Robert Mueller had warned his testimony before Congress would not go beyond what he already said in his 448-page written report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Over nearly seven hours on Wednesday, he largely stayed true to that promise, and gave both Democrats and Republicans reason to feel frustrated: he said too little for critics of Donald Trump, but too much for the president’s supporters.
The former special counsel made clear he had not exonerated Mr Trump of acting to obstruct the Russian probe. He disagreed with the president’s characterisation of his investigation as a “witch hunt” and he warned that Russian meddling threatened the 2020 US election.
But the 74-year-old’s delivery was disappointing to House Democrats who had been keen to use his televised testimony to focus public attention on Mr Trump’s conduct and ensure that the idea of a lawbreaking president was embedded firmly in the electorate’s consciousness in the run-up to 2020.
The political theatre that emerged largely involved Democratic lawmakers reading or referencing portions of his report, and asking the notoriously taciturn Mr Mueller to confirm. Instead of sound bites, the former FBI director delivered variations of “true” and “yes” for much of his appearance.
At times, Mr Mueller’s testimony was halting and difficult to hear, even inside the hearing room. On several occasions, he was asked to ensure he spoke into the microphone. At one point, he forgot the name of the president who appointed him US attorney in Massachusetts — it was Ronald Reagan, not George H W Bush.
David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Barack Obama, said on Twitter: “This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.” Later, Mr Axelrod tweeted: “This is very, very painful.”
The former special counsel had been reluctant to testify and spoke only after receiving a congressional subpoena. He sought to stick closely to his report, an approach that still yet drew the ire of Republicans.
Mr Mueller, who operated under a justice department policy that shields sitting presidents from indictment, reiterated that he had not exonerated Mr Trump on obstruction. “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” he said.
Republicans attacked him for the narrow — and improper in their view — line he walked. As prosecutor, it was not his job to “exonerate” the president, they argued.
Mr Trump, who had long insisted Mr Mueller had in fact exonerated him, later seized on the Republican argument in a dizzying about-face. Mr Mueller “didn’t have a right to exonerate”, the president told reporters on Wednesday evening.
As the hearings drew to a close, Mr Mueller stepped an inch or two beyond his written conclusions on the issue of Russia, WikiLeaks and Mr Trump’s response to their role in the 2016 election.
When shown the praise the president had heaped on WikiLeaks in 2016 as it released emails the Russians had stolen from the Democratic party, Mr Mueller could not hide his disapproval. “Problematic is an understatement,” he said.
The direct rebuke of the president did little to shift the hard facts both Democrats and Republicans have grappled with since the close of Mr Mueller’s investigation earlier this year.
For Republicans, the former special counsel’s report remains a stubborn account of how Mr Trump’s campaign sought to capitalise on Russian aid in the 2016 election and of allegations that he then sought to stymie investigations into those events as president.
For Democrats, the report is a lengthy legal document few Americans have read. Its author, Mr Mueller, showed lawmakers on Wednesday he was not bluffing when he indicated he had little interest in giving life to it on television.
Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chairman of the House oversight committee, summed up the predicament at a press conference on Wednesday evening.
“I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on,” he said.
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