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Mueller's congressional appearance was hard to watch

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on July 24, 2019.

Dear reader:

“I’d refer you to the report.” “I refer to the write up of this in the report.” “I’d send you back to the report.”

Former special counsel Robert Mueller appeared before Congress today and, as was widely expected, declined to go much beyond the parameters of his report in his responses.

Why We Wrote This

The former special counsel stuck to the outlines of his report, with cautious testimony that broke little new ground. That didn’t stop lawmakers on both sides from trying to steer his remarks.

Going into the hearings, Democrats had held out hope that Mr. Mueller’s testimony would somehow bring to life the contents of his 450-page tome. If the public wouldn’t read the book, many theorized, perhaps they’d watch the “movie.”

But today’s proceedings seem unlikely to become a box office hit.

We knew the hearings might be dry. Asked at one point to put his remarks into “plain English,” Mr. Mueller came back with: “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”

What was more surprising – and, frankly, more difficult to watch – were Mr. Mueller’s halting, stammering responses. In the face of sharp partisan battering from lawmakers trying to push him toward their preferred conclusions, he frequently seemed to shrink. Instead of strongly pushing back, he often simply took the punches. More than 100 times, he declined to answer.

As former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod tweeted: “He has been an exemplary public servant, as people on both sides attested, but he clearly was struggling today and that was painful.”

Republicans badgered Mr. Mueller for not following typical prosecutorial standards in choosing to publicly lay out evidence against a subject who was not actually being charged. Mr. Mueller defended his report as “thorough” and “fair,” and noted that this was an unusual case, since according to Department of Justice guidelines, the president could not legally be indicted.

Democrats, for their part, tried mightily to press Mr. Mueller into stating that the president had committed obstruction of justice and would, in fact, have been indicted were it not for the DOJ rule against it. There, too, Mr. Mueller declined to give them the sound bite they were looking for.

“He said at the beginning, ‘I’m a prosecutor,’” noted former Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri on MSNBC. “Well, today he was a witness. And he frankly wasn’t a really good witness.”

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

Liz Marlantes, Politics Editor

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