Why Robert Mueller’s Testimony Feels Like Such a Throwback

In historic testimony before Congress, Mueller often looked weary of being the foil for partisan speechifying

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Robert Mueller remains a frustrating character in our national drama. In the historic testimony he gave before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, the former special counsel played the doddering professor to a class of grandstanding law students ready to impale or embrace him on the sharp teeth of their arguments.

He gave them little to work with.

Mueller wouldn’t use the word “impeachment.” He refused to read from his own report. He answered most questions with a terse, sometimes inaudible: “That’s accurate.” Or: “Correct.” Or: “I’m not going to address that.” He wouldn’t validate or invalidate theories about obstruction of justice or Russian conspiracies.

Mostly he would say, “If it’s in the report, I support it.”

Even those things weren’t uttered with the confidence you’d expect, given his reputation. His answers came across as tentative, leaving the impression that he would rather be just about anywhere else.

The way this is supposed to work in the age of mass communication is that Mueller provides one side or the other with a devastating sound bite that can be played and replayed on MSNBC or Fox News.

As the Democrats keep looking for public support for impeachment, a video of their leading man would help.

In later testimony, Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) managed to get an affirmative exchange that came close, with a series of questions and responses about the lies for which Trump aides were convicted, and then asking about the president:

Schiff: “When Donald Trump called your investigation a witch hunt, that was false?”

Mueller: “Like to think so, yes.”

Schiff: “Your investigation is not a witch hunt?”

Mueller: “It is not a witch hunt.”

But for the most part, Mueller wouldn’t play. He confirmed that the report did not “totally exonerate” Trump of criminal obstruction of justice and at one point a Republican congressman, Colorado’s Ken Buck, made the error of asking Mueller whether Trump can be prosecuted on the basis of the special counsel’s report after leaving office.

“You believe that… you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he leaves office?” Buck asked after Mueller said that Justice Department guidelines prevented him from indicting President Trump of any crime while he was in office.

“Yes,” Mueller replied. Whoops.

Each side came with highly scripted polemics that were aimed at creating dramatic moments that would play beyond the room. They were left to do so solo.

The Republicans used their time to pound Mueller — who sometimes looked weary of being the foil for their speechifying — on the number of investigators on his team who had contributed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, or whether he interviewed Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence operative and author of an unverified intelligence report about Trump and Russian influence.

Often they bordered on disrespect. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) literally lectured the special counsel about his silence over Steele, noting in a scolding tone that Mueller was “quite loquacious” about the June 9 meeting between the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower.

Mueller murmured and mumbled and looked kind of weary: “Let me back up a second and say as I said earlier with regard to Steele, it is beyond my purview.”

Gaetz pounced: “It is exactly your purview. … Only one of two things are possible. Either Steele made this whole thing up and there were never Russians telling him about a vast conspiracy you didn’t find, or Russians lied to Steele. That would seem to be precisely your purview… But you weren’t interested in whether or not Russians were interfering through Christopher Steele or whether he was lying.”

As constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley observed on CBS: “It’ was like watching a passionate conversation with an answering machine.”

Mueller remains a throwback to another time, when people stuck strictly to the rules — or were expected to do so.

But we live in an era of the real-life reality show in government. Most of the time, the Trump administration plays out like some combination of “The Apprentice,” “Survivor” and possibly “Jersey Shore” — all invective and hysteria, making so much noise that it becomes hard to think much less focus on what matters. (Except you can’t turn it off.)

His deputies in Congress have adopted that style. Meanwhile, Mueller plays like a character out of “Dragnet” (“Just the facts, ma’am,” was Detective Joe Friday’s famous rejoinder), leaving all dissatisfied with a national story that has too much plot, and not enough resolution.