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 TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House 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 NadlerHouse Judiciary Committee postpones hearing with Barr amid coronavirus outbreak House Democrats plead with key committee chairman to allow remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic Pelosi rejects calls to shutter Capitol: 'We are the captains of this ship' 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: House passes key surveillance bill | Paul, Lee urge Trump to kill FISA deal | White House seeks help from tech in coronavirus fight | Dem urges Pence to counter virus misinformation Lawmakers criticize Trump's slashed budget for key federal cyber agency Government report offers guidelines to prevent nationwide cyber catastrophe 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 BuckOvernight Defense: Pentagon curtails more exercises over coronavirus | House passes Iran war powers measure | Rocket attack hits Iraqi base with US troops House passes measure limiting Trump's ability to take military action against Iran GOP lawmaker shows off AR-15 in office, challenges Biden to 'come and take it' 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. LieuClay Aiken podcast looks for political balance Rep. Gosar defends calling coronavirus 'Wuhan virus' after criticism Carson on coronavirus: Task force is not 'sugarcoating' messaging 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 ClintonJuan Williams: Mueller, one year on Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll With VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world MORE.

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

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeGOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Acting director of National Counterterrorism Center fired: report Acting director of national intelligence begins hiring freeze: reports 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 GohmertLysol, disinfecting wipes and face masks mark coronavirus vote in House The Hill's 12:30 Report: What we know about T stimulus deal Democrats eye remote voting options 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 ToddBiden on quarantine timelines: 'Worst thing you can do is raise expectations and then watch them get dashed' White House coronavirus coordinator: All governors and mayors need to 'prepare like New York is preparing now' Michigan governor says states bidding against each other for medical supplies is 'creating a lot more problems for us all' MORE said on NBC News.

On Twitter, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodTrump seeks to sell public on his coronavirus response Polls show big bounce to Biden ahead of Super Tuesday The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the APTA - Biden looks for Super Tuesday surge; coronavirus fears heighten 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 GillibrandLawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Progressive advocates propose T 'green stimulus' plan Juan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal 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 PelosiMeadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House Pelosi floats undoing SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus bill Overnight Health Care: More states order residents to stay at home | Trump looks to sell public on coronavirus response | Judges block Ohio, Texas abortion bans | Dems eye infrastructure in next relief bill 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.