The Memo: Mueller's stumbles distract from substance

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE lost major points on style during his testimony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — a lapse that obscured the serious jabs he delivered to President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE on substance.

Mueller’s halting, tentative demeanor was the main talking point for much of the political world, especially in the first of the day’s two hearings, before the House Judiciary Committee.

ADVERTISEMENT

President Trump and his supporters pounced instantly. Trump sardonically tweeted his “thanks” to the Democrats for bringing the former special counsel before them. Later, speaking at the White House, Trump told reporters, “We had a very good day today.”

But some of the points that Mueller enunciated were seriously problematic for the president.

Mueller began the day agreeing with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerGOP memo deflects some gun questions to 'violence from the left' House Democrats urge Trump to end deportations of Iraqis after diabetic man's death French officials call for investigation of Epstein 'links with France' MORE (D-N.Y.) that his report did not “exonerate” Trump — despite the president’s constant proclamations to that effect.

Later, Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondHouse Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington Democratic lawmakers support Bustos after DCCC resignations MORE (D-La.) asked whether it was true that Trump had “tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records relevant to an ongoing investigation” — something that seems a textbook example of obstruction of justice.

“I would say that’s generally a summary,” Mueller affirmed.

And, in a somewhat unexpected exchange with a Republican — Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckWith budget deal, Congress again fails to hold spending in check The Memo: Mueller's stumbles distract from substance Trump lashes out at NBC reporter who asked if he's worried he could be indicted after leaving office MORE (Colo.) — Mueller suggested that Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice after leaving office.

That chimed with Democrats’ contention that Mueller backed off a more incriminating finding against Trump only because of his belief — based on Justice Department guidelines — that a sitting president cannot be indicted in a criminal matter.

Where Mueller stands on that specific point remains opaque — much to Democrats’ frustration.

At one point in the first hearing, he seemed to confirm in an exchange with Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuCities are the future: We need to coordinate their international diplomacy George Conway opposes #unfollowTrump movement Puerto Rico resignations spur constitutional crisis MORE (D-Calif.) that it was the guidelines alone which prevented him indicting Trump. But he walked that position back at the beginning of the second hearing, before the House Intelligence Committee.

The partisan schism over Mueller’s entire probe was on full and predictable display throughout Wednesday.

The former FBI director fended off most attempts by Democrats to prod him into saying anything truly incendiary.

Mindful of the risk of his appearance being used as a political prop, he also declined invitations to read portions of the report aloud, instead telling Democratic members that he was “happy” for them to do so.

On the flip side, Mueller was faced with persistent efforts by Republicans to cast doubt on his integrity and that of his team.

GOP members highlighted, for example, the number of his investigators who had donated money to Democrats and the reported presence of one key team member, Andrew Weissman, at the 2016 election night event for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado Soft levels of support mark this year's Democratic primary MORE.

Mueller’s efforts to push back against the Republican charges sometimes lacked vitality, especially early in the day.

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffePresident Trump is right: Mainstream media 'do a very good job' New intel chief inherits host of challenges Hoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post MORE (R-Texas), a third-term congressman, became an instant star on the right for his aggressive questioning of Mueller.

Ratcliffe argued that Mueller and his team had placed an unfair “inverted burden of proof” on the president in relation to obstruction of justice — in essence, demanding that Trump should prove his innocence, rather than being entitled to the presumption of it.

Mueller’s relative quiescence was even more notable when confronted by Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertLouie Gohmert's exchange with Robert Mueller revealed an uneasy relationship Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess Mueller will be remembered for his weak testimony, not his shocking report MORE (R-Texas.).

Gohmert, known for his high-octane style, accused former FBI agent Peter Strzok of hating Trump and questioned Mueller’s own credibility, with only gentle pushback from the former special counsel.

Those were the kinds of moments that left independent media figures and some liberal commentators perplexed.

“On optics, this was a disaster,” Chuck ToddCharles (Chuck) David ToddBret Baier calls out Trump for lashing out at Fox News polls: 'Fox has not changed' White House offers reassurances amid recession fears as 2020 candidates sound alarm Possible GOP challenger says Trump doesn't deserve reelection, but would vote for him over Democrat MORE said on NBC News.

On Twitter, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodMark Halperin inks book deal 2020 Democrats fight to claim Obama's mantle on health care The Hill's Morning Report - More talk on guns; many questions on Epstein's death MORE, a former senior adviser to President Obama, wrote: “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.”

But Mueller did rally to his own defense at other times.

On questions of bias, he asserted that during his whole career in law enforcement, “I have not had occasion, once, to ask somebody about their political affiliation.”

As for the report itself he said, “I don’t think you’ve reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us.”

By Wednesday evening, however, the same old question hung over Mueller’s testimony: What does it change?

Mueller has always enjoyed much higher approval ratings from Democrats than Republicans — though a Pew Research poll released on Tuesday suggested his support among GOP-leaning voters had increased, perhaps because his report was not as damning as Democrats had hoped.

Still, much of the reaction on Wednesday fell along politically tribal lines.

Trump’s campaign manager, Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE, said the hearings had been “a disaster for Democrats.”

A number of Democrats, including 2020 presidential candidates Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandCastro qualifies for next Democratic primary debates The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries 2020 Democrats react to NYPD firing of officer in Garner case: 'Finally' MORE (N.Y.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, renewed calls for impeachment proceedings.

The likelihood of impeachment is receding almost by the day, however. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiJohnson eyes Irish border in Brexit negotiations Mueller report fades from political conversation Five key players in Trump's trade battles MORE (D-Calif.) is reluctant to move in that direction. Congress is about to begin its summer recess, something that further saps the energy for an impeachment drive.

Mueller said important things on Wednesday.

The likely reality is that none of them was explosive enough to shift the political dynamics in a fundamental way.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.