Still image of Robert Mueller's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee
Robert Mueller appears before the House Judiciary Committee (July 24, 2019; screen grab from C-Span video)

Robert Mueller arrived on Capitol Hill Wednesday in the uniform that has been a trademark throughout his career – dark suit, white shirt, blue tie. Mr. Mueller’s testimony was as unremarkable as his wardrobe. This was deliberate. Mr. Mueller insisted on sticking to the conclusions of his report and scrupulously avoided fanning partisan flames.

In Mr. Mueller’s appearances before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, the partisan battle lines were predictable. Democrats looked to Mr. Mueller as a savior; for Republicans he was a villain, or at least a tool of villains.

Neither side left satisfied. It appeared that’s exactly what Mr. Mueller intended. In this, he was a success.

Democrats hoped Mr. Muller’s testimony would validate their argument that he would have indicted President Trump on obstruction of justice charges had Department of Justice policy permitted him to do so. Republicans hoped his testimony would further their efforts to portray the FBI’s investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election meddling as unwarranted, and born nefarious political motivations. Neither side left satisfied. It appeared that’s exactly what Mr. Mueller intended. In this, he was a success.

A Reluctant Witness

In often halting tones, Mr. Mueller delivered several hours of nothing particularly new. A straight-arrow g-man with little interest in the melee of politics, Mr. Muller was a polite but reluctant witness. His responses rarely extended for more than a sentence, often he offered just a word or two: “yes,” “no,” “that’s correct.” He spent more time asking preening lawmakers to repeat their questions than actually answering them.

Democrats pressed their theories of how Mr. Trump criminally obstructed justice. Mr. Mueller shrugged. A Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel opinion, which concluded that a sitting President could not be indicted, he said, precluded him from considering the question.

Republicans pressed Mr. Mueller on what role the so-called Steele dossier, an opposition research document funded by Democrats, played in the opening of the FBI’s probe. Mr. Mueller simply said that it was before his time. “[T]hat part of the building of the case predated me by at least 10 months,” Mr. Mueller said in response to a question from Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.

The Bombshell That Wasn’t

Democrats hoping for a bombshell had their hopes buoyed, only to be deflated again. When Rep. Ted Lieu laid out a theory for Mr. Trump’s criminal liability in obstructing justice, and asked Mr. Mueller if he would have indicted Mr. Trump had Dept. of Justice policy prevented him from doing so, he answered “that’s correct.”

But, an hour later, in his opening comments to the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Mueller clarified that Department policy prevented him from considering whether to indict the President, not that he would have done so in its absence.

“I want to add one correction to my testimony this morning,” Mr. Mueller said referring to his earlier appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. “[Rep. Lieu] said, and I quote, ‘you didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.’ That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report and as I said in the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”

Mueller’s Testimony: The Bottom Line

Mr. Mueller’s Testimony revealed little we didn’t know about Mr. Trump and Russia. He was determined to stay within the bounds of the report. He grew considerably more animated when he spoke of the threat to American Democracy presented by Russia’s interference in the political process. Every American should be concerned about this.

“Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mr. Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious…this deserves the attention of every American.”

Robert Mueller might be the only man in Washington so thoroughly disinterested in the public spotlight.

But, mostly Mr. Mueller seemed weary — and more enfeebled than we might have expected. Robert Mueller might be the only man in Washington so thoroughly disinterested in the public spotlight. He did his job. He did it well. Now, it seems, he’d prefer we all left him in peace.

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