There will be plenty of comment on Wednesday about Robert S. Mueller III’s lack of acuity in his sworn testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. And, yes, there was fatigue evident, even on his face, from the moment the former special counsel took the witness chair.
But he was plenty sharp overall and in key moments vigilant about policing the lines he drew in advance about what he would and would not discuss. After a time, the members ceased even trying to get him to veer outside those boundaries. One result of Mueller’s low energy level is that there weren’t any thunderbolt moments, at least not in the Judiciary Committee hearing. But several developments stand out:
First, notwithstanding the concerns that lawmakers would be undisciplined and grandstanding, there was an impressive degree of forethought and coordination on both sides. Democrats went through discrete episodes in the report, including the most serious instances of obstruction. The questioning underlined serious allegations of misconduct on the president’s part that, to date, he and the attorney general have managed to obscure.
Second, the Democrats had what appeared, at least at first, to be two very solid moments of questioning. The most notable was Rep. Ted Lieu’s (Calif.) apparent success at getting Mueller to say that his team didn’t reach an indictment decision for President Trump on obstruction because of the Office of Legal Counsel memo barring such a move. That was microscopically close to saying that, but for the memo, Trump (like anyone else in the country) would have been indicted. But Mueller walked back his answer in the afternoon session in the House Intelligence Committee, emphasizing that the office had made no determination about Trump’s guilt.
The other blow came when Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) got Mueller to say that the lies of the president and his circle had impeded the investigation. That’s significant in itself and also a sufficiently clear back-and-forth to appear unedited on the newscasts that will be how most Americans digest today’s hearing.
Third, as for the Republicans, they chose more often to make speeches about the probe’s inception, and on a few occasions drew at least mild fire from Mueller, particularly at the charge that he assembled a politically biased team: He insisted with pride that he had never asked an employee about political affiliation in his 25 years in law enforcement. But it’s a tossup whether the Republican attacks changed any minds.
Fourth, it was noteworthy, and something of a surprise, that Mueller book-ended his testimony by emphasizing that he had charged his troops to act not only with integrity but also with expeditiousness, and to go “not a day longer” than necessary. From the start then, Mueller was determined to make quick work of the probe. That obviously came at a cost, and it’s worth considering whether the emphasis on speed sacrificed important results that Mueller otherwise could have attained.
Finally, the Democrats’ overall planning extended to final 15-second summations at the end of each period of questioning. Several simply charged that Trump had obstructed justice, packaged with the bromide that nobody is above the law. But several — including the final few — pointed toward the need for additional investigation given all that was in the Mueller report.
Thus, the Democrats had made a decision in advance of the hearing to use it to try to convince the public of the need for additional investigation. Whether the House now proceeds or stands down depends on the success of that strategy. That verdict won’t be clear for a week or more.