted the special counsel probe with “remarkable integrity.”
“We will follow your example, Director Mueller. We will act with integrity,” Nadler said. “We will follow the facts where they lead. We will consider all appropriate remedies. We will make our recommendation to the House when our work concludes.”
But he also pointed out that Mueller’s 22-month investigation netted 37 indictments and forfeitures of as much as $42 million “so that the cost of your investigation to the taxpayers approaches zero.”
The comments seemed directed at Trump, who tweeted attacks early Wednesday morning against Mueller and the House process.
“So why didn’t the highly conflicted Robert Mueller investigate how and why Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress? She must have GREAT lawyers!” Trump tweeted. “Why didn’t Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats spend any time investigating Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ & Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more, including HIMSELF & Andrew W?”
Why didn’t Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats spend any time investigating Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ & Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more, including HIMSELF & Andrew W?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
So why didn’t the highly conflicted Robert Mueller investigate how and why Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress? She must have GREAT lawyers!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
Trump had said he wouldn’t watch the testimony, but he tweeted out commentary from Fox News analysts and other conservative commentators.
“I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing. Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff – an Embarrassment to our Country!” Trump tweeted.
Cameron Peters contributed to this report.