Mueller will be remembered for his weak testimony, not his shocking report

Here’s the lesson of yesterday’s deflating testimony by 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: Never cast an antihero as the face of an investigation where the fate of the presidency and the nation is playing out in a political theater.  

Many expected that, given the disturbing findings in his report, Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees would heroically slay the Trump dragon. But it was clear that wasn’t going to happen when, early in Mueller’s testimony, Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertThe Hill's 12:30 Report: What we know about T stimulus deal Democrats eye remote voting options Key House chairman cautions against remote voting, suggests other options amid coronavirus outbreak MORE (R-Texas), attacked him and his staff attorneys. Gohmert claimed that Mueller had hired a “dozen or more people who hate” President TrumpDonald John TrumpDefense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis Maduro pushes back on DOJ charges, calls Trump 'racist cowboy' House leaders hope to vote Friday on coronavirus stimulus MORE and then yelled, “You perpetuated an unjust investigation!”

Mueller didn’t defend himself, his staff or his investigation. Instead, he only meekly said, “I take your question.”

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That unfathomably weak response was compounded by what appeared to be Mueller’s halting and uncertain responses in the morning session to questions addressed to statements in his own report. In the afternoon Mueller, perhaps at someone’s insistence during a break in the testimony, defended his staff by saying that he hired them without regard to their political affiliation and insisted that he had conducted a fair investigation.

But by then the damage had been done because first impressions are hard to shake. Fox News’ Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceFauci says coronavirus response may look like 'overreaction' but could prevent worst-case scenario Mnuchin expecting 'big' economic rebound later in the year Fauci on airport screening lines: 'We'd like to not see crowds like that' MORE commented in the morning that the hearing had been a “disaster” for Mueller’s reputation. Trump’s lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiCuomo steps into national spotlight with coronavirus fight Hannity offers to help Cuomo in coronavirus response with radio, television shows The Hill's Campaign Report: Officials in spotlight over coronavirus response MORE tweeted that Mueller was “being destroyed” by his “numerous ahs, pauses and excuses like ‘beyond my purview.’” 

What was Mueller thinking? In turning the other cheek to Gohmert, Mueller may have acted from admirable, but ill advised, impulses. Answering personal attacks could not only take him outside of the report but could open new lines of politically-focused inquiry that he would then have to respond to by going outside the report, and on and on. Mueller would rather have taken a bullet than allow his report to become a political football. 

But Mueller’s overall less-than-forceful performance, which some attributed to his age, certainly fell short of the Democrat’s expectations and probably even the public’s. It also meant an irreplaceable opportunity was lost. 

The Democrats had probably dreamed of a strong, if not fiery, James ComeyJames Brien ComeyIs coronavirus the final Trump crisis? Full appeals court to rehear case over McGahn subpoena Tucker Carlson: Biden's 'fading intellect' an 'opportunity' for Democrats to control him MORE-type performance, while the public may have expected Mueller to be a reincarnation of the tough-as-nails Eliot Ness of 1987 film “The Untouchables.” Neither materialized. 

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True, the Democrats benefited from Mueller’s agreeing with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry 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 “completely and totally” exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice, which directly contradicts Trump’s claim that it did. But that was already in the Mueller report, like just about everything else Mueller substantively testified about. 

Mueller’s personal performance matters precisely because so little new information emerged from the hearings. In a highly publicized investigation like this, the public’s perception can be influenced by the personality of the investigator. 

During the investigation of Watergate, by the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices, Chairman Sam Ervin’s (D-N.C.) folksy, country lawyer personality, helped to reassure the public of the investigation’s integrity. The stern and dour independent counsel Kenneth Starr, on the other hand, left many with the impression that a prudish moral agenda drove his Lewinsky-gate investigation.

Mueller is a man of great skill and integrity. His investigation revealed that as a presidential candidate Trump encouraged and welcomed the assistance of a foreign adversary of the United States in his campaign and then, after his election, tried to block an investigation into his conduct.  

But sadly, as a result of yesterday’s hearing, Mueller may be remembered most for lacking the skill set needed to explain that scandalous behavior to the American public. 

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.