The Memo: Mueller's stumbles distract from substance

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay 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 TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet 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 NadlerNadler floats John Kelly as potential impeachment witness Fox's Wallace: Nadler would pay to have his Clinton impeachment remarks 'expunged from the Earth' Pelosi says House will vote on bill to repeal travel ban 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 RichmondBiden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa Congress struggles on rules for cyber warfare with Iran Election security, ransomware dominate cyber concerns for 2020 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 BuckSmaller companies testify against Big Tech's 'monopoly power' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers 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. LieuDemocratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' Democratic lawmaker says Nunes threatened to sue him over criticism Paralysis of nations is empowering cities 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 ClintonHill.TV's Krystal Ball: Failure to embrace Sanders as nominee would 'destroy' Democratic Party Clinton says she feels the 'urge' to defeat Trump in 2020 Can Democrats flip the Texas House? Today's result will provide a clue MORE.

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

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeJordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team 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 GohmertRepublicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Sheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Trump shocks, earns GOP rebukes with Dingell remarks 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 ToddTrump rips Chuck Todd for 'softball' Schiff interview GOP senator says impeachment trial will 'hopefully' serve as warning to Trump, future presidents Schiff says Trump tweet is 'intended to be' a threat MORE said on NBC News.

On Twitter, David AxelrodDavid AxelrodCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group Sanders, Warren appear to have tense moment onstage after debate Warren faces online criticism over past big donor fundraisers 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 GillibrandIt's time for paid leave for all GOP-Biden feud looms over impeachment trial Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change 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 PelosiDemocrats offer mixed reactions to Trump's Mideast peace plan James Taylor to perform at awards ceremony for Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week Trump offers two-state peace plan for Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid skepticism 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.