Democrats wanted a star witness. Republicans wanted a villain.
Robert Mueller confounded them both with answers that consisted almost entirely of “Yes.” “No.” Can you repeat the question?” “I rely on the wording of the report.” “That’s an area I cannot get into.”
Nothing in his quiver of answers for members of Congress during long-anticipated testimony Wednesday contained much information.
It was an incredible contrast to President Donald Trump, who will speculate on anything, that Mueller, who has studied Russian election interference and Trump’s attempts to derail the investigation of them, wouldn’t speculate at all. He didn’t offer a referral for impeachment or later prosecution, even though Democrats say there is a detailed road map for both things in the written document Mueller provided to Congress.
When he wrapped up the Russia investigation with a public statement back in May, the former FBI Director and special counsel said that written document was his testimony.
Now, called before Congress as a private citizen, his actual spoken testimony consisted largely of throwing back to it and doing everything he possibly could to not get caught up in the political fight. Mueller didn’t do much to help Americans who haven’t bothered to read the document, which lays out scores of interactions between the Trump campaign and Russians, and dissects ten possible instances of obstruction of justice by Trump, and documents 77 lies and falsehoods but didn’t recommend any specific conspiracy or obstruction charges.
Where previous special counsels like Whitewater’s Kenneth Starr recommended impeachment, Mueller remained frustratingly opaque in a way that on Wednesday came off as obtuse at times.
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Mueller refused to explain what’s in the space between “not exonerated” and not indicted, although he did make clear the option of indicting Trump was never open to him, according to Department of Justice guidelines. He later clarified that the question that made this point, and which he agreed to, wasn’t exactly the right way to put it.
It was on one hand refreshing to see a congressional witness answer simply and maddening because both Democrats and Republicans actually wanted answers from him.
What was left for Democrats was to read incriminating sections from the obstruction of justice portions of the redacted report and for Mueller to verifying them.
And for Republicans, it was an opportunity to poke holes in the report’s reasoning and try to tie Mueller in knots, which they did to some effect as he shuffled through the redacted version of the report in a three-ring binder containing the report and trying to follow along.
One key knot was tied at the outset when Mueller said, “No,” collusion and obstruction of justice weren’t the same thing, during questioning by Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican.
The exchange is emblematic of the hearing.
COLLINS: Although your reports states, “collusion is not some specific offense,” – and you said that this morning – “or a term of art in federal criminal laws, conspiracy is.” In the colloquial context, are collusion and conspiracy essentially synonymous terms?
MUELLER: You’re going to have to repeat that for me.
COLLINS: Collusion is not a specific offense or a term of art in the federal criminal law. Conspiracy is.
COLLINS: In the colloquial context, known public context, collusion – collusion and conspiracy are essentially synonymous terms, correct?
COLLINS: If no, on page 180 of Volume 1 of your report, you wrote, “As defined in legal dictionaries, collusion is largely synonymous with conspiracy as that crime is set forth in the general federal conspiracy statute, 18 USC 371.”
MUELLER: Yes (ph).
COLLINS: You said at your May 29th press conference and here today you choose your words carefully. Are you sitting here today testifying something different than what your report states?
MUELLER: Well, what I’m asking is if you can give me the citation, I can look at the citation and evaluate whether it is actually…
COLLINS: OK. Let – let me just – let me clarify.
You stated that you would stay within the report. I just stated your report back to you, and you said that collusion – collusion and conspiracy were not synonymous terms. That was your answer, was no.
MUELLER: That’s correct.
It continues from there.
Either unflappable or hard of hearing, Mueller did not betray emotion or fight back even when Republicans attacked his credibility and judgment.
For Democrats, their attempts to draw Mueller out of his shell were futile.