Robert Mueller sticks to the script in high-profile hearings
Robert Mueller’s seven hours of congressional testimony Wednesday confirmed damaging information about President Donald Trump and his campaign contained in the Mueller report, but the former special counsel’s often halting and stilted responses did not give Democrats the damning, dramatic moment they were seeking.
Mueller’s testimony, in which he did not respond to a litany of questions from Democrats and Republicans alike, is unlikely to change minds up on Capitol Hill, where the debate will turn to whether House Democrats will pursue an impeachment inquiry into the President. Partisans of all stripes had plenty of material to point to in Mueller’s back-to-back appearances before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
Mueller agreed that the President’s conduct was problematic, that his investigation did not exonerate the President and that Trump did not cooperate fully with the special counsel. But Republicans also questioned why Mueller’s investigation relied on a political opposition research dossier and held the President to a different standard of guilt, receiving no pushback from the special counsel.
In the end, Mueller almost exclusively stuck to his strategy not to go beyond the bounds of his report, leading to frustrating exchanges with lawmakers where Mueller declined to engage. He deferred or declined to answer questions more than 200 times.
The special counsel’s performance was also shaky at times, where he asked for lawmakers to repeat the question and struggled to find a response. He grew most animated when Republicans tried to criticize the team that worked under him for two years.
“Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?” asked House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat.
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller responded.
The special counsel also tried to emphasize his overarching concern that Russian government and other countries would continue to interfere in US elections.
“I hope this is not the new normal. But I fear it is,” Mueller said.
Trump touted the day of Mueller’s testimony as a “very good day” for the Republican Party, the country and himself, arguing there was “no defense to this ridiculous hoax.”
“I very much appreciate those incredible warriors that you watched today, Republicans, that defended something and defended something very powerful and very important,” Trump said leaving the White House following Mueller’s testimony.
He added, “Robert Mueller did a poor job, but in all fairness to him he had nothing to work with.”
‘Problematic is an understatement’
Democrats have several key moments they will point to from Mueller’s testimony.
Mueller said clearly that his investigation did not exonerate the President, and he condemned the President’s tweets praising WikiLeaks when it released stolen emails in 2016.
“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said, adding that Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter messages exchanged with WikiLeaks were “disturbing” and subject to investigation.
The special counsel also suggested that the President’s written responses to his office might have been untruthful, going beyond his report that described them as incomplete, inadequate and imprecise.
“Director Mueller, isn’t it fair to say that the President’s written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete, because he didn’t answer many of your questions, but where he did, his answers showed that he wasn’t always being truthful?” asked Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat.
“I would say generally,” Mueller responded.
In one of his more candid exchanges, Mueller explained that he didn’t pursue a subpoena for the President’s testimony because he was concerned with how long it would take to litigate.
“There’s a balance,” Mueller said. “In other words, how much evidence do you have that would satisfy that last element against how much time are you willing to spend in the courts litigating the interview with the President.”
But Mueller wouldn’t engage on numerous topics with Democrats, including whether his report should be seen as a referral to Congress to pursue impeachment.
And when he suggested to Rep. Ted Lieu of California Wednesday morning that the special counsel’s investigation did not charge Trump because of Justice Department guidelines against indicting a sitting President, he then clarified the remark at the start of the afternoon session.
“I’d like 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 (Office of Legal Counsel) 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.”
The conclusion of the hearing marks a new phase for House Democrats, who now are likely to turn their attention to convincing courts to force other witnesses cited in the report, like former White House counsel Don McGahn, to testify. And they will eventually have to decide if they will pursue an impeachment inquiry.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler did not reference impeachment at Wednesday’s hearing, but he cited a need for “accountability for the conduct described in your report.”
“Although department policy barred you from indicting the President for this conduct, you made clear that he is not exonerated. Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with a crime. And in this nation, not even the President is above the law,” Nadler said. “We will follow your example, Director Mueller. We will act with integrity. 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.”
Republicans press on ‘no exoneration’
Republicans lobbed a variety of attacks at Mueller, from his decision to document the President’s actions in his report when Trump wasn’t indicted to the make-up of his team.
“Volume two of this report was not authorized under the law,” charged Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican and a former prosecutor, arguing there was no statute for the Justice Department to need to exonerate someone under investigation. “I agree with the chairman, this morning, when he said Donald Trump is not above the law. He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where this report puts him.”
Republicans argued that Wednesday’s hearing should be the close of the Democratic investigations into the President.
“This hearing is long overdue. We’ve had the truth for months — no American conspired to throw our elections. What we need today is to let that truth bring us confidence and closure,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel.
Initially, Mueller did not push back on the Republican attacks. After Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, launched a barrage at Mueller, accusing him of having “perpetuated injustice” by running his investigation for two years, the chairman gave Mueller a chance to respond.
But instead, Mueller deferred. “I take your question,” he said, moving onto the next lawmaker.
As the hearings wore on, Mueller became more combative with Republicans, particularly when they criticized his team. He disputed a charge from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida — who criticized him over Christopher Steele, the author of the opposition research dossier — and disagreed with Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who suggested the special counsel’s team had not “faithfully, accurately, impartially, and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report.”
Mueller reacted angrily when GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota suggested Mueller’s aides were politically biased.
“We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job,” Mueller said. “I have been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years I have not had occasion, once, to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”
Mueller’s style: Keep it dry
Two sources close to Mueller said Mueller was trying to be careful and trying to keep his answers as close to the report as possible, while some of the questioners are using rapid-fire or long-winded questions to try to have him depart from the report’s language. Mueller’s style is to try to keep it dry and not provide fodder for the ongoing political fights, which doesn’t do well in such a politically charged hearing, the sources said.
Mueller and his team have said nearly nothing in the two years since he was appointed special counsel, and the seven hours of testimony represented the first time in six years since Mueller was under the bright lights of a congressional hearing, a far more contentious setting than he had seen previously.
In his opening statement, Mueller defended the work that his team did.
“My staff and I carried out this assignment with that critical objective in mind: to work quietly, thoroughly, and with integrity so that the public would have full confidence in the outcome,” Mueller said.
But Mueller also telegraphed early on that he would not engage on many questions from both Democrats and Republicans answer. “As I said on May 29: the report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text,” Mueller said.
That Mueller’s hearing happened at all is noteworthy, given how many times it appeared in doubt at several points. Congressional Democrats were hopeful they would get Mueller before their committees almost as soon as he concluded his investigation in March — arguing they needed Mueller to push back against what they considered Attorney General William Barr’s misleading narrative about the report and his decision that the President did not commit obstruction.
But the negotiations stretched out for weeks, ultimately leading to an agreement where Mueller appeared after he was subpoenaed.
The negotiations still continued up until less than a day before Mueller appeared, covering everything from the length of the hearing to whether Mueller’s deputy, Aaron Zebley, could appear with him.
Zebley sat next to Mueller at both hearings, over objections from Republicans and the President, but he did not speak.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Evan Perez, Fadel Allassan, Sam Fossum, Tara Subramaniam, Kara Scannell, Marshall Cohen, Jeremy Diamond, Ellie Kaufman, David Shortell, Jason Seher, Gigi Mann, Manu Raju and Aishavarya Kavi contributed to this report.