The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

6 takeaways from Robert Mueller’s testimony

Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on July 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, at long last, testified before Congress about his investigation into Russian interference and President Trump’s conduct related to it.

Mueller appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in the morning and the House Intelligence Committee in the afternoon. Here’s what we learned from both sessions.

1. Mueller struggled

If Democrats hoped this would be a seminal moment, they will apparently leave sorely disappointed — in large part because their star witness was no star. Mueller spoke haltingly, seemed not to remember key details and tripped over himself even when members weren’t trying to trip him up.

The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), began by asking him whether “collusion” was colloquially the same as “conspiracy.” “No,” Mueller said flatly.

Collins then pointed to Mueller’s report, which states that certain legal dictionaries do regard the terms as “largely synonymous.” Mueller didn’t seem to have much of an answer, eventually stating that the report spoke for itself.

A sometimes halting Mueller parries questions

Later, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) pressed Mueller on why he said he couldn’t exonerate Trump. Republicans have argued that Mueller stepped outside his mandate, when generally people who aren’t accused of crimes are presumed innocent. Mueller responded that this was an unusual situation (presumably because Justice Department policy is that a president can’t be indicted), but he didn’t elaborate.

At another point, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) questioned Mueller on whether he knew that former FBI agent Peter Strzok, whose anti-Trump text messages got him removed from the investigation, “hated” Trump. “I did not know that,” Mueller said, adding that “when I did find out, I acted swiftly to have him reassigned elsewhere in the FBI.” He notably didn’t disagree with Gohmert’s premise that Strzok hated Trump.

At still another point, Mueller said he was “not familiar” with Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that funded the Steele dossier.

The strategy from Republicans suggests they weren’t satisfied to point out the portions of Mueller’s report that were good for Trump, despite Trump’s claims that it exonerated him. They seemed to be aiming to argue that Mueller’s deputies, some of whom have donated to Democrats, were actually in charge of the probe.

Witness this tweet from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.):

Mueller was even tripped up over more sympathetic questioning by Democrats. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked Mueller about a much-discussed quote from the report in which Trump says, upon learning of Mueller’s appointment, “I’m f-----.” Mueller said he couldn’t recall who originally relayed that quote. At another point, Mueller couldn’t recall which president appointed him as a federal prosecutor in the 1980s. (He guessed “Bush”; it was Ronald Reagan.)

2. Democrats didn’t make much progress

This exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) in the Judiciary session had plenty of Trump opponents excited:

LIEU: The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?
MUELLER: That is correct.

Some felt Mueller had made big news, arguing Mueller was saying Trump would have been indicted if not for that policy.

“Robert Mueller just reaffirmed in response to questioning from Rep. Ted Lieu that the only reason he declined to indict Donald Trump was because of an Office of Legal Counsel opinion stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted,” the Democratic super PAC American Bridge declared in a news release.

But it wasn’t to be. At the start of the second hearing, Mueller offered a correction: He was simply saying they made no conclusion because of the OLC opinion — not that he would have charged Trump otherwise.

The correction underscored the fact that the Democrats simply weren’t getting the moment they desired from Mueller. And when they thought they had, he soon snatched it back.

3. Mueller did firmly push back from Trump on a few points

As the above shows, Democrats generally got Mueller only to restate findings from his report. That was true when Mueller said, “The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed,” and when he said Trump could still be charged once he’s out of office. Neither was new, despite efforts to play them up as big statements.

Democrats did get a couple big sound bites from the second hearing, though.

“The Trump campaign officials built their strategy, their messaging strategy, around those stolen documents?” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) asked.

Mueller responded: “Generally, that’s true.”

“And then they lied to cover it up?” Schiff asked.

Mueller again responded: “Generally, that’s true.”

Mueller was also asked about Trump’s past praise for WikiLeaks, which served as a conduit for Russia’s interference. He said that to call this “problematic is an understatement” and that it was “giving some hope, or some boost, to what is and should be illegal activity.”

Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III dismissed President Trump's characterization of his investigation at a hearing on July 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

In another response to Schiff about Trump’s characterization of his investigation, Mueller told Schiff, “It is not a witch hunt.”

4. A small silver lining for Pelosi on impeachment

If you’re House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), it may not be all doom and gloom right now. Yes, the hearings were probably counterproductive when it comes to Democrats’ efforts to beat Trump in 2020, but they also would seem to help her campaign to hold off her fellow Democrats’ impeachment fervor.

Some House Democrats recently forced a vote on this topic, even as Pelosi has argued that it’s a bad idea. Her party was split, but most members voted against opening impeachment proceedings.

Mueller wouldn’t even provide a sound bite on the topic, declining to broach the topic of impeachment when asked about the options Congress had.

5. He contradicts Trump on the FBI job

Trump has argued that Mueller was conflicted, in part, because he interviewed at the White House for the job of FBI director shortly before becoming special counsel. Before the hearing, reports indicated that Mueller disputed this claim, and Trump took to Twitter to challenge Mueller to testify under oath on it.

“Hope he doesn’t say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the . . . interview, including the Vice President of the United States!” Trump said.

Mueller did just that, twice. He stated that he visited the White House about the job search, but “not as a candidate.” He later reiterated that the meeting “was about the job but not about me applying for the job.”

This contradicts months of Trump’s claims, and Mueller said so under penalty of perjury.

6. The investigation wasn’t shut down

There have been conspiracy theories that Attorney General William P. Barr might have shut down Mueller’s probe in some way, but Mueller dispatched with them.

“At any time in the investigation, was your investigation curtailed or stopped or hindered?” Collins asked.

“No,” Mueller responded.

Collins’s question covered pretty much anything that could be understood as Barr reining in the investigation, so that should put this one to bed.