During his public appearance in May announcing the end of his special counsel inquiry, Robert Mueller said he didn’t want or need to testify before Congress on the results of his investigation.
On Wednesday, it was clear why he felt that way.
The Justice Department publicly issued guidelines on Tuesday that set boundaries on Mr Mueller’s testimony, instructing him to stay within the confines of the written report.
Mr Mueller said he would abide by this – echoing similar comments he made two months ago.
This virtually ensured that the former special counsel’s testimony would not cover much new ground. Instead, Democrats had to pick and choose what episodes and findings they wanted to highlight, in the hopes that Mr Mueller would offer affirmation or further corroboration. He frequently did, but usually in the least dramatic fashion imaginable.
His answer to a question about the president asking White House staff to falsify documents relevant to the investigation, for instance, was simply: “I would say that’s generally a summary”.
‘I’ll refer you to the report’
The Justice Department ground rules all but guaranteed that Mr Mueller’s testimony would be awkward and halting, as he repeatedly paused to refer to specific pages of the report.
Mr Mueller’s responses were peppered with lines like: “I can’t answer that question”; “I can’t get into that”; “I don’t recall”; “that’s out of my purview”; and “I’ll refer you to the report”. That he frequently made them while leaning away from his microphone to look at his papers made things only more awkward to watch.
In addition, Mueller at times seemed all of his 74 years of age – a step behind the congressional questioners, who had clearly rehearsed for their five minutes apiece in the spotlight. As both Republicans and Democrats furiously tried to shape the public’s view of the report, Mueller frequently had the look of a man in the middle of a busy intersection, trying not to get hit by cars.
At the beginning of the afternoon hearing, Mr Mueller even had to go back and correct an earlier answer about why he did not indict the president for obstruction of justice.
This hearing was always going to feature a fair amount of grandstanding by the politicians in the room – such behaviour is hardwired into their DNA. Partisan grandstanding tends to only confirm the existing views of those who watch, however.
If undecided Americans were hoping for definitive statements from Mr Mueller – or even relatively clear or coherent soundbites from the former special counsel – they were few and far between.
The man ‘not watching’
Donald Trump insisted that he wasn’t going to watch the Mueller hearing – and his legal team insisted their reaction to the whole proceedings would be a collective shrug.
As is often the case, however, Mr Trump’s Twitter feed tells a different story.
He tweeted eight times about the Mueller investigation on Tuesday morning before the hearings began, including his old chestnut “No collusion, no obstruction!”
He also challenged Mr Mueller to say under oath that he did not “apply” to be the president’s selection to replace fired FBI Director James Comey. Mr Mueller did not hesitate to contradict Mr Trump, saying instead that he had met the president to talk about the attributes a new director should have.
Since the hearings began, the president has retweeted or quoted conservatives who have praised Republicans on the committee or criticised Democrats and Mr Mueller, including citing Fox’s Chris Wallace, who called it “a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller”.
It certainly hasn’t been a great day for the Democrats in Congress who were hoping Mr Mueller’s testimony might fuel calls for formal presidential impeachment hearings. If anything, it will probably play into hands of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has tried to tamp down the impeachment drive, instead opting for a slow and steady congressional investigatory approach.
Mr Mueller’s appearance had been long awaited and much anticipated, but although it arrived with considerable fanfare, the US political landscape is almost certain to look the same the day after these hearings as it was the day before.
Far from a ‘total exoneration’
A key moment for Democrats came early in Mr Mueller’s testimony, when Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler directly asked him if his report was a “total exoneration” of the president, as Mr Trump has insisted.
“No,” was Mr Mueller’s short and direct answer.
Mr Mueller confirmed that he believed Justice Department rules prevented the special counsel from indicting a sitting president for any criminal acts. What’s more, Mr Mueller also confirmed that he had repeatedly tried to interview Mr Trump about the instances of possible obstruction – that it was vital to the investigation and in the public interest – but Mr Trump had refused.
Democrats have fought hard against the early characterisation of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr that there was insufficient evidence to find Mr Trump had obstructed justice. Mr Mueller confirmed that he believed he could make no such determination one way or another – although his report had stated that if Mr Trump had been exonerated, it would have said so.
This wasn’t new information, of course, but it was helpful for Democrats to get Mr Mueller to say it in person once again, on wall-to-wall national television coverage.
A president ‘below the law’
If Democrats found it outrageous that the special counsel investigation couldn’t exonerate Mr Trump of criminal obstruction of justice, Republicans were outraged as well – but for an entirely different reason.
In one of the more dramatic portions of Mr Mueller’s testimony, Republican John Ratcliffe of Texas pressed Mr Mueller to explain why his report pointedly said it would have cleared Mr Trump of obstruction if it had definitely concluded that was the case.
“Which [Department of Justice] policy or principal sets forth a legal standard that an investigated person is not exonerated if their innocence from criminal conduct is not conclusively determined?” Mr Ratfliffe asked.
Mr Mueller began to answer that the investigation of the president was a “unique situation”, but the Texas congressman was having none of it – “respectfully”, he repeatedly added.
“It was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence,” he said.
The president isn’t above the law, he continued, “but he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law”.
Mr Mueller’s lack of a conclusion on presidential obstruction is one of the biggest open questions coming out of the special counsel’s inquiry. The double-negative assertion that Mr Trump didn’t definitely not commit an illegal act has been held up by Democrats as a big flashing sign pointing to what Mr Mueller secretly believes but felt he couldn’t say – that the president should have been charged with a crime.
Mr Ratcliffe, and Republicans throughout the morning, made very clear they thought that was patently unfair.
A Russian attack, not a ‘hoax’
While Mr Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation ended with a question mark, his inquiry into any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia concluded with a full-stop. There was insufficient evidence, he said, to bring charges.
Perhaps because of this, it has received somewhat less political and media attention in the months since the Mueller report came out – even if it was the central thrust of the investigation.
On Wednesday afternoon, however, the breadth of the Russian attacks on the US electoral process were front and centre. And in their questioning, Intelligence Committee Democrats bluntly set out the case that, while Mr Mueller may have concluded no crime was committed, some of the actions and statements by Mr Trump and his campaign team were troubling.
Mr Mueller agreed that Russia’s primary goal was to help Mr Trump win the presidency and the Trump campaign “welcomed” the assistance; that several members of the Trump campaign, including the candidate himself, had business dealings or other contacts with Russians; that several individuals connected to the Trump campaign lied to investigators; and that the Trump campaign incorporated documents hacked and publicly released by Russian agents into their campaign strategy.
Contrary to the president’s insistence, Mr Mueller said, the Russia investigation wasn’t a “witch hunt” and Russian election-meddling was not a “hoax”. Asked specifically about Mr Trump’s praise of Wikileaks and its “treasure trove” of hacked documents, Mr Mueller said calling such remarks problematic “was an understatement”.
Problematic statements aren’t a criminal conspiracy, however, and it’s clear at this point that the price Mr Trump will pay for them, if any, will be political, not legal.
The partisan muddle that lies ahead
Robert Mueller has been presented, at various times and by various parties, as a hero or villain – an avenging angel who would expose corruption or the part of a corrupt establishment himself.
After six hours of testimony, the former special counsel – for two years the silent sphinx of Washington – spoke extensively, but he revealed he had little of the superhuman powers that have been attributed to him.
In his sometimes stumbling testimony, he stuck by the text of his voluminous report, leaving the American political landscape much the way it sat before he entered the committee room on Wednesday morning.
Democrats hoping that Mr Mueller would offer the kind of sweeping testimony that fuels calls for presidential impeachment will surely be disappointed. Republicans, including the president himself, who were hoping for vindication at last – “No collusion! No obstruction!” – did not receive it.
Instead, the partisan muddle remains. Investigations in Congress will continue to plod along. Those on the left will continue to decry what they see as the president’s obvious crimes and ethical shortcomings. Republicans will continue to insist the president is being smeared by false accusations.
In the end, like all political disputes, the American public will be the final arbiter.
In this case, that judgement will be passed at the ballot box, 15 months from now.