WASHINGTON — Former special counsel Robert Mueller, in a quiet and occasionally halting manner, provided short, clipped answers to most of the questions thrown at him Tuesday morning, often referring lawmakers back to his report during the highly anticipated congressional hearing about his investigation of President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Politicians and the public have waited anxiously for two years to hear Mueller describe his investigation and findings. With the first few words of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller sought to tamp down expectations that his spoken words would go beyond what his 448-page report has already laid out.
“I do not intend to summarize or describe the results of our work in a different way,” Mueller said.
As lawmakers peppered him with questions, Mueller’s reluctance to elaborate on any topic seemed to stem from more than just his previously stated desire to avoid the hearing altogether.
He frequently asked lawmakers to repeat their questions. At times he said he could not hear them, sometimes asserting they were speaking too fast. In contrast to his inquisitors, Mueller spoke slowly, and on a few occasions seemed confused by lawmakers’ inquiries.
For a prosecutor who built a distinguished career on digging deep into the weeds of investigations, to the point that many of his subordinates complained he was a maddening micromanager, Mueller said several times he was not familiar with some of the specifics of the investigation into Russia’s actions in 2016 and whether Trump obstructed justice.
He called the president “Trimp,” before quickly correcting himself. At another moment, he said he was “not familiar” with the opposition research firm Fusion GPS that commissioned a dossier of allegations that played a key role in the early days of the investigation into Russian interference, before Mueller was appointed as special counsel.
In the hearing room, Mueller’s muffled voice made his minimal responses nearly inaudible, a sharp contrast to the lawmakers’ whose voices often boomed with indignation.
David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted: “This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.”
Before the hearing, current and former law enforcement officials who have worked with Mueller, 74, expressed concerns that he was stepping into a high-octane hearing that would be a tough test of his public demeanor — typically understated and technical. Mueller’s advisers had told committee staff before the hearing he did not plan to read sections of the report out loud, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Part of Mueller’s approach appeared strategic — with so many sensitive investigative areas that he was unwilling to talk about, the less he engaged on those subjects, the easier his time at the witness table might pass. When Republicans charged that the genesis of the Russia investigation was hopelessly tainted by anti-Trump bias among some of the investigators, Mueller declined to discuss the issue, saying those matters are under review by the Justice Department inspector general, and therefore beyond his purview.
At other times, Mueller’s approach seemed particularly ill-suited for a nationally televised interrogation by dozens of lawmakers rushing to pose as many questions as possible in the five minutes they were each allotted.
But Mueller still made some politically charged comments.
“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” the former special counsel said early in the hearing.
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” asked the committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.
“No,” Mueller replied.
Asked if the president, under Justice Department policy, could potentially be prosecuted for obstruction of justice after he leaves office, Mueller responded: “True.”
Republicans accused Mueller of being unfair to the president and ignoring the traditional presumption of innocence.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, noting that Mueller’s report said it could not exonerate the president, said it was a prosecutor’s job to charge or not charge someone — not make a statement about exoneration.
“This is a unique situation,” said Mueller, who pointed time and again to a long-standing Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller’s team concluded the policy also prohibits the Justice Department from saying whether a sitting president committed a crime.
At one point, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, asked Mueller if the reason he did not indict the president was because of that policy, spelled out in a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memo.
“That is correct,” Mueller answered. But Mueller’s report and other answers seem to emphasize his office never considered the question of whether the president committed a crime, precisely because of that long-standing OLC memo.
Before the hearing even began, the president attacked Mueller on Twitter, calling the investigation “illegal and treasonous attack on our country,” and calling himself “a very innocent President.”