During his public appearance in May announcing the end of his special counsel inquiry, Robert Mueller said he didn’t want or need to testify before Congress on the results of his investigation.
On Wednesday, it was clear why he felt that way.
The Justice Department publicly issued guidelines on Tuesday that set boundaries on Mr Mueller’s testimony, instructing him to stay within the confinces of the written report.
Mr Mueller said he would abide by this – echoing similar comments he made two months ago.
This virtually ensured that the former special counsel’s testimony would not cover much new ground. Instead, Democrats had to pick and choose what episodes and findings they wanted to highlight, in the hopes that Mr Mueller would offer affirmation or further corroboration. He frequently did, but usually in the least dramatic fashion imaginable.
His answer to a question about the president asking White House staff to falsify documents relevant to the investigation, for instance, was simply: “I would say that’s generally a summary”.
‘I’ll refer you to the report’
The Justice Department ground rules all but guaranteed that Mr Mueller’s testimony would be awkward and halting, as he repeatedly paused to refer to specific pages of the report.
Mr Mueller’s responses were peppered with lines like: “I can’t answer that question”; “I can’t get into that”; “I don’t recall”; “that’s out of my purview”; and “I’ll refer you to the report”. That he frequently made them while leaning away from his microphone to look at his papers made things only more awkward to watch.
In addition, Mueller at times seemed all of his 74 years of age – a step behind the congressional questioners, who had clearly rehearsed for their five minutes apiece in the spotlight. As both Republicans and Democrats furiously tried to shape the public’s view of the report, Mueller frequently had the look of a man in the middle of a busy intersection, trying not to get hit by cars.
This hearing was always going to feature a fair amount of grandstanding by the politicians in the room – such behaviour is hardwired into their DNA. Partisan grandstanding tends to only confirm the existing views of those who watch, however.
If undecided Americans were hoping for definitive statements from Mr Mueller – or even relatively clear or coherent soundbites from the former special counsel – they were few and far between.
Far from a ‘total exoneration’
A key moment for Democrats came early in Mr Mueller’s testimony, when Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler directly asked him if his report was a “total exoneration” of the president, as Mr Trump has insisted.
“No,” was Mr Mueller’s short and direct answer.
Mr Mueller confirmed that he believed Justice Department rules prevented the special counsel from indicting a sitting president for any criminal acts. What’s more, Mr Mueller also confirmed that he had repeatedly tried to interview Mr Trump about the instances of possible obstruction – that it was vital to the investigation and in the public interest – but Mr Trump had refused.
Democrats have fought hard against the early characterisation of the Mueller report by Attorney General William Barr that there was insufficient evidence to find Mr Trump had obstructed justice. Mr Mueller confirmed that he believed he could make no such determination one way or another – although his report had stated that if Mr Trump had been exonerated, it would have said so.
This wasn’t new information, of course, but it was helpful for Democrats to get Mr Mueller to say it in person once again, on wall-to-wall national television coverage.
A president ‘below the law’
If Democrats found it outrageous that the special counsel investigation couldn’t exonerate Mr Trump of criminal obstruction of justice, Republicans were outraged as well – but for an entirely different reason.
In one of the more dramatic portions of Mr Mueller’s testimony, Republican John Ratcliffe of Texas pressed Mr Mueller to explain why his report pointedly said it would have cleared Mr Trump of obstruction if it had definitely concluded that was the case.
“Which [Department of Justice] policy or principal sets forth a legal standard that an investigated person is not exonerated if their innocence from criminal conduct is not conclusively determined?” Mr Ratfliffe asked.
Mr Mueller began to answer that the investigation of the president was a “unique situation”, but the Texas congressman was having none of it – “respectfully”, he repeatedly added.
“It was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence,” he said.
The president isn’t above the law, he continued, “but he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law”.
Mr Mueller’s lack of a conclusion on presidential obstruction is one of the biggest open questions coming out of the special counsel’s inquiry. The double-negative assertion that Mr Trump didn’t definitely not commit an illegal act has been held up by Democrats as a big flashing sign pointing to what Mr Mueller secretly believes but felt he couldn’t say – that the president should have been charged with a crime.
Mr Ratcliffe, and Republicans throughout the morning, made very clear they thought that was patently unfair.