Virtually since Donald Trump’s election, the American people have been bombarded by a barrage of incessant news coverage on the Mueller investigation. We were treated with breathless updates on Russian “collusion” from TV, newspaper, radio and internet news sources. Then the Mueller report came out, and instead of putting the topic to bed, the 400 plus page report declined to offer a definitive answer on whether Trump had committed a crime.
So, even though former special counsel Bob Mueller made it clear he didn’t want to testify before Congress and and that he “would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler hauled him in for what seemed like it would be a dress rehearsal for impeachment proceedings.
Instead, Mueller gave a performance so feeble and forgetful that many in the media described his testimony as “frail,” “painful,” and a “disaster.”
Within minutes of testimony, it became immediately clear why Mueller had previously said his report should speak for itself: he needed constant references complete with page and volume numbers, even when the material was within the first six pages of his report. He often seemed confused or evasive, and had memory lapses that did not appear credible, given that his team had spent two years on this investigation and the report was released only four months ago. Mueller was remarkably uninformed about what was within the report’s pages, and gave the distinct impression that he hadn’t written the report — or possibly even read it.
At times he seemed to contradict himself on crucial points. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) asked Mueller whether “collusion” and “conspiracy” were synonymous.
“No,” said Mueller.
That answer appears to directly contradict page 180 of the report which states, “As defined in legal dictionaries, collusion is largely synonymous with conspiracy as that crime is set forth in the general federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. 371,” Collins pointed out.
“Are you sitting here today testifying something different than what your report states?”
Mueller stuttered and appeared confused, flipped to the relevant page of the report, and said that he would defer to the report.
Throughout the hearing, Democratic members would read the definition of corruption or obstruction and then try to get Mueller to explain how various actions did not qualify or why the report did not reach a finding. Each time, Mueller declined to comment.
To say that watching his testimony was painful is an understatement.
In an exchange with Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) that exemplifies the entire hearing, the Pennsylvania Republican asked, “You made a decision not to prosecute, right?”
“No, we made a decision not to decide whether to prosecute or not.”
In the afternoon intelligence committee hearing, Rep. John Ratcliffe asked Mueller to clear up confusion regarding his morning testimony, where he appeared to contradict the report on the question of whether he had whiffed on an indictment because the Office of Legal Counsel said it was not possible to indict a sitting president.
“What I wanted to say [in the morning]… is that we did not make any determination with regard to culpability, in any way. We did not start that process, down the road,” said Mueller.
But in his morning testimony before the House Judiciary committee, he said: “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”
See if you can make sense of this exchange:
Democratic Rep. Andre Carson: “Would you agree that these acts demonstrated a betrayal of the democratic values our country rests on?”
Mueller: “I can’t agree with that. Not that it’s not true, but I cannot agree with it.”
This was typical of Mueller’s bizarre testimony throughout the day.
Democrats used the hearing to read huge portions of the report, as well as Donald Trump’s tweets and campaign utterances, as if somehow they were covering new ground. In one such exchange, a member asked: “Trump and his campaign welcomed and encouraged Russian interference?”
Question: “And then Trump and his campaign lied about it to cover it up?”
Anyone who has followed news coverage of the Mueller report knows that line of questioning is not breaking new ground, as the report was clear that members of Trump’s team had been encouraged to lie to investigators, and this had been widely reported throughout the media and in several books.
Even so, Democrats persisted in reading publicly available Trump statements aloud. During his portion of time, Rep. Mike Quigley chose to read Trump’s campaign trail statements about Wikileaks.
“I love Wikileaks.”
“This Wikileaks is like a treasure trove.”
“Boy, I love reading those Wikileaks.”
He then asked Mueller to react to Trump’s statements.
“Problematic is an understatement, in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said.
Did we really need Mueller’s opinion on Trump’s statements uttered on the stump, all of which were made before he was elected president? How is this type of commentary valuable?
On many important questions, Mueller stated that he could not comment because those matters were under investigation by other departments, or they were not “in my purview.” That was his response to questions about the Steele report and the FISA warrant used to spy on the Trump campaign, which are under investigation by the Department of Justice. But he also responded this way to questions on the Russia investigation. How can the special prosecutor charged with investigating whether Russia interfered with our elections decline comment on the topic?
Congressional hearings aren’t like a court room. There’s no judge that can order an uncooperative witness to answer. That’s one of the many reasons that highly politicized Congressional hearings often quickly descend into kangaroo-court style bludgeoning of the witness.
Yet today, because the confused witness appeared flummoxed by rapid-fire questions and by the contents of his own report, his evasions and memory lapses instead undermined the credibility of the report itself, and had people questioning whether Mueller had really led the investigation or not.
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.