Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony

Several rank-and-file Democrats in the House are feeling deflated over former special counsel 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's public testimony, with some blaming the media and their own party for overhyping hearings they say fell short of expectations.

While many Democrats publicly heralded Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees as a resounding success, some privately expressed disappointment in his, at times, shaky performance, the brevity of his answers and the lack of a big moment that would have shifted the electorate's sentiment on whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE was guilty of obstruction.

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“Remember, I spent months trying to tell people that there will be no headlines out of this,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesMany Democrats want John Bolton's testimony, but Pelosi stays mum SEC's Clayton demurs on firing of Manhattan US attorney he would replace Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Hill. “Quite frankly, I think it was both the Democrats and the media that sort of created this narrative that there was going to be some bombshell from Bob Mueller, there is going to be a bombshell from his deputies — there is not going to be a bombshell from him.”

Mueller, who avoided reading direct passages of his report, largely described the findings of his report in one-word answers — if he chose to answer at all.

And while Democrats recognized Mueller would not go beyond the four corners of his report, they also became more proactive in seeking to temper expectations about his testimony in the days leading up to the hearings.

Those warnings, however, did not adequately counter the high expectations placed on the former special counsel when his hearing was announced in late June, when many Democrats lauded Mueller as a former federal prosecutor who would offer a frank, authoritative assessment of Trump’s conduct.

Multiple members argued that the media was complicit in pumping up Mueller’s appearance by drawing comparisons to the Watergate hearings during the Nixon administration, writing stories about bar specials and watch parties and generally forecasting Mueller’s testimony as the most historic Capitol Hill event in years, if not decades.

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“I think that the media hyped the hearing to a point where it was very hard to meet the expectation,” said Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierIt's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Female lawmakers pressure Facebook to crack down on disinformation targeting women leaders Democrats demand Esper explicitly ban Confederate flag and allow Pride, Native Nations flags MORE (D-Calif.), an Intelligence Committee member. “I remember getting ready yesterday morning listening to the coverage and thinking, 'My gosh, they’re making this into Watergate II.'”

Other Democrats said Mueller, 74, fell flat by stumbling over responses and appearing confused on specific questions about details in his report.

“He’s older, forgetful, and yeah that was a personal disappointment because he’s a lion, you know?” said one Democrat who questioned Mueller on Wednesday.

The hearings also gave ammunition to Republicans, who said Mueller’s performance confirms their claims that Mueller was not steeped in the day-to-day aspects of the 22-month investigation. As Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE (R-S.C.) described it, he was the “figurehead.”

Another Democrat rated Mueller’s performance before the Judiciary panel at a three or four on a scale of one to 10. His performance, the lawmaker added, grew stronger during the Intelligence Committee hearing, where Mueller appeared more comfortable and spoke with more conviction.

“He was a much better witness in the afternoon because he warmed up,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “He was willing to say more than he was in the morning.”

The former FBI director, who is known to provide brief, direct answers, purposefully avoided Democrats’ requests to read directly from his 448-page report, putting the onus on members to read the passages themselves.

His refusal to read aloud delivered a blow to Democrats, who hoped the well-respected prosecutor would explain on camera, in his own words, the key episodes of obstruction of justice that he examined.

“I would have liked if he were more talkative,” said Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuGOP official says Elizabeth Warren 'endorses voter fraud' after joke about Bailey voting for Biden Milley confirms soldiers deployed to DC amid unrest were given bayonets Trump campaign touts 4M online viewers for Tulsa rally MORE (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “But he answered ‘true’ and ‘yes’ to a whole lot of devastating facts against Donald Trump.”

Still, Mueller dealt some blows to Trump during his nearly seven hours of testimony, which was carried live on cable news networks. Mueller described Trump’s past praise of WikiLeaks as “problematic” and repeated his assertion that Trump was not exonerated by his investigation.

Mueller also pointedly said that the probe was “not a witch hunt” — disputing one of the president’s choice attacks.

But Mueller was forced to walk back a key moment that was initially viewed by Trump critics as a breakthrough. After responding affirmatively when asked by Lieu if he declined to charge Trump because of the Justice Department opinion that a sitting president can’t be indicted, Mueller said at the following hearing that he misspoke and that he didn’t reach a decision either way because of the opinion.

The walk-back was a major setback to Democrats, who were already touting the answer in between the Judiciary and Intelligence hearings as clear indication Mueller would have otherwise charged Trump with obstruction.

"I think people were hoping he would say more, and he would go outside the confines of the report. When Ted Lieu said, 'Would you indict him aside from the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion?' And he said, ‘Yes,’ that could have been a very good moment. But then he cleaned it all up,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

At the same time, several Democrats emphasized that Mueller’s testimony was not the end-all-be-all; instead, he is a component in the bigger picture of their investigations. They argued he successfully laid the foundation by confirming the president was not exonerated, paving the way for Democrats to press forward with investigations and collect additional information outside Mueller’s report.

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.), who would preside over any impeachment inquiry, said Wednesday he would go to court in the next few days to enforce the subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn, who gave key testimony to Mueller on possible obstruction.

The House Intelligence Committee is also pressing forward with its probe into Trump’s foreign business dealings and the possibility the president or members of his administration are subject to foreign compromise.

“We have a lot of work to do, because it’s incumbent upon our committee to bring to light whether any foreign policy decisions are being motivated by compromise or personal interest as opposed to the national interest,” a committee aide said following Mueller’s testimony, noting that it demonstrated his investigation was limited in scope.

Democrats also emphasized it was an important hearing to have, regardless of the outcome.

“It had to be done because he is the author of the report. Practically speaking, very few people have read it,” Speier said.

“Americans need to be steeped in all of that stuff. It’s going to happen again,” Himes said.

While Democrats said Mueller’s testimony helped raise public awareness on matters like Russian election interference and the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept Russian assistance, he did not necessarily move the ball for pro-impeachment Democrats who hoped his testimony would inspire a wave of on-the-fence members to join their push.

Only a handful of House members have come out in favor of impeachment following Mueller’s testimony.

Nevertheless, the full impact of the hearing outside the beltway remains to be seen, particularly whether there is any change in the public’s desire for an impeachment inquiry. Heading into the hearings, polls consistently showed that a majority of voters did not back impeachment.

Some Democrats also viewed the outcome of the hearing as easing the pressure on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Schumer slam Trump executive orders, call for GOP to come back to negotiating table Trump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE (D-Calif.) to open an impeachment inquiry.

As one moderate Democrat put it: “I think it took the wind out of the sails.”

Impeachment supporters, however, predicted Mueller's testimony will ultimately build support for their effort, once his message sinks in with voters who, they argue, would then press lawmakers to endorse the idea.

"People are still weighing the testimony and reviewing what he said. But certainly we're approaching 100 members ... and I think there's a whole host of others that are supportive but have not come out and articulated it," said Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralHispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden's latest plan on racial inequality Moped sharing company suspends operations in New York after second rider's death MORE (D-N.Y.). "When people go back home and they evaluate how their constituents feel regarding the testimony, more people will come out for the impeachment proceedings."

Pelosi remains opposed to impeachment and gave no indication that she would waiver on that during a press conference Wednesday after Mueller’s testimony. She said she wants to let the House investigations into Trump and his administration play out.

“If we have a case for impeachment, that is the place we will have to go. I would like it to be a strong case because it is based on the facts — the facts and the law. That is what matters, not politics, not partisanship, just patriotism,” Pelosi said during a Wednesday press conference. “The stronger our case is, the worse the Senate will look for just letting the president off the hook.”

Morgan Chalfant and Mike Lillis contributed.