The movie that played Wednesday was roughly six hours of testimony from Mueller, whose hangdog visage and stumbling performance was widely panned by the watching politerati as either inadequate, from a Democratic perspective, or a triumph for Trump, on the Republican side.
Less than two hours into the first of two hearings, the president — who stayed in his private residence until the afternoon, according to one senior White House official — was on Twitter and weighing in, sharing flattering posts from allies on social media. And by 1 p.m., Trump began offering his own thoughts, facetiously expressing gratitude to the Democrats for calling Mueller to Capitol Hill.
“I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” Trump wrote.
The revelations for any other president could have been devastating.
Mueller explained in detail how Russia sought to help Trump win the 2016 election, how his campaign did not reject the entreaties and how the president instructed others to lie and falsify records in efforts to thwart the probe.
He outlined how the president did not cooperate in the investigation, and his answers often cast a negative light on the president.
But many of his answers were also a single word or clipped, and he rejected the premises of the questions from some Democrats.
“I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is,” Mueller said.
Inside the president’s orbit, however, the mood was gleeful, traced with relief, according to current and former White House officials.
“Today was a good day for Trump supporters and a catastrophe for Democrats,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former Trump White House official. “Setting aside the fact that Mueller himself has probably done more damage to his own report than anyone else, this is a huge fail for the Democrats because they haven’t been able to get any of the big moments they were hoping to get.”
Surabian and other Trump allies argued that even moments that theoretically should be Democratic victories — such as Mueller telling the committee that his report did not, in fact, exonerate Trump as the president has claimed — fell flat. “They thought they were going to be able to turn this hearing into a prolonged anti-Trump TV ad and all they ended up getting was a very ‘low-energy’ witness and a whole lot of disappointment,” Surabian said.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, said he had not spoken with Trump since earlier Wednesday morning, before the testimony began, but said that while he would have preferred Mueller not to publicly testify at all, “it was a great morning for the president.”
“It’s not going to move any needle,” Giuliani said. “If anything, it’s going to hurt the Democrats a little bit. Anyone looking at that is going to listen to his answers, and they aren’t getting the sound bites they wanted.”
Inside the White House and the president’s broader orbit, there was minimal anxiety — and minimal preparation — in the run-up to Mueller’s turn in the witness chair. Originally, Trump had scheduled counterprogramming in the form of a rally in Greenville, N.C., on the day of Mueller’s expected testimony, but when the special counsel’s appearance got pushed back by a week, the White House did not offer up another prime-time attempt at distraction.
Instead, Trump’s public schedule was entirely bare Wednesday until after 4 p.m., when he departed the White House for a closed-press fundraising event in Wheeling, W.Va. He said the White House had “a very good day” and asserted there was “no defense of what Robert S. Mueller III was trying to defend.” He said Mueller did “horrible” in testifying and called the event a “disaster” for Democrats.
“There was no defense to this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt,” Trump said.
In the run-up to the hearings, White House aides and other allies largely believed that nothing new would emerge from Mueller’s testimony. One senior White House official described it as “a slightly more problematic version of what we already know” that was unlikely to shift public opinion. Another White House official Wednesday morning, shortly after the first hearing began, explained, “No one in the White House cares about this other than the president.”
But the president made clear he wanted his communications team to weigh in, one of the officials said, and so on Tuesday night, the eve of the much-anticipated “Mueller Day,” the White House began discussing possible responses and reaching out to defenders of the president with talking points.
In the end, however, some in Trump’s orbit said Mueller made their job easy by failing to provide the Democrats with a damning viral moment and seeming shaky and halting at times.
“The last three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in an emailed statement midway through the day. “Expect more of the same in the second half.”
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, in a text message claimed the Democrats had hoped to use Mueller to “overturn the result of the 2016 election” and concluded they had failed in their effort. “They took a big swing at it and whiffed completely,” he wrote.
Trump allies seized on Mueller’s at times juddering performance, tweeting out a range of derogatory assessments, ranging from the critical to the cruel.
Matt Wolking, who handles rapid response for the Trump campaign, suggested in a tweet that “Democrats are probably wishing they could trade Robert S. Mueller III for Robert De Niro right about now,” referring to De Niro’s portrayal of the prosecutor on “Saturday Night Live.”
And Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and husband of Mercedes Schlapp — a former White House aide who now works on Trump’s campaign — sent out a string of missives that seemed to imply that Mueller was past his prime. In one, Schlapp described Mueller as a “tired misguided old lawyer” who was being manipulated by his underlings, and in another he faux-lamented, “I am feeling shame and embarrassment for enjoying Mueller’s total train wreck.”
Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor, said it should come as no surprise that Trumpworld was not overly anxious about Mueller’s testimony and that, in his estimation, the day was a rebuke of the Democrats.
“Having Mueller testify after his report and his press conference and expecting shocking new revelations was simply a marmalade of madness concocted by the Democrats,” Eberhart said.