It’s over. After months of anticipation, Robert Mueller has finally testified on Capitol Hill.
Over five-plus hours of testimony, Mueller regularly deflected and refused to answer lawmakers’ questions about anything that wasn’t already in the 448-page report Mueller’s team submitted when it closed up shop earlier this year.
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Still, to five of the POLITICO reporters who have been tracking the Russia probe for years, there were a number of observations and moments that stuck out. We asked them for their thoughts.
What surprised you?
Natasha Bertrand: I was surprised by the change in Mueller’s tenor between the first and second hearings. He seemed much more confident and forceful during the House Intelligence Committee hearing than during the House Judiciary Committee hearing. The difference might reflect the fact that investigating Russia’s election interference and the Kremlin’s potential ties to the Trump campaign was Mueller’s original mandate.
Kyle Cheney: Mueller allowed cutting criticisms of his report to stand unchallenged, including some lengthy monologues from Republican lawmakers who mocked his understanding of criminal law. It was at times a painful contrast, as Mueller watched blankly while his credibility was called into question.
Andrew Desiderio: I’m, frankly, surprised that Mueller slipped up in his answer to Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) about whether he would have indicted Trump if there wasn’t a DOJ policy prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president. Democrats were elated at Mueller’s initial response, and for a moment there, I thought that answer alone could be a defining moment in the impeachment debate. But Mueller had to walk back his answer later that day, a striking moment for a question that he must have known would come.
Josh Gerstein: While Mueller was very mild-mannered throughout — critics might say almost somnolent — he got notably animated when explaining why he explicitly noted he wasn’t exonerating Trump. The answer seemed to be that Mueller feared Attorney General Bill Barr might seek to argue that a decision not to charge was a kind of vindication for the president.
“We included in the report for exactly that reason. [Barr] may not know it. He should know it,” Mueller said.
Darren Samuelsohn: I’d been hearing the chatter for months that Democrats were warned Mueller didn’t want to participate in the hearing, and maybe it was because he wasn’t “up to” doing it.
There wasn’t much more detail than that, but it did fuel lots of speculation he didn’t have the stamina for two major hearings like this. While Trump supporters and even some of his lawyers were making these points as the hearings got started, it surprised me how quick others spoke up expressing concerns about Mueller’s demeanor.
Did we learn anything new that wasn’t in the report?
Bertrand: Mueller appears to have shot down one potential avenue of Trump-Russia conspiracy — the repeated pinging in late 2016 between the Trump Organization servers and servers belonging to Russia’s Alfa Bank.
“My belief at this point is it’s not true” that the servers were secretly communicating, Mueller said. He also indicated that the issue was investigated.
The response is notable because Alfa Bank and the pinging servers was not addressed in the report, making it a rare divergence from the report for Mueller.
Cheney: Very, very little. Mueller refused to answer dozens — if not hundreds — of questions. At times, he even refused to answer things that were laid out in the report. He did, however, defend his investigation as “not a witch hunt” and directly criticized President Donald Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks, saying that calling it “problematic” would be “an understatement.”
Desiderio: Mueller held closely to the Justice Department’s directive about the scope of his testimony — and for that reason, he declined to answer many of the burning questions both sides posed to him. However, Mueller refuted many of Trump’s attacks on his probe and his findings, potentially giving Democrats fresh ammunition.
Gerstein: A few small things. For instance, Mueller said he didn’t take part in approving any surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, a subject that Republicans have long hammered. But Mueller was extraordinarily cautious, declining to confirm or restate things actually in his report. And at times it seemed like we were actually losing details, when he either misunderstood questions or misstated the report, like when Mueller said he never investigated whether the Trump campaign sought to steal Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Samuelsohn: Mueller did finally put words to his report in a substantive way, with the give and take that you just don’t get by reading the document. That’s something. But as for substance, I didn’t learn anything new.
What did Mueller not talk about that you were hoping to hear?
Bertrand: I still want to know why he did not subpoena the president, whether Donald Trump Jr. cited his Fifth Amendment right to not self-incriminate as a way to prevent Mueller from forcing him to testify and why Mueller ended the investigation when he did. I also wish Mueller had gone into more detail about campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s handing over internal campaign polling data to a suspected Russian spy. What did Mueller think the purpose of that was?
Cheney: I was hoping Mueller would expound a bit on his interactions with Attorney General Bill Barr and whether he believed Barr accurately portrayed the findings of his report when he first summarized them in March. Democrats have said Barr’s portrayal was essentially a disinformation effort that cast Trump’s actions in a benign light while Mueller’s report remained secret for a full month. But Mueller’s refusal to engage on this left those questions mostly unanswered.
Desiderio: I would’ve liked to hear Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s top deputy, interject when Mueller responded to a question by saying he was unsure or could not recall. Zebley was sworn in as a witness for the Intelligence Committee hearing, but his involvement was minimal. He was more involved in the day-to-day aspects of the investigation and likely could have answered some questions that Mueller couldn’t.
Gerstein: I was surprised that Mueller didn’t offer a more forceful defense of his staff. He did deny his probe was a witch hunt, and launched into something a couple times about the professionalism of his staff, but never really sold it. I expected a bit of reserved outrage at the repeated attacks on his office and also on the FBI. Perhaps he didn’t want to seem too protective of his former colleagues there in case the looming inspector general report slams folks at the FBI.
Samuelsohn: I’ve been as interested as others in why Mueller ended his investigation when he did — when Trump adviser Roger Stone’s trial was still months off and when cooperation from the likes of Trump deputy campaign chair Rick Gates had not ended. Mueller didn’t go there on Wednesday, leaving us to continue to wonder why things wrapped up in late March.
What did the hearing accomplish? Will this change anything?
Bertrand: I think people’s predetermined views on this will just be further hardened. Right-wing media is doubling down on Trump being innocent and the Russia probe being a hoax, while Democrats are highlighting the few things Mueller did reiterate about the campaign’s contacts with Russia and WikiLeaks, as well as the president’s alleged obstruction of justice.
Cheney: It’s dangerous to assume how the hearing might play out politically and in terms of public perception — including on impeachment. Though the hearing was widely seen as a bust for Democrats, due to Mueller’s halting performance, it could be days or weeks before it becomes clear which moments resonate outside Washington.
Desiderio: Out of the gate, I don’t think the dynamics on Capitol Hill will change much at all. The hearing gave Democrats an opportunity to highlight the most damaging parts of the report, while Republican were able to use their time to challenge Mueller’s legal theories and prosecutorial decisions. I don’t think anyone’s mind was changed — at least in the short-term.
Gerstein: In the short term, Democrats are going to take a hit from various commentators and pundits for once again swooning for Mueller rather than carefully thinking through how a hearing was likely to play out. I think they got fewer usable soundbites to feature in TV ads than they hoped, if that was the goal. I don’t think it will muster much sympathy for Trump either, in part because Mueller did not seem like a crazed zealot.
Samuelsohn: Not much. I think it sends the political parties deeper into their respective corners. Democrats got some soundbites, though I don’t think they were especially made-for-TV moments. Trump is only going to rant harder about the Mueller team, which he has been painting for two years as partisan hacks pulling the strings behind the scenes.
Are we any closer to impeachment?
Bertrand: These hearings would’ve had to convince House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that impeachment is necessary — she’s currently against it — and it remains to be seen whether Mueller’s testimony was strong enough to change her mind.
Cheney: Though Mueller didn’t do the effort any favors, Democrats pushing impeachment are unlikely to be deterred, while those wanting to oppose it can feel more comfortable with their decision. Pro-impeachment Democrats said halfway through the day that they still viewed an impeachment inquiry as a likely course and predicted that more than half of House Democrats would be on board in the not-too-distant future.
Desiderio: It’s almost certain that the pro-impeachment number will rise before the end of the week. But the only indicator Pelosi cares about is public sentiment. If public opinion doesn’t shift closer to impeachment, Pelosi will remain entrenched.
Gerstein: Attention to Mueller and his report tends to encourage more Democrats to move in that direction. And we have August recess coming up, during which many Democratic lawmakers will see their most partisan constituents at town hall events demanding a move to impeachment. But I think the effect on public opinion will be negligible.
Samuelsohn: I think we get more Democratic impeachment supporters coming forward. And I’d not be surprised, too, if House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler announces the launch of proceedings at some point soon to open up new lines of inquiry and embolden his court fights ahead. But I don’t think any Republicans will flip on impeachment because of what happened Wednesday, and so the process itself is far off from getting the kind of bipartisan traction it would need to become a reality.