WASHINGTON ― House Democrats were hoping former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday would bring his damning report to life, convincing lawmakers and the public that the president has committed serious wrongdoing. Instead, Mueller’s testimony did little to shake Democrats from their impeachment lethargy.
They may still have gotten enough of what they came for.
With Mueller unwilling to put the report’s findings into his own words, Democrats and Republicans largely spun their wheels Wednesday. To make headway on any issue, lawmakers were mostly left asking yes or no questions. And even then, Mueller was often evasive. He repeatedly referred both parties back to his report, and he refused to discuss anything that was not already public.
Democrats got “no more than what was expected,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said Wednesday night.
“I myself never believed that today would be a blockbuster day,” Johnson continued. “And in fact, I stated publicly that I didn’t think that it would yield any things that were not already in the report.”
Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), one of the most forceful advocates of impeachment in the House, said he never expected a “seminal moment.”
“I always thought that Mr. Mueller would be very pithy, concise, terse and laconic, and refer to the report because he wants the report to speak for itself,” Green said. “I don’t think he wants to say to Congress, ‘You should impeach the president.’”
But even if Mueller’s testimony was a bit lifeless, his matter-of-fact, yes-or-no answers did provide some damning soundbites. No, the president was not exonerated. Yes, the Office of Legal Counsel decision about not indicting a sitting president prevented him from considering charges against Trump. Yes, Trump could be charged once he leaves office. Yes, the campaign accepted help from Russian affiliates. Yes, Trump associates tried to cover that up. Yes, Russia tried to influence the election for Trump. No, they haven’t stopped.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said.
Even if Mueller’s testimony was a bit lifeless, his matter-of-fact, yes-or-no answers did provide some damning soundbites.
Republicans attempted to discredit Mueller by quizzing him on conspiracies, campaign donations and alleged leaks. But the former FBI director’s refusal to tread into new territory or discuss matters currently under investigation left Republicans with little to celebrate outside of Democrats also not making much progress.
Still, even if Mueller didn’t provide the explosive hearing they had hoped for, many Democrats saw his testimony as a win.
“We got out of it what we wanted,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who had waited for months to endorse opening an impeachment inquiry before he officially backed the move two weeks ago.
“I don’t understand what the press or anyone else was expecting,” Gallego said. “Was Mueller going to come in and just start, you know ― break character and do something from ‘A Few Good Men?’”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) called the first hearing “very powerful and positive.”
“America got to hear the overwhelming evidence of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump,” Raskin said.
He added that Mueller may have been “circumspect and limited in his treatment of a lot of subjects,” but he said Democrats expected that. “It’s going to change the minds of the 99% of the American people who had not read the report. That’s the key thing,” Raskin said, seemingly earnestly.
Impeachment advocate Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) acknowledged that he would have liked if Mueller were “a little more verbose.”
“But I think the fact that he answered ‘yes’ and ‘true’ to a number of very devastating comments and questions was fine,” Lieu said.
Lieu was part of what could have been the most explosive moment of Mueller’s testimony: When the former FBI director said Lieu was “correct” in stating that Mueller did not indict Trump because of the OLC opinion. But that moment fell apart when Mueller later clarified that he and his team never got that far. They declined to determine whether the president had committed a crime because they believed the OLC opinion precluded them from making that judgment.
GOP lawmakers focused on that point as evidence of their claim that Mueller’s investigation was an expensive waste of time. They questioned whether the special counsel even had the legal authority to state that his report did not “exonerate” the president.
Republicans did just enough to muddy the waters to give Trump supporters a reason to walk away happy. Voters who were already convinced the president had done nothing wrong probably heard nothing Wednesday that would reverse their opinion.
But, as Raskin said Wednesday, Democrats were aiming for the voters who hadn’t made up their minds ― even if they fell short of some of their objectives for Mueller’s testimony.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said on Sunday that he hoped Mueller would bring the report “to life” for Americans who hadn’t read the “dry, prosecutorial work product.”
The problem with that strategy was that Mueller is one of the least vivacious people in Washington.
I don’t understand what the press or anyone else was expecting ... was Mueller going to come in and just start, you know ― break character and do something from "A Few Good Men?" Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.)
Mueller, a 74-year-old former FBI director with decades of government experience and a reputation for being nonpartisan, made it clear he did not want to testify about his report. He only agreed to do so under subpoena, and he was a stickler about only testifying on what was already public.
The best-case scenario for Democrats would have been a repeat of former FBI director James Comey’s testimony last June, when he provided detailed descriptions of his interactions with Trump, including the president’s effort to extract a pledge of loyalty. Most of Comey’s testimony centered around things that had already been reported publicly — but his first-hand account, splashed across major television networks, resonated with the public.
Unlike Comey, Mueller didn’t offer lurid descriptions of the most damning parts of his report. Whenever possible, he responded to questions with a single word. He declined to answer dozens of questions, including some that could have been answered by just sticking to the report. That meant Democratic efforts to draw attention to the special counsel’s most compelling findings fell flat. It also meant Republicans could spend several minutes making conspiratorial claims about the Mueller investigation being a political witch hunt and their accusations would not face much of a rebuttal.
Throughout hours of questioning, Mueller did concede to some of the Democrats’ characterization of Trump’s wrongdoing. The president’s encouragement of WikiLeaks gave a “boost” to what “is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said. “It’s wrong for campaigns to accept dirt on an opponent from a foreign power.”
Pressed by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) over whether Trump’s behavior meets the criteria for obstruction of justice, Mueller didn’t rule out the possibility. “I don’t subscribe necessarily to the way you analyze that,” Mueller said. “I am not saying it is out of the ballpark, but I am not supportive of that.”
Mueller agreed that a president could be indicted after leaving office — but he declined to answer a question about what happens if the president were reelected and stayed in office for the duration of the statute of limitations. Mueller also explained he did not subpoena Trump to force an in-person interview because he was worried the court battle would have taken too long.
All of those moments, packaged the right way, could move Democrats closer to impeachment. But the initial reaction on Capitol Hill Wednesday was more of the same.
When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked Wednesday night about Democratic members expecting “imminent action,” she said she didn’t know why they thought that.
She said Mueller’s testimony was, instead, “a crossing of a threshold in terms of the public awareness of what happened,” but she repeated calls to move forward with more oversight and defer to the courts to compel Trump officials to testify before Congress.
And even though Pelosi and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Intelligence Chairman Schiff, and Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) held a press conference Wednesday night to tout the hearings as a success, there was little movement in the Democratic ranks in terms of impeachment.
Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who has held off on calling for opening an impeachment inquiry, told HuffPost Wednesday night that nothing he had seen from Mueller’s testimony changed his mind.
“Impeachment has to move at its own pace,” Takano said, noting that he hadn’t seen all of the testimony Wednesday but planned to catch up over the August recess. “It can’t move because of a feeling of frustration.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) thought the Mueller hearings might “change some minds,” but he said there was “only a limited amount of minds still out there that can still be changed.”
By Wednesday evening, only two additional lawmakers had come out in support of starting an impeachment inquiry against the president. And with the House set to leave for a six-week recess on Friday, it’s unlikely that support for impeachment will swell significantly before September.
In many ways, that’s the optimal outcome for Pelosi. The speaker seems content with removing Trump through an election. And while she’s supportive of getting the truth about Trump’s potentially criminal actions out there, it’s probably not so bad in Pelosi’s mind that it was done through the subdued and succinct voice of Robert Mueller.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.