Mueller’s testimony, and what it means for President Trump, explained

Evidently, former special counsel Robert Mueller wanted to say as little as possible in his congressional testimony Wednesday — and he succeeded.

In contrast to past witnesses like former FBI Director James Comey, who have been loquacious and combative, trying to get facts out and debunk misinterpretations or misrepresentations, Mueller was terse and cautious.

His high-level takeaways were clear enough. The Russian government interfered in the election — which, he said, was “among the most serious” threats to democracy he’d seen in his career. However, his investigation didn’t establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to this end. And on the question of whether President Trump criminally obstructed justice, Mueller chose not to come to a conclusion one way or the other.

On further specifics, though, he generally didn’t engage.

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify during the House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on July 24, 2019.
Robert Mueller arrives to testify during the House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on July 24, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Little new information of import was expected from the hearing, since Mueller had made clear in advance he wanted to limit his testimony to what was in his 448-page report. So Democrats’ main goal was instead to draw more public attention to what they viewed as the report’s damning findings. They went about this by simply reading out passages of the report and asking Mueller whether they were accurate — and getting terse responses from Mueller.

Republicans, meanwhile, stood solidly behind Trump, using their questions to criticize Mueller or try to discredit the investigation. They brought up longtime conservative bugaboos like the Steele dossier and former FBI agent Peter Strzok. Mueller, for the most part, declined to push back on their criticisms.

At the end of the day, our factual understanding remains the same as the day Mueller’s report was released. And after three months of political inaction on Mueller’s findings, it seems unlikely that Wednesday’s events have done anything to shake up that status quo.

Indeed, politically, the testimony seems more likely to be the last hurrah for the Trump-Russia scandal than its revival. Most Democrats continue to oppose impeachment, and even if that changed, acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate is certain. So Trump may well have tried to obstruct justice — and gotten away with it.

The background for Mueller’s testimony

While the Mueller investigation was ongoing, some believed it could lead to the end of Trump’s presidency. Among these believers was President Trump himself — when he got news of Mueller’s appointment, he said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.”

But in the end, the special counsel probe did not establish any Trump-Russia conspiracy. And Mueller did not give an outright judgment that Trump violated the law by obstructing justice — instead, he punted on the matter. If either of those findings had turned out differently, it could have turbocharged an impeachment effort. But that didn’t happen.

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing next to Former Deputy Special Counsel Aaron Zebley (left) on July 24, 2019.
Robert Mueller testifies before the House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing next to former deputy special counsel Aaron Zebley on July 24, 2019.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Since the report’s release, though, Democrats have argued that the conduct outlined in Mueller’s report — particularly involving obstruction of justice — is quite damning. Indeed, Mueller describes a months-long effort by Trump to impede the probe that included the following actions:

  • Trump tried to get then-FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into whether Michael Flynn lied about his Russia contacts (but Comey didn’t do it).
  • Trump then fired Comey.
  • Trump tried several times to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from oversight of the Russia investigation or to rein in the probe (which Sessions didn’t do).
  • Trump directed then-White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller fired (but McGahn didn’t carry this out). Trump later tried to get McGahn to falsely deny this took place.
  • Trump and his legal team urged key figures in the probe (like Paul Manafort) not to “flip,” attacked those who did flip (like Michael Cohen), and sent messages to Flynn when he was about to flip.

Oddly, Mueller’s report also said that if he had “confidence” that Trump “clearly” didn’t obstruct justice, he’d say so — and he wasn’t saying so. Reading between the lines and into Mueller’s legal analysis, it certainly seems that there was at least a plausible case against Trump for obstruction of justice, and that a major reason one wasn’t made is simply because Trump is a sitting president who DOJ says can’t be indicted.

Yet in the three months since the report’s release, the public conversation about it has stalled. Precisely one Republican in Congress — Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan — was sufficiently disturbed by the report to conclude Trump had committed impeachable offenses. (Amash has since left the Republican Party.) The rest of the party is apparently not bothered enough by the findings to abandon their political interests and defy their president.

Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are also opposed to any effort to impeach Trump. They believe that unless there were some public groundswell or some fracturing of Trump’s support among Republicans, it would be a waste of time that could hurt their own vulnerable members.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), leaves a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus as former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on July 24, 2019.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaves a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus as former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on July 24, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Still, Democrats are basically united in the belief that Mueller’s report spotlights very troubling conduct from Trump that deserves more attention. So they hoped that calling Mueller for testimony would bring this attention by creating a big TV spectacle that would damage Trump.

Now, Mueller did not want to testify — he’d hoped his public statement in May would be the last time he discussed the topic. But Democrats eventually subpoenaed him, so he agreed to appear before the House Judiciary and House Intelligence committees.

Democrats read Mueller’s report to him; Republicans tried to discredit the probe

House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) started off with a simple question: “Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed your report found there was no obstruction and completely and totally exonerated him. That is not what your report said, is it?”

“Correct, not what the report said,” Mueller answered.

“What about total exoneration, did you totally exonerate the president?” Nadler continued.

“No,” Mueller said.

It was a clear, obvious debunking of one of Trump’s favorite talking points, aired live, from Mueller’s own lips.

But in general, it was downhill from there for Democrats.

The party faced many challenges in making this hearing a success. For one, Mueller had made it clear he wouldn’t reveal anything new — he’d stick closely to the report’s text and wouldn’t dish on behind-the-scenes decisions. He even refused to read out passages from his report — something that at least could have generated new TV clips of him explaining his findings in his own voice.

So the party’s strategy was to assign various committee Democrats different sections of the report to read back to Mueller and ask him whether they were accurate. In theory, the idea seemed to be to lay out a methodical critique of Trump, revealing the many facts of Mueller’s report to some hypothetical viewer of the hearing who wasn’t particularly familiar with them.

In practice, though, it didn’t make for particularly compelling television. Perhaps there was some viewer somewhere whose mind was blown by the Mueller report passages Democrats were reading out — and by Mueller’s simple “yes” or “that’s accurate” responses to them. But as a messaging strategy, it seems unlikely to change the fundamental dynamics here: Democrats think Trump’s conduct is bad (though maybe not bad enough for impeachment), and Republicans think the whole thing is no big deal.

Customers inside Duffy’s Irish Pub watch the live broadcast of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 24, 2019.
Customers inside Duffy’s Irish Pub watch the live broadcast of Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 24, 2019.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

In one representative moment, some commentators hyperventilated after Mueller appeared to tell Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) that if not for the Justice Department’s opinion that a sitting president can’t be indicted, he would’ve indicted Trump. This would have gone far beyond what he’d said previously. But later, Mueller clarified that he hadn’t intended his response to be understood that way — he only meant to restate what he’d said in the report.

Republicans, meanwhile, hoped to discredit Mueller, or at least create new clips of them talking tough to him that could be played on Fox News. And they succeeded in that latter aim. GOP committee members pressed Mueller on this or that conservative obsession, most of which weren’t mentioned in the report at all. Mueller then either remained silent or gave a terse response like “not my purview.” He did not seem particularly concerned with trying to correct the record.

Only rarely did he offer an opinion. For instance, asked if Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks posting hacked Clinton campaign emails during the campaign was problematic, Mueller answered: “Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some, I don’t know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.” But on almost every other topic, he demurred.

Overall, Mueller didn’t come off as particularly commanding. He frequently asked for questions to be repeated and from time to time seemed unsure of the report’s specifics. Perhaps he was just erring on the side of caution to avoid making a misstatement, but Pete Williams on NBC News opined that “the years have clearly taken a toll on the Bob Mueller we used to see.” And Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn soon wrote that there had for months been “private chatter” that Mueller may not be “up to” testifying.

This may be the end of the Trump-Russia scandal, politically

There are still some loose ends in the scandal that has loomed over Trump’s presidency more than any other. The Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to release a report on what actually went on with the infamous Steele dossier in the coming months. The Senate Intelligence Committee hasn’t wrapped up its own Russian interference investigation yet.

There’s also Roger Stone, who is scheduled to face trial in November on charges of obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering. Much material in Mueller’s report about Stone was redacted to avoid prejudicing this trial’s outcome. So there’s actually still quite a lot of mystery about what exactly happened with Stone’s apparent advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ dumps of hacked emails in 2016.

But the big picture is that the investigation is over and that, as damning as some may think the findings are for Trump, it appears he has survived it.

President Trump speaks to the media about the Mueller report before departing from the White House on July 24, 2019.
President Trump speaks to the media about the Mueller report before departing from the White House on July 24, 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Beyond the simple question of what Mueller would find, a major question that always loomed over the investigation was whether those findings would be bad enough to spur many Republicans to abandon their political interests and turn against Trump.

Perhaps that was always a Democratic pipe dream. But if there was any doubt, it’s now clear that this isn’t happening. Republicans aren’t going to remove Trump from office for firing James Comey, trying to fire Robert Mueller, trying to get Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself, threatening Michael Cohen, or any of the other allegations. If Mueller had concluded that Trump committed a crime, Republicans would have been in a somewhat more awkward spot on this — but he refused to do so, and so the GOP has a rationale to do nothing.

Now, what happens regarding impeachment in the near term is up to Democrats — support for at least an “impeachment inquiry” has grown to a little over a third of the House Democratic Caucus, and if the party eventually does decide they want to move ahead with impeachment, they have the power to do so.

But Democratic leaders continue to think this would be a bad move. And even if Trump is impeached, he’s not going anywhere — two-thirds of the Senate is necessary to remove a president from office. That would require at least 20 Republican senators, which just isn’t happening.

Trump’s approval, meanwhile, has been stable — not good, but stable — as the 2020 election gets closer. He has not hemorrhaged support since Mueller’s report came out this April. And the main reason not to expect Mueller’s testimony to change Trump’s approval is that, well, practically nothing seems to change Trump’s approval much.

Now, with the investigation over and Mueller having said his piece, the media and the political world will likely move on to new topics. The dream some had that Mueller would end the Trump presidency appears to be dead.

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after testifying to the House Intelligence Committee on July 24, 2019.
Robert Mueller departs after testifying to the House Intelligence Committee on July 24, 2019.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images