Expectations were high among Democrats that former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday would be the spark they needed to persuade a skeptical American public that President Donald Trump had obstructed justice – and, perhaps, that impeachment was the right recourse for the President’s actions surrounding the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It didn’t turn out that way.
That’s not to say that Mueller’s testimony in front of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees was filled with great news for Trump.
Like Mueller’s eponymous 448-page report detailing the findings of his nearly-two-year-long investigation into Russian interference and possible obstruction of justice, the former special counsel’s testimony confirmed that Trump was not cleared on the charge of obstruction nor was Mueller’s report a total exoneration of the President. He said that Trump’s praise for WikiLeaks was, at minimum, “problematic.” He confirmed that the Russians wanted Trump to win and that Trump’s campaign welcomed and encouraged those efforts. And that Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice once he leaves office.
But all of that was already in the report! While hearing it from Mueller may change some minds, it’s hard to see any of those facts – which we’ve now known for months – fundamentally altering the narrative.
And it wasn’t just that Mueller – as many people close to him had predicted – stayed very close to what was in the report, and was extremely cautious when even considering going beyond it. It was that he was not terribly effective as a witness. Period. And that inefficacy was born of three things:
1) He refused to answer lots and lots (and lots) of questions. In just the three-ish hours he spent with the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning, Mueller refused to answer more than 100 questions asked by members of Congress. (Many of these questions had to do with the Steele dossier and Attorney General William Barr – both subjects Mueller said he wouldn’t go near in his testimony.) That number topped 200 when you include his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee later in the day.
2) When he did answer key questions, he made things muddier. Here’s one example: Democrats thought they had something when in response to this question from California Rep. Ted Lieu – ”The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion that you cannot indict a sitting President, correct?” – Mueller responded: “That is correct.”
But as Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko noted, Mueller’s assertion ran directly counter to a joint statement in late May from the offices of the attorney general and the special counsel that read in part: “The attorney general has previously stated that the special counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the (Office of Legal Counsel) opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice. The special counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination – one way or the other – about whether the President committed a crime.”
Mueller, in front of the House Intelligence Committee later in the day, clarified that he had misspoke in his answer to Lieu. “I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said, and I quote, you didn’t charge the President because of the OLC opinion. That is not the correct way to say it,” Mueller said. “As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime. With that, Mr. Chairman, I’m ready to answer questions.”
3) Mueller was less than convincing or forceful. Yes, I know that the Twitter elite hate when journalists talk about “optics.” But let’s remember that a) the way most Americans consume events like this one is on TV and b) history has shown time and again that visuals matter in how people are perceived in politics. (Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, anyone?)
Mueller struggled mightily on the appearances front. He seemingly struggled to hear the questions asked of him. He struggled to find citations within his own report being using by members of Congress. He was halting in his responses and occasionally looked befuddled. While he seemed to rise to the task somewhat as the day went on, the perception of him as nothing short of the perfect prosecutor took a hit.
The Point: If no change in how people feel about the Mueller report and the Trump presidency is good news for the President, then Mueller’s testimony was good news.