Instead, it was mostly Mueller providing a lot of repetitive, one-word answers, Democrats trying to methodically lay out a case for impeachment, Republicans trying to deliver viral moments with a lot of yelling, and a whole lot of talk about how big of a threat Russia really was — and still is.
Mueller appeared before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday to discuss his two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.
And though he made clear in that statement that he would not go beyond the bounds of what was already in the report if called in to testify before Congress, House Democrats still brought him in for questioning.
In his opening statement on Wednesday morning, Mueller warned that his testimony would be “necessarily limited,” and he wasn’t lying — a lot of the back-and-forth was simply him telling lawmakers his answers were in the report, responding yes or no to their questions accordingly, or saying they were asking about things he couldn’t, under Justice Department restrictions, discuss.
That doesn’t mean his testimony wasn’t newsworthy, though. In case you missed it, here are the four big takeaways from Mueller’s big day in the spotlight.
1) Mueller came in with a plan and stuck to it
Mueller warned Congress he wasn’t going to have anything to say beyond the contents of his report, and he was serious. He appeared perfectly content to deliver the same responses over and over to the end of time. (Or, you know, the end of the hearing.)
By our count, Mueller told lawmakers their inquiry was outside his “purview” at least eight times in the first session alone. He said a matter was “in the report” dozens of times. He answered questions with simply “correct” more times than we can count.
He asked lawmakers to repeat their questions and answered slowly and concisely, if at times a bit bumblingly. To some, he came off as robotic and repetitive — which, you could argue, was the plan. Republicans and Democrats often came off as repetitive as well.
Repetition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. At the outset of the first hearing, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chair of the Judiciary Committee, got Mueller to repeat what he’d written in his report: that Trump had not been exonerated from obstruction of justice, contrary to the president’s claims.
It’s a point it behooves Democrats to hammer home, and they did, many times.
In the second hearing, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, tried to use Mueller’s repetitiveness to his party’s advantage. He got Mueller to respond in the affirmative that, yes, Russia had interfered in the election; yes, the Trump campaign had welcomed Russian outreach; and yes, Trump campaign officials had lied to try to cover up some of their misdeeds.
Schiff closed the hearing in a similar manner, reiterating those points.
“We should hold our elected officials to a standard higher than mere avoidance of criminality, shouldn’t we?” he asked Mueller at the end of the hearing.
“Absolutely,” Mueller responded.
2) Democrats tried to make the case for impeachment. It’s unclear how successful they were.
House Democrats came into Wednesday’s hearings with a simple game plan: have Mueller confirm what he wrote in his report in an effort to make the case for impeaching Trump.
It led to many terse responses from the special counsel, saying “correct” or “true” to many questions about Trump’s conduct.
The problem is that this hearing is more political theater than anything else, which means the substance of what was said was in many ways less relevant than how it was said.
The Democrats chose a prosecutorial and straightforward style, purposely refraining from fireworks. The questioning from Nadler was perhaps the quintessential example:
NADLER: 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?
MUELLER: Correct, not what the report said.
NADLER: You wrote, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are not able to reach that judgment.” Does that say there was no obstruction?
In just two questions with quick responses, Nadler got Mueller to blow a huge hole in Trump’s argument that he didn’t obstruct justice. Mueller simply noted that he and his team didn’t make a determination one way or the other because of a longstanding Justice Department opinion that says a sitting president can’t be charged with a federal crime.
NADLER: Is it correct that if you had concluded POTUS committed the crime of obstruction, you couldn't publicly state that?— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 24, 2019
MUELLER: The statement would be that you would not indict because of the OLC opinion.
N: But he could be prosecuted after he leaves office?
M: True pic.twitter.com/6FWRBbcXOi
Republicans chose to attack Mueller personally and his investigation more broadly, occasionally reverting to conspiracy theory talking points (more on this in a minute).
And because Mueller chose not to respond to anything outside the purview of the report, the broadsides on the special counsel landed harder than anything he said in response to Democratic questions.
Worse, it seems Democrats didn’t expect that this might happen.
“We are executing a solid game plan to walk the public through the facts of the report and make the case that if anyone else had done these things, they would have been indicted,” a Democratic staffer told Vox during the hearing.
“The decision was made to ignore the Republicans’ conspiracy theory-driven sideshow,” the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations, continued. “We didn’t anticipate that Mueller would allow the mischaracterizations to go unanswered, but I don’t think that will impact the major takeaways from the hearing.”
That failure to anticipate Mueller’s reticence may prove to have been a critical mistake.
3) Republicans’ strategy was to yell and generate a few good viral moments
Many Republicans in Congress have long agreed with the president that the Mueller probe is nothing but a “witch hunt.” Making that point over and over again — sometimes as loudly as possible — seemed to be the Republican strategy on Wednesday.
One moment by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) stands out. After questioning Mueller’s integrity, he strongly defended Trump’s criticism of the special counsel’s probe and the president’s conduct.
Rep. Louie Gohmert to Robert Mueller: "What he's doing is not obstructing justice. He is pursuing justice. And the fact that you ran it out two years means you perpetuated injustice." #MuellerHearings #MuellerTestimony https://t.co/z9QXddreSz pic.twitter.com/0tWAuyEWSK— The Hill (@thehill) July 24, 2019
But Republicans had an advantage. They knew Mueller didn’t want to discuss anything not mentioned in the report. That gave conservatives an opening to ask about some of their pet conspiracy theories, such as that Mueller’s staff was biased and wanted to charge Trump with a crime to avenge Hillary Clinton’s loss.
And beyond defending his team’s integrity, Mueller refused to go into any detail about why other Republican allegations were incorrect.
The question now is how Americans at home perceive it all. Will they be persuaded by Democrats’ methodical articulation of what’s in the report? Or will they start to doubt Mueller’s competence after the Republican barrage?
Whatever the answer, this hearing will only keep Mueller and the Trump-Russia probe in the news cycle for weeks to come.
4) Mueller believes Russia is the real threat
Mueller made clear from the outset that what he really wanted people to focus on was Russian interference.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” he said in his opening statement. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
The sincerity of that belief came across throughout the day. Mueller responded to questions surrounding the Russian interference piece of his investigation with more facility and ease than he did the obstruction piece, suggesting the former was where he was personally more focused throughout the probe and in its aftermath.
It makes sense why: Russia is not done trying to interfere in American politics.
“They are doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said on Wednesday afternoon. “And they expect to do it again during the next campaign.”
"Many more countries are developing capabilities to replicate what the Russians have done," Robert Mueller tells Rep. Will Hurd.— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) July 24, 2019
Mueller says later that it was not a single attempt by Russia: "They are doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign." pic.twitter.com/Nw05DKk6u8
Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee
Robert Mueller testifies before Congress. Watch live:Posted by Vox on Wednesday, July 24, 2019