The Mueller Congressional Hearings – What did We Learn?

AP: Robert Mueller testifies 190724
Former special counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 24, 2019 in Washington.
Alex Brandon | AP

US Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified on Wednesday before two congressional committees about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump. With much hype from the mainstream media, Mueller’s testimony promised to be the TV event of the year in the US House, where politicians questioned him for more than five hours about the book-length report he released in April.

Democrats hoped that by putting Mueller on television and highlighting the parts of the report that they believe describe Trump’s most egregious behavior, they would be able to ignite new outrage and renew public interest in their investigations into the president. But Republicans were there too, and defended Trump, who has condemned the probe as a “witch-hunt.” While Mueller offered a stark warning on Russian election tampering — “They’re doing it as we sit here” — he offered no new revelations on Wednesday into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections or President Trump’s attempts to derail his probe.

Mueller warned both the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees his testimony would be “limited,” citing ongoing investigations and Justice Department policy. Over the course of more than six hours, he hewed closely to the findings in his report, resisting efforts to stray into areas of conjecture or speculation: “I’m not going to discuss that.” “I can’t answer that.” “I’m not certain I would adopt that characterization.” “That’s out of my purview.”

Mueller struggled at times to respond to the onslaught from lawmakers, each of whom were allotted just a few minutes for questioning. Again and again, he asked members to speak up or repeat themselves, and frequently had to be reminded to speak into his microphone. He gave one-word answers — “yes,” “no,” “true,” “correct” — 112 times over the span of nearly four hours in the first hearing.

What can be gathered, as Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace said: “I think this has been a disaster for the Democrats and I think it’s been a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller. He has seemed very uncertain with his brief. He doesn’t seem to know things that are in the report. Over and over, Mueller just sits silent and allows the attacks from the Republicans to sweep over him and says nothing.”

I must confess that I too thought something dramatic would come out of Mueller’s testimony — whether for Trump’s good or bad. Yes, Mueller did condemn Trump’s public praise of Wikileaks. While he said he did not “exonerate” President Trump from obstruction of justice — a term that has no legal biding; as was made clear he can never “exonerate” anyone, either one is innocent or guilty, and if the latter then he is condemned or pardoned  — Mueller later walked back that statement, saying, “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.” His team, he said, “never started the process” of evaluating whether to charge the president. In the end, watching the congressional hearings was like watching a bad B-rated movie, leaving me with one single question: “Why in the world did I waste my time watching this?”