The Memo: Mueller's stumbles distract from substance

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away 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.

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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 NadlerBiden backs effort to include immigration in budget package Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Britney Spears's new attorney files motion to remove her dad as conservator MORE (D-N.Y.) that his report did not “exonerate” Trump — despite the president’s constant proclamations to that effect.

Later, Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric RichmondBiden walks fine line with Fox News Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms Democrats look to flip script on GOP 'defund the police' attacks 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 BuckGOP lawmakers demand answers on withheld restitution following Nassar revelation Hillicon Valley: Biden: Social media platforms 'killing people' | Tech executives increased political donations amid lobbying push | Top House antitrust Republican forms 'Freedom from Big Tech Caucus' Top House antitrust Republican forms 'Freedom from Big Tech Caucus' 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. LieuCourt finds Democratic donor Ed Buck guilty of all charges in connection to two men's deaths Press: Give those unemployed writers a job! Post-Trump, Biden seeks to restore US relations with Holy See 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 ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE.

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

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeUFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting 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 GohmertGaetz, Greene and Gohmert turned away from jail to visit Jan. 6 defendants House GOP stages mask mandate protest Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony 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 ToddThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Officers recount the horror of Jan. 6 NFL Network's Rich Eisen says he has COVID-19 despite being vaccinated Newsmax host suggests vaccines 'against nature' MORE said on NBC News.

On Twitter, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodUnscripted remarks start to haunt President Biden The Memo: 'Hillbilly Elegy' author binds himself to Trump after past criticism Psaki 'likely will stay longer' than year as White House press secretary 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 ParscaleBrad ParscaleAides tried to get Trump to stop attacking McCain in hopes of clinching Arizona: report MORE, said the hearings had been “a disaster for Democrats.”

A number of Democrats, including 2020 presidential candidates Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTreat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors To make energy green, remove red tape 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 PelosiCapitol riot defendants have started a jail newsletter: report On The Money: Biden asks Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration | Economic growth rose to 6.5 percent annual rate in second quarter Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure 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.