Former special counsel Robert Mueller became animated in his otherwise taciturn testimony before Congress on Wednesday, in order to defend the integrity of his team and directly challenge Republican allegations of political bias in his investigation.
Telling the House Judiciary Committee he made hiring decisions based on “the capability of the individual to do the job” and do it “seriously and with integrity,” Mueller actually interjected and elaborated in response to a question — one of the few times he did so.
It also stood as a rare instance of Mueller pushback against the “witch hunt” narrative, as Republicans have accused members of the special counsel’s team of harboring anti-Trump (and pro-Hillary Clinton) views or of being, in Trump’s parlance, “a band of angry Democrats.”
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) began by trying to highlight potential conflicts of interest among Mueller’s prosecutors, including those who donated to Democrats.
“Can I speak for a second to the hiring practices?” Mueller responded. “We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job. I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”
Armstrong didn’t exactly accept this answer, telling Mueller “this isn’t just about you being able to vouch for your team,” and saying he should have known people would have been skeptical and that he should have better avoided the appearance of conflict of interest.
MUELLER on his hiring practices: "We strove to hire individuals who could do the job. I've been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years I've not had occasion once to ask about somebody's political beliefs. That's not how it's done." pic.twitter.com/O7my2qWQSk— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 24, 2019
Mueller, in response, told Armstrong that his team brought on 19 lawyers, but of those, “14 were transferred from elsewhere in the Department of Justice.”
“Only five,” he added, “came from the outside.”
Mueller has previously defended the integrity of those on his team — in his May 29 public statement, and in the opening statement at the start of his testimony before the House Judiciary. He was trying to make the point that many of these lawyers came from within the Justice Department, where politics don’t matter — just the ability to do the job, and do it capably.
Yet this defense is unlikely to satisfy Republicans who have long pushed the narrative, embraced by President Trump, that federal officials skeptical of the president were trying to undermine his administration and used a bogus investigation to do so. Not least because Mueller and the GOP have different ideas of how the special counsel’s team should have been staffed.
Mueller and his Republican critics are operating under different assumptions
Mueller’s defense of his team essentially amounted to a traditional stance that public servants and career civil servants rise above politics — and political affiliation has no bearing on the positions they hold.
Federal employees, including prosecutors, of course have political opinions — there are Democrats, Republicans, and people across the political spectrum — but as long as it doesn’t happen in an official capacity, and they do their job appropriately, it’s not considered relevant to the job at hand. This is why Mueller didn’t ask, and why he said it wasn’t done.
Mueller did, of course, remove Peter Strzok, the former FBI agent who sent anti-Trump texts, from the probe, and the special counsel testified that he did so because of “instances involving texts.” But he refused to go into greater detail about his decision-making.
And while he offered a full-throated defense of his team, he didn’t, or couldn’t, knock down Republican talking points one by one.
Democrats tried to undercut the Republican attempts to cast the probe as a “witch hunt” by trying to go through Mueller’s résumé to remind everyone that he was appointed by plenty of Republican presidents, including as the FBI director by George W. Bush — and was confirmed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ), who led that line of questioning, also asked Mueller if he had “ever made a hiring decision based upon a person’s political affiliation?”
“No,” Mueller replied, continuing: “If I might just interject, the capabilities we’ve shown in the report that’s been discussed here today is a result of a team of agents and lawyers who are absolutely exemplary and were hired because of the value they could contribute to getting the job done and getting it done expeditiously.”
Mueller stayed silent through the 22-month investigation, the only substantial insights into his investigation coming from the indictments themselves. He has tried to stay outside the political fray and did not want to testify before Congress, instead wanting the report to speak for itself. He strayed when it came to defending his prosecutorial team and their work on Wednesday.
He did so again in the second congressional hearing of the day. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, asked whether Mueller’s investigation was a witch hunt.
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller replied.