As with many Washington sagas, it came down to this: an old man in a charcoal suit who didn’t want to talk. A former Marine just shy of his 75th birthday, dragged into serving his country one last time, though there’s little honor in it now. A hangdog Mona Lisa before a gallery of bobbleheads, subjected in the winter of a dignified career to the indignities of Congress. He had taken a bullet to the thigh in Vietnam, steered the FBI through the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks, and yet on Wednesday — during congressional hearings on his last act of public service — Robert Swan Mueller III seemed wary of the microphone itself.
“Director, could you speak more directly into the microphone, please?” the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), said early in the first of two hearings.
“Yes,” Mueller replied. It would be one of the few words he murmured during the day, along with “No,” “True,” and “This is outside my purview.”
He was a star witness who eschews stardom. Democrats tried to cast him as a patriot who has exposed a corrupt and criminal president. Republicans tried to cast him as a figurehead who had no control over a posse of partisan assassins.
The way Mueller ran his investigation was essentially “un-American,” Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.) said in the morning hearing with the Judiciary Committee.
“You are the greatest patriot in this room today,” Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier (Calif.) said to Mueller in the afternoon hearing with the House Intelligence Committee.
It was supposed to be a juicy dramatization of a 250,000-word government report that very few people have read. An anti-Trump protester out on Independence Avenue summarized the meaning of the day: Once Mueller talks out loud, said Anne Alston of Herndon, Va., the report becomes “a movie rather than a book.”
Congressional interns slept overnight in the Rayburn House Office Building to secure a seat for the movie, to be performed live the next morning in Room 2141. They ordered pizza, read the Mueller report, listened to Harry Potter audiobooks, watched “Parks and Recreation” on their iPhones.
“We slept on the floor of an office,” said Kayley Rodriguez, 20, an intern from Tennessee. “And then eventually we realized we needed to get in line so we transitioned from carpeted floors to marble floors.”
“Marble,” said her friend Elizabeth Callaway, “is actually more comfortable.”
Inside, as the first hearing began, the floor seemed to be made of photographers. A bearded protester in a striped scarf easily slipped into the room after Mueller took his seat. “Kushner and Manafort downloaded encrypted apps on the day of the Trump Tower meeting!” the protester shouted as he was hauled out. There would be few exclamation points to follow, as the movie turned plodding and ponderous.
Who was this leading man who seemed so certain and yet so uncertain? Mueller had been a phantom since becoming special counsel two years ago, but in previous years he was a regular if demure presence in public. As FBI director he sat in front of Congress to answer questions about his budget, about unflattering reports from the inspector general. He stood at microphones to herald the indictments of terrorists and mortgage fraudsters, to mark the anniversaries of bombings, to impart wisdom to graduating classes, to ponder the balance between security and freedom.
He communicates like a living legal brief. When Mueller gave a speech at the 2004 opening of an FBI field office in Baltimore, the weather turned inclement. As attendees shifted in their seats, Mueller said: “I am not unaware there are raindrops falling.”
“We must cultivate patience, each day,” he said during the 2013 commencement at the College of William & Mary. “We must maintain a sense of humility. And most importantly we must never ever sacrifice our integrity.” “Integrity” is a word he used multiple times Wednesday in defense of his investigators.
The star’s head has gone white over the past 10 years, though his hairline has held valiantly. He looks like he smells of Vitalis and Old Spice. He’s never been a suave speaker, and his stammering Wednesday got people talking. Was this just his trademark care with words? A sign of old age, or just weariness? People judged his performance, as if he was an actor in a movie with a clear plot.
A “dignified and restrained performance,” one pundit said on MSNBC.
“He kind of sucked the life out of the report,” said another. “I thought he was boring.”
Of course he was boring. The foundation of Mueller’s career is the dull granite of nonpartisan law enforcement. At his FBI retirement ceremony in 2013, former CIA director George Tenet spoke about the experience of testifying elbow-to-elbow with Mueller.
“He sat there like a choirboy and never moved,” Tenet said then. “And I said, ‘You know, Bob, you have to learn how to emote a little bit.’ He said, ‘I can’t emote. I’ve been trained as a prosecutor. We’re not allowed to show emotion.’ ”
What was Mueller showing us Wednesday?
That this was not a movie.
What did we see?
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.) “saw a man of extraordinary integrity.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) saw a man who was “emotionally disheveled.” President Trump’s reelection campaign saw an opportunity to fundraise and sent out a text during the third hour of the morning hearing: “Let’s tell the Dems to end this WITCH HUNT by raising $2,000,000 in 24 HOURS!”
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller said during the second hearing, when prompted by Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif). The audio in the room was poor.
“Mr. Mueller is very hard to hear,” a Democratic staffer in the room said by email. “Most answers are short, but his longer responses are almost indiscernible. His hands shook noticeably before he swore in. That seems to have gone away for now so I hope it was just his nerves.”
Robert Mueller, unnerved by Congress? That seems unlikely, given all he has been through, all he has seen and chased in the jungles of criminality over 40 years. And yet something has clearly spooked him. Something that has to do with patriotism. He went back to it more than once on Wednesday.
“Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. . . . This deserves the attention of every American.”
Would America pay attention to Mueller? This question was also outside his purview. But when asked by Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) if the Trump campaign had normalized an openness to foreign interference in American elections, Mueller spoke directly into the microphone.
“I hope this is not the new normal,” he said, “but I fear it is.”