The Memo: Mueller's stumbles distract from substance

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary 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 NadlerBy questioning Barr, Democrats unmasked their policy of betrayal Chris Wallace: Barr hearing 'an embarrassment' for Democrats: 'Just wanted to excoriate him' Apple posts blowout third quarter 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 RichmondHillicon Valley: 'Fortnite' owner sues Apple after game is removed from App Store | Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations Lawmakers introduce bill designating billion to secure state and local IT systems Experts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections 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 BuckHillicon Valley: Facebook bans ads from pro-Trump PAC | Uber reports big drop in revenue | US offers M reward for election interference info Senate passes legislation to ban TikTok on federal devices The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Progress slow on coronavirus bill 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. LieuDemocrats hammer Trump for entertaining false birther theory about Harris California Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup GOP official says Elizabeth Warren 'endorses voter fraud' after joke about Bailey voting for Biden 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 ClintonUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal Gloria Steinem: Selection of Kamala Harris recognizes that 'black women ... are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party' MORE.

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

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffePat Fallon wins GOP nomination in race to succeed DNI Ratcliffe Hillicon Valley: Google extending remote work policy through July 2021 | Intel community returns final Russia report to Senate committee after declassification | Study finds election officials vulnerable to cyberattacks Intel community returns final Russia report volume to Senate after declassification review 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 GohmertWatchdog calls for probe into Gohmert 'disregarding public health guidance' on COVID-19 Massie plans to donate plasma after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump order aims to curb US agencies' use of foreign workers after TVA outrage | EPA transition back to the office alarms employees | Hundreds of green groups oppose BLM nominee 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 ToddPublic health expert: 50 percent effective coronavirus vaccine would be 'better than what we have now' Navarro 'confident' Trump executive actions 'will stand up' in court Karen Bass: 'I'm not a socialist, I'm not a communist' MORE said on NBC News.

On Twitter, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodHow Biden decided on Harris The other reason Democrats want Biden to shun debates Should Biden consider a veteran for vice president? 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 GillibrandIn the next relief package Congress must fund universal COVID testing Expanding our health force can save lives and create jobs simultaneously Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic 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 PelosiSusan Collins asks postmaster general to address delays of 'critically needed mail' Trump says he'd sign bill funding USPS but won't seek changes to help mail voting On The Money: Senate leaves until September without coronavirus relief agreement | Weekly jobless claims fall below 1 million for first time since March | Trump says no Post Office funding means Democrats 'can't have universal mail-in voting' 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.