Critic's Notebook: Mueller Testifies, Satisfying Nobody

Mueller testifying before Congress 3 - H Getty 2019
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Much to the Democrats' dismay, the former special counsel's halting testimony is unlikely to fuel a groundswell for impeachment.

Robert Mueller was true to his word.

Prior to his marathon testimony before Congress, he had warned that he wouldn't go beyond what was contained in his report. And he didn't. Instead, he repeatedly resorted to phrases such as these: "I refer you to the report." "I can't speak to that." "I don't want to speculate." "I'm not going to get into that." "Outside my purview." "I think I'm gonna pass on that." He also repeatedly declined to read aloud excerpts from his own report, apparently not wanting to be made into a visual aid.

There are mafia dons who have been more forthcoming in their congressional testimony.

The hearing went off exactly as was widely expected. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to come away satisfied, leaving the nation in exactly the divided state that it was in before. Yes, Mueller did affirm that his report definitely did not exonerate the president. And that Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice after he leaves office.

He also said, to the glee of Democrats everywhere, that the reason Trump wasn't charged was because of the Office of Legal Counsel's opinion that a sitting president can't be indicted. But he retracted the last statement during the afternoon portion of his testimony, like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown right before the kick.  

If Democrats were hoping that Mueller would pound his fist on the table and thunderously declare, "I've given you all the ammunition you need, dammit! Impeach this president now!," they were sorely disappointed. Indeed, Mueller wouldn't even go near the "I-word" (as Trump so adorably calls it), running for cover whenever the topic was brought up.

Mueller made clear the rules of the game with his opening statement. He pointed out that the report did not address collusion, because it isn't a legal term. Mueller said that he wouldn't answer questions about the origins of the investigation or the Steele Dossier. And he declared that he wouldn't comment about the actions of the attorney general or Congress.

Democrats were clearly hoping that Mueller would make a strong impression with his physical stature and stiffly dignified demeanor. But while he would be ideal casting for the lead role in a reboot of Dragnet, he was off his game for long stretches of his testimony. He seemed hesitant and confused at times, often looking lost while trying to identify which congressperson was hurling questions at him. Mueller expressed seeming ignorance about such subjects as Fusion GPS, which will surely prove fodder for the Republicans. There were times when he seemed unfamiliar with many details of the report, although to be fair, at 448 pages, it's a long, tough read.

Mueller wore a pained expression throughout, clearly wondering why the hell he took the special counsel job in the first place. You certainly couldn't blame him.

You also couldn't blame him for experiencing emotional whiplash. As usual, the five-minute questionings alternated between the Democratic and Republican members of the committees. The former would lavishly praise Mueller's long service to the country and quote excerpts from the report as if it had been delivered by Moses on tablets. The latter would also occasionally praise Mueller's long service to the country, just before savagely impugning his integrity and describing the report as a politically motivated hatchet job. Their main point seemed to be that Mueller shouldn't have said anything bad about Donald Trump. Mueller made little effort to defend himself, occasionally offering only a mild "I'm not certain I agree with your characterization" by way of rebuttal.

There must be a better way to conduct these hearings. What possible reason is there for every committee member to ask questions, except to give them precious moments in the spotlight to impress their constituents? Many of them were less interested in interrogating Mueller than speechifying, barely letting him get a word in edgewise.

And why do so many of the Republicans look like they need rabies shots? Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Devin Nunes of California, among others, were practically frothing at the mouth.

A notable exception was Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, the sole African-American Republican congressman and one of the few voices of reason in the party. Hurd treated Mueller with the respect he deserves, and instead of using his time to attack the investigation, he asked meaningful questions about how best to prevent Russian meddling in the future.

Nunes, on the other hand, seemed to be suffering from the effects of watching too many spy movies. He accused the Democrats of colluding with Russia, and got deep into the weeds while delving into the involvement of the mysterious Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud. Nunes seemed so sure of his conspiracy theory that you expected him to announce that Colonel Mustard had committed the murder with a candlestick in the conservatory.

Mueller is a lifelong Republican, with a distinguished military record, who was head of the FBI for 12 years after being appointed by George W. Bush. But if you believed the Republicans, he's a left-wing wacko who wears flowers in his hair when not on camera and wouldn't know a law book if he were being spanked with one. "You managed to violate every principle!" Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas charged. "You perpetuated injustice!" Gohmert seethed. "When it came to obstruction, you threw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what would stick!" Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado declared.

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida even asked why Mueller didn't consider the idea that the Steele Dossier was the work of "anti-Trump Russians," apparently not realizing that's an oxymoron.

It might have been better for the Democrats if the day had been structured differently. The Intelligence Committee hearing was far more cogent and focused, concentrating on Russian interference in the election and the Trump campaign's complicity. Committee chairman Adam Schiff, as articulate as usual, conducted a final questioning of Mueller that made amply clear the seriousness of the crisis.

Unfortunately, it came seven hours into the hearing, and by then viewers may have been too burned out to fully absorb it.