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      •  Mueller Appears Before the House, Everyone Comes Off Badly

Mueller Appears Before the House, Everyone Comes Off Badly

There are some days that one story so dominates the headlines, it simply doesn't work well to talk about anything else. Yesterday was one of those days, so get ready for a heapin' helpin' of Robert Mueller, following his five-plus hours of testimony before the House Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees.

The Executive Summary: If you really don't want to read a bunch of stuff about "Mueller Time," the gist of what happened is communicated by these two screen caps taken of CNN and Fox News shortly after the second round of testimony concluded:

CNN and Fox News

Both are entirely true. Those who are inclined to look critically at Donald Trump and the Russiagate mess got plenty of affirmation that the President's version of events is grossly distorted, and that he and his team did many problematic (and possibly illegal) things. In fact, Mueller's #1 sound bite of the whole day was his declaration that Trump might well be prosecuted once he leaves office (for the record, #2 was his opinion that Russian interference is now a permanent part of U.S. elections, and #3 was his statement that Trump's pro-Wikileaks comments were "problematic").

Meanwhile, those who back Trump and see Russiagate as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, will correctly point out that we didn't really learn anything new on Wednesday, and that there was no moment that is likely to stick out and go viral. No "What did the president know and when did he know it?" or "Have you no sense of decency?"

Mueller: Everyone who knows the former special counsel, and has spoken about him publicly, has raved about how impressive he is (well, everyone outside of Donald Trump). And in one-on-one situations, or behind closed doors, Mueller surely must be so. But his performance on Wednesday was quite underwhelming.

He was, to start, very buttoned down. By one count, which is certainly in the ballpark if not right on the nose, he refused to answer questions 112 times. When he did answer, he was often curt, giving only a word or two in response. He also followed orders, and stuck to the subjects covered by his report (as he said he would do). Now, all of this is certainly defensible. However, if he really and truly believes that serious harm has been done here, there is also a valid argument to be made that the time had come for him to drop the "company man" act, and to speak forcefully and unreservedly about his concerns.

In any case, even if we grant Mueller his decision to play things close to the vest, he was still unimpressive. His hands often shook, he got confused about or forgot details, and he didn't seem to have a great sense of the material included within his report. Occasionally, he gave answers that he then had to walk back later in the hearing. Perhaps he was nervous, or maybe he's a terrible public speaker, or possibly his age (74) was showing itself, or he might not have prepped as much as he should have, or it could be all of the above. Whatever the case may be, he was certainly not a commanding presence.

The Democrats: Most members of Congress are, of course, lawyers. Yesterday we may have gained some insight into why they left that profession and went into politics instead, because the Democrats on the two committees were generally pretty terrible when it came to interrogating Mueller. Here are some of the things they did wrong:

  • Predictably, but unwisely, they all insisted on their moments in the sun. That meant that, taken as a whole, the Democrats' questioning was disjointed and lacked follow-up.

  • Nearly all of them had a pre-prepared list of questions that they put their heads down and plowed through, regardless of what Mueller's answers were. That made the lack of follow-up even more likely and more noticeable.

  • Nearly all of them had at least one long, complicated, multi-sentence question that they read off their piece of paper. When (Z) goes to conferences, and presenters insist on reading their papers to the audience, it drives him nuts because written English is different from spoken English, and the former is not understandable when delivered in the latter form. The same problem applied to these long, complex questions. They were probably reasonably clear on paper, but when delivered verbally, they were virtually incomprehensible. This significantly increased the chances that Mueller would give a short, empty answer, or else the wrong answer, or else no answer at all.

  • They tried to put words in Mueller's mouth. On numerous occasions, they asked "questions" like: "Donald Trump isn't so much the president of the United States as he is Satan's representative on earth, who kicks puppies, hates babies, refuses to help old ladies across the street, and sacrifices goats in the Oval Office. Wouldn't you agree?" Such questions are just grandstanding, and Mueller refused to take the bait, so they were a big waste of time.

To the blue team's credit, they were at least polite with Mueller, and most of them made a point of thanking him for his service to the country. But beyond that, Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) should apologize for how badly their caucus performed.

The Republicans: As bad as the Democrats were, the Republicans were even worse (with the occasional exception, like Rep. Will Hurd, R-TX). Their questions had all the same problems as the Democrats' questions. However, on top of that, they were doing everything possible to tear Mueller down, and to impugn him and his service to the country. That is nothing short of reprehensible.

Some of the stunts that the GOP members pulled in service of their agenda were absolutely outrageous. One of the lowest points came during Rep. Michael Turner's (R-OH) questioning:

For those who do not want to watch the video, or cannot, Turner made the argument that investigators do not "exonerate" the subjects of their investigations, so it was inappropriate for Mueller to write that he could not exonerate the President of wrongdoing. In our view, this is a silly semantic argument, but in any case, Turner badgered the living daylights out of Mueller, repeating various forms of the word "exonerate" 28 times, even though Mueller made clear he wasn't going to respond to the line of questioning (you can read the transcript here).

As part of this, and in a demonstration of some of the tackiest and most ham-fisted stagecraft Washington has ever seen (which is saying something), Turner got out a bunch of law textbooks and waved them around, asking Mueller to confirm that the word "exonerate" does not appear in any of them. These weren't just any textbooks, though; Turner went to the trouble of checking them out from the library of the law school Mueller attended (the University of Virginia). "I went to Case Western, but I thought maybe your law school teaches it differently, and we got the criminal law textbook from your law school," Turner observed smugly.

The Republicans' tactics did work, in that Mueller sometimes became flustered, or appeared to contradict himself. Although given how hard a time he was having, that wasn't such an impressive accomplishment.

Donald Trump: The President said he wasn't going to watch the testimony, and that he really didn't think the appearance was a big deal. And to prove that, he basically live-tweeted the whole thing, sending out 40 tweets in total. At the start of the hearings, it was mostly re-tweets of others' observations, so that he had plausible deniability, and could say that it was them watching, and not him. But eventually, he started to send comments under his own name. That includes the tweet everyone knew was coming, where Trump claimed total victory:

Of course, Trump would have claimed victory even if Mueller went before Congress and said he was willing, on penalty of death, to affirm that the President colluded with the Russians, obstructed justice, laundered billions of dollars, and personally shot JFK. So, in case you didn't already know, you should take Trump's assessment with a barrel of salt.

The most interesting tweet of the day, such as it is, was this one (well, technically, these two):

In short, the President has accused the former special counsel and the former director of the FBI of perjuring himself before Congress, and has roped the VP in as a corroborating witness. Mike Pence must be thrilled.

Takeaways: Now that you have our basic assessment of Wednesday's events, you want some other outlets' opinions? Well, good, because we've got takeaways aplenty. Just about everyone had a list:


  • Trump's tweets showed how anxious he actually was
  • Mueller disappointed Republicans
  • ...and Democrats
  • Mueller was shaky—especially at the start
  • Mueller directly contradicted Trump on FBI job
  • There were actually two different hearings
  • Mueller said that he didn't consider indicting Trump on obstruction because of Justice guidelines. Except...
  • Mueller came to life when his underlings were attacked
  • Mueller (re)confirmed lots of details Trump doesn't acknowledge
  • Mueller said Trump's Wikileaks comments were "problematic"

The Hill:

  • Mueller dodges and disappoints
  • Both sides dig in
  • Impeachment efforts unlikely to get a boost
  • Republicans land some punches
  • Mueller dings Trump

The New York Times:

  • Mr. Mueller batted down President Trump's claims about his report and threw a few barbs
  • Time and again, Mr. Mueller defied Democrats looking for a flashy new moment
  • Republicans tried to sow doubts, but Mr. Mueller frustrated them too
  • Whither impeachment? Mueller did not help advocates much.
  • Mr. Mueller appeared a little shaky at the witness table
  • The Justice Department's opinion that bars charging a president brought confusion
  • Mr. Mueller offered a defense of his investigation, belatedly

The Associated Press:

  • Mueller wouldn't be a mouthpiece
  • Russian interference is still happening
  • Indicting the president was never an option
  • "It is not a witch hunt"
  • Impeachment remains unlikely

The Washington Post:

  • Mueller struggled
  • Democrats didn't make much progress
  • Mueller did firmly push back from Trump on a few points
  • A small silver lining for Pelosi on impeachment
  • Mueller contradicts Trump on the FBI job
  • The investigation wasn't shut down

Fox News:

  • Mueller said the findings of his investigation do not exonerate Trump and added the president can still be prosecuted when he leaves the White House
  • Mueller was forced to clear up confusion as to why he didn't indict Trump
  • Mueller testified that he did not meet with Trump for the job of FBI director, contradicting previous statements by the president
  • Mueller said Trump and Donald Jr. praising Wikileaks was "problematic"
  • Mueller said Russian election interference is an ongoing issue that will continue in 2020


  • Mueller's no storyteller
  • Trump was not exonerated
  • Avoiding 'gotcha' moments
  • Trump could be indicted after leaving office
  • On Trump's praise of Wikileaks in 2016, 'problematic is an understatement'

CBS News:

  • One-word answers
  • Mueller undercuts Trump's claims about his probe
  • Trump could still be indicted after he leaves office
  • Mueller responds to Trump's claim he interviewed for FBI director job
  • On Trump's praise of Wikileaks: "Problematic is an understatement"
  • Why Mueller didn't interview Trump


  • Mueller came in with a plan and stuck to it
  • Democrats tried to make the case for impeachment. It's unclear how successful they were.
  • Republicans' strategy was to yell and generate a few good viral moments
  • Mueller believes Russia is the real threat

The Guardian (UK):

  • Trump was not exonerated
  • Trump claims of 'no collusion' are inaccurate
  • Threat of Russian interference continues
  • Why Mueller didn't subpoena Trump
  • Trump could be charged with a crime after leaving office
  • Republicans focused on discrediting Mueller
  • Mueller says he did not seek FBI director job
  • Mueller confirms several episodes of possible obstruction

The Bottom Line: In the end, Mueller's appearance was most certainly not the silver bullet that many Democrats were hoping for, and it did not move the needle on impeachment in any meaningful way. That's not just our opinion; after Mueller left the Capitol, the Democrats held a closed-door strategy session in which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that moving forward on impeachment simply cannot happen right now. The 10 legal scholars that Politico consulted are almost uniformly in agreement with her (and with us).

That means that the President is not entirely wrong to claim victory here. As he is no closer to being impeached today than he was yesterday, he won this battle. On the other hand, Robert Mueller went on national TV and said (clumsily) that Trump is very prosecutable once he leaves office. So, even if the battle is won, the war is far from over.

Programming Note: We're going to push the Q&A to tomorrow, in case anyone cares to ask any questions about Wednesday's events, or our sharply-worded coverage thereof.

If you have a question about politics, civics, history, etc. you would like us to answer, click here for submission instructions and previous Q & A's. If you spot any typos or other errors on the site that we should fix, please let us know at

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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