West Wing denizens breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday as Robert Mueller’s long-waited testimony before Congress was widely panned by commentators on both sides of the aisle.
Politico.com characterized Mueller’s performance as flat, saying he offered “clipped, monosyllabic responses and repeatedly asked lawmakers to repeat their questions.” One source described the reaction in the White House to the hearings as one of “euphoria.”
Former Bush White House presidential adviser Bradley Blakeman confirms White House staffers were “extremely pleased” with Mueller’s appearance.
“The White House is very pleased that there’s been nothing added to the fact that the Mueller report was definitive,” Blakeman tells Newsmax. “There was no collusion and no referral of any criminal liability on the part of the president with regard to obstruction of justice. I think they’re pleased by the fact that Mueller added nothing beyond that which he’d already reported.”
GOP Strategist Ford O'Connell tweeted Wednesday afternoon: "Who would have thought the #MuellerHearings would be exponentially worse for the Dems than the #MuellerReport?"
Many Democrats had a similar, if more subdued, reaction.
David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s senior adviser, stated in a tweet Wednesday morning: “This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publically testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he did then.”
Axelrod added he found Mueller’s performance “very, very painful to watch.” And if polls show voters agree, it could complicate Democrats’ hopes of using the Russia-collusion narrative to goad Trump throughout the 2020 election cycle.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a reliable supporter of the president, tweeted Wednesday morning: “Mueller hearing becoming very confusing and sad.”
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace declared early on: "This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller ... He doesn’t seem to know things that are in the report,”
Other prominent voices reached similar conclusions. David Brody, chief political analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network, opined on Twitter: “I say this with true compassion: Robert Mueller doesn’t look well and I don’t mean that he has a cold. Something seems off. He seems slow and sluggish.”
Even Michael Schmidt, the Washington correspondent for The New York Times, said on Twitter: “Democrats came into the hearing wanting to move the needle. So far I don’t think that’s happened.”
Some observers felt Mueller rallied to serve up a stronger performance in the second hearing before the House Intelligence Committee than he did in the morning session before the House Judiciary Committee.
Among Mueller’s shakier moments during his testimony on Capitol Hill:
- In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, the 74-year-old Mueller said he was “unfamiliar” with the fact that Glenn Simpson and Fusion GPS had hired Christopher Steele to provide opposition research on Donald Trump. When asked about the role of Fusion GPS, Mueller told the Committee, “I’m not familiar with that.” Yet as far back as 2017, NBC News reported Mueller’s team had undertaken a trip specifically to interview Steele about the dossier.
- Mueller appeared to reverse himself on a statement he’d made earlier to Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., that appeared to be a possible bombshell. Asked by Lieu if the legal opinion of DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, which held a sitting president cannot be indicted, was the reason he did not conclude President Trump obstructed the investigation, Mueller replied “That is correct.” But in the afternoon session before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller stated he wanted to “correct the record.” “That’s not the correct way to say it,” Mueller told the Intelligence Committee. “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
- At times the former special counsel’s responses were inaudible. He was repeatedly asked to speak more directly into the microphone in order to be heard, and he later began to apologize for not doing so.
- He frequently asked for lawmakers to repeat questions, and once called President Trump “Trimp,” then corrected himself.
Mueller, the former special counsel and former FBI director, has an excellent reputation inside the Beltway and has spoken before to Congress on many occasions.
He cautioned in his opening statements that he would be unable to address any matters outside the bounds of his 448-page report -- including the controversial Steele dossier, which is part of a larger DOJ investigation now underway.
Mueller appeared to score points early on in the day when he told Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler “The president was not exonerated for the act he allegedly committed,” that is, obstruction.
But his subsequent responses tended to be slow, halting, and at times even confused.
Political commentator Brad Blakeman, who served as a member of George W. Bush’s senior White House staff, compared the ongoing congressional probes “a fishing expedition when the season has closed.”
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