Robert Mueller’s appearance before two Congressional committees today was something close to a disaster for the Democrats. The former special counsel was halting, hesitant, at times unsure of himself or even confused. He looked weak and his testimony was weak. It often seemed as if there was some truth to the story broken by Cockburn in The Spectator USA that Mueller might be suffering from the early stages of dementia. I was watching CNN, where there was a slowly dawning horror about what seemed to be happening. Their anchor, Jake Tapper, said: ‘There were times in the hearing when he was sharp as a tack but there were times – we can’t avoid it – when he was not.’ Sharp as a tack, like the word ‘spry’, is something you say about the elderly and the infirm.
The hearings – in the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees – quickly settled into a rhythm. The gentleman from California or the gentlelady from New York would make a speech posing as a question and Mueller would give a monosyllabic yes, or no, or he’d say ‘That’s beyond my purview’, or – most often – he’d simply refer the committee back to his report. He clung to that answer like a drowning man holding on to a life preserver. CNN’s legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, said: ‘Are these very phlegmatic answers a strategy or some inability to engage with the questions…is he just incapable of answering the questions?’ That was when things were going well. At one point, Mueller said he was ‘not familiar’ with Fusion GPS, the company that commissioned and paid for the Steele dossier. He also struggled to remember Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, who – according to Mueller’s report – was asked by the president to deliver a message to the attorney general about closing down the special counsel’s office.
The Republicans mounted a series of attacks to which he had, literally, no answer. Above all – even at the cost of ignoring insults to his integrity and that of his team – he desperately avoided trying to say anything new or interesting. He would not read from passages of his report. He would not so much as utter the word ‘impeachment’. If the Democrats had expected a dramatic statement that would put President Trump on the defensive, they were to be disappointed. There was no viral soundbite; barely one for the evening news. In fairness, that may have been the plan. Before today’s testimony, the former FBI director sacked by Trump, James Comey, told MSNBC: ‘Bob Mueller is a person of his word and he said he wasn’t going to go beyond his report.’ President Trump’s Twitter feed, nervous at breakfast, was gleeful by lunchtime. He thanked the Democrats for holding the hearings.
I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing. Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff – an Embarrassment to our Country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
He tweeted triumphantly: ‘TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!’
TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
(This may have been a witty reference to Comey’s tweet after the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was convicted of perjury, quoting a Bible verse about justice rolling down ‘like waters’.)
The Democrats did have some good moments. Trump likes to say that he has been ‘completely exonerated’ by the Mueller report. So the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, asked Mueller: ‘Did you actually totally exonerate the president?’ Mueller replied: ‘No.’ Later, he said: ‘The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed.’ The former special counsel also said he thought that Trump could be prosecuted after he leaves office – something of admittedly theoretical importance since we have been told there are no sealed indictments of the president. The most significant exchange seemed to be with Rep. Ted Lieu in the judiciary committee hearing. He asked Mueller: ‘The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?’ Mueller replied: ‘That is correct.’ Gotcha!
In that exchange, Mueller seemed to be agreeing that he would have indicted Trump on an obstruction of justice charge were it not for DoJ policy set by the Office of Legal Counsel, the OLC. There was certainly no ambiguity in Lieu’s question and Lieu told reporters later: ‘What we established today in the hearing is that we have a felon sitting in the White House.’ Later, however, Mueller used the Intelligence Committee hearing to correct his earlier testimony. He had not stopped himself from charging the president because of the OLC opinion, he said: ‘We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.’ That was a kind of condemnation of the president – but enough to launch an impeachment? Hardly. If the Democrats were waiting for public opinion to move, it has not done so as a result of today’s hearings. Trump is the big winner from Mueller’s testimony.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.