Robert Mueller’s long-awaited congressional testimony was over before it began.
Appearing before two House committees Wednesday, Mueller made it clear from the outset that he had no intention of saying anything beyond his already-taciturn comments regarding a two-year investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election or whether the president tried to impede it.
“It is unusual for a prosecutor to testify about a criminal investigation, and given my role as a prosecutor, there are reasons why my testimony will necessarily be limited,” Mueller said in his opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee. “I therefore will not be able to answer questions about certain areas that I know are of public interest.”
One exception occurred early in the day, when Mueller responded to a direct question from Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the committee chairman, about Trump’s claim that the report cleared him of obstruction of justice charges.
“The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said.
One of the first things Nadler did this morning was establish that the president lied.
The Democrats made their point on Trump's misdemeanors and got one key point from Mueller: that the president can be charged after he leaves office.
— Chris Matthews (@HardballChris) July 24, 2019
Practically speaking, that was the beginning and end of Mueller’s willingness to speak in detail about his work. Mueller chose to stick to a “Dragnet” approach with his testimony, offering just the facts contained in the 448-page report released earlier this year.
Mueller’s appearance, broadcast live nationally on cable news, amounted to a clear setback for Democrats, who had expressed hope that public support for Trump’s impeachment would spike once Mueller spoke out about his investigation.
Time after time, when asked about a detail of his report or the specifics of his investigation, Mueller offered a simple “yes” or “no.” Just as often, he refused to say anything at all, frequently declining to read what he wrote in the report itself.
For example, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) tried to use language in the report to establish an argument for charging Trump with obstruction of justice, directing Mueller to a specific passage and asked him to read the first sentence.
But Mueller refused to play along. “I’d be happy to have you to read it,” Mueller said.
Lieu, who had predicted the night before the hearing in an interview with CNN that “minds may be blown” by Mueller’s testimony, was reduced to reading from the Mueller report as its author sat looking at him impassively.
“That is in the report and I rely on what’s in the report to indicate what’s happening in the paragraphs that we’ve been discussing,” Mueller said dryly.
Even though the Democrats may not have gotten all they might have wanted from Mueller’s testimony, Republicans fared only slightly better. The hearing likely did little to change opinions of those who already supported the president’s oft-repeated arguments of “no collusion.”
Indeed, Mueller took away the GOP’s primary line of attack. At Trump’s prompting, Republican committee members had planned press Mueller to provide details about who alerted FBI officials about Russians interference in U.S. elections to benefit the Trump 2016 campaign.
“I am unable to address questions about the opening of the FBI’s Russia investigation, which occurred months before my appointment, or matters related to the so-called Steele Dossier,” Mueller said, referring to a document that reportedly contained salacious and damning information about Trump’s interactions with Russians.
In one instance, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) opted not to ask Mueller a question, but instead proffered an emotional speech to berate the special prosecutor for declining to charge Joseph Mifsud, the London-based professor linked to the start of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling.
“You can charge all kinds of people who are around the president with false statements, but the guy who launches everything, the guy who puts this whole story in motion, you can’t charge him,” Mr. Jordan said, referring to Mifsud, his voice rising with mock outrage. “I think that’s amazing.”
Republicans couldn’t be happy with Mueller’s response. “I’m not sure I agree with your characterization,” Mueller said.
Later, during the House Intelligence Committee hearing, Mueller sharply rebuked White House arguments that his investigation was illegitimate.
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller said in response to a question from committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). And Mueller confirmed to Democrats that Russian interference in the 2016 election was not, as President Donald Trump so often has alleged, “a hoax.”
Bottom line: No incriminating statements. No dramatic sound bites. No fodder for political ads urging public support for impeachment. Nothing to clear an embattled president. At the end of the day, when all was said and done, the politics of the Mueller investigation is as muddled as it was when the hearings started.