Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller testifies before Congress on July 24, 2019, in Washington, DC.
SAUL LOEB | AFP | Getty Images
Former special counsel Robert Mueller made his first, and quite possibly his last, public appearance before Congress on Wednesday to answer questions about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller had already submitted his report, relinquished the role of special counsel and returned to private life. But after months of negotiations with Democrats, he returned to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees about Russia’s efforts to affect the election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.
Mueller, 74, testified for more than five hours. Here are the biggest takeaways from the hearings:
Mueller’s no storyteller
Mueller is a veteran not only of the U.S. Marine Corps but also of appearing before Congress, having done it nearly 90 times before. Yet his uncharismatic, sometimes halting stage presence Wednesday, especially in his first hearing, before the Judiciary Committee, left even some of his supporters wanting.
“This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then,” President Barack Obama’s former campaign strategist and CNN contributor David Axelrod said.
“Bob Mueller is struggling,” said Glenn Kirschner, an MSNBC legal analyst, and “It strikes me as a health issue.”
Even if Mueller confined himself to only speak about the report, Democrats hoped he would be able to translate its findings for a broader swath of Americans who have not read it.
But Mueller refused to even read passages from the document. And he appeared not to be fluent in the details of his own report, frequently checking his paper copy of the 448-page tome before answering basic questions and rarely offering color or detail in his responses.
Trump was not exonerated
Whether intentional or not, some of the questions that Mueller did answer served as direct rebukes to Trump’s oft-repeated claims about the outcome of the Russia probe.
The special counsel did not find enough evidence to show Trump-Russia coordination and made no determination on obstruction. Trump has asserted that the report was a “hoax” and a “witch hunt” that nevertheless served as a “complete and total exoneration” of any wrongdoing.
Mueller shot down Trump’s rhetoric, saying the investigation was “not a hoax” and “not a witch hunt.”
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” Mueller said in his opening statement.
Asked by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.J., if Trump was “totally exonerated,” Mueller responded: “That is not what the report said.”
In the back-and-forth with Nadler, Mueller elaborated slightly, saying that his team’s findings indicate “that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”
Avoiding ‘gotcha’ moments
When Mueller came out of hiding in May to make his first public remarks since he was appointed to lead the government’s Russia probe two years earlier, he said bluntly that “any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report … the report is my testimony.”
For the most part, he delivered exactly what he promised.
Mueller warned in his opening statement Wednesday that he wouldn’t discuss any ongoing criminal proceedings and that he would abide by the Justice Department’s restrictions on his testimony, despite some Democrats’ objections.
Democrats had hoped to hear Mueller respond to a slew of questions surrounding Trump, including his potential crimes related to the report and ongoing investigations related to him or his associates. Republicans sought to probe Mueller on questions of possible political bias on his team and his decision-making as special counsel.
But again and again, Mueller declined to speak beyond the “purview” of the report.
Over the course of the two hearings, Mueller declined to respond or deflected in answers 198 times, NBC News reported.
Trump could be indicted after leaving office
On Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks in 2016, ‘problematic is an understatement’
Late in the second hearing, before the Intelligence Committee, Mueller was asked by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., to respond to Trump’s glowing praise for WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In the final months of the 2016 race, the document-leaking advocacy group began publishing tranches of private emails from the Democratic National Committee. The government alleges those emails were stolen by Russian intelligence agencies and passed along to WikiLeaks.
Trump repeatedly celebrated WikiLeaks for publishing private information from the opposition party, calling the document dumps a “treasure trove” and even declaring “I love WikiLeaks!”
Mueller, asked about those comments, said “problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope, or some boost, to what is and should be illegal activity. “
Quigley also asked Mueller about Donald Trump Jr.’s direct communications with WikiLeaks on Twitter. Mueller called that behavior “disturbing and also subject to investigation.”