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WASHINGTON — No one said it would be easy to turn a two-year investigation and 448 pages of dense legalese into riveting made-for-TV moments. But somehow, special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress Wednesday still managed to disappoint.
“Mueller’s performance was weak,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a former prosecutor during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. “He was unprepared.”
Not that anyone should be surprised. Mueller had made it abundantly clear he didn’t want to speak publicly about his investigation into Trump and Russia, and would limit his testimony to the contents of his report. When the moment came, he dug in hard, refusing to answer questions or simply replying, “I take your question.” According to CNN, Mueller evaded questions on 206 occasions during more than five hours of testimony.
But in some cases, he let his feelings show — including the occasional expression of disdain for actions taken by President Trump. Like when Trump, on the campaign trail, publicly welcomed the release of hacked Democratic documents by the renegade transparency outlet WikiLeaks.
Anyway, the big event is all finished now, and Mueller can return to that submarine-like silence that defined his 22-month investigation. We’ve condensed it down into the most important moments.
Trump is not exonerated
Mueller blew up one of Trump’s favorite talking points: that the Mueller report granted Trump “total and complete exoneration.”
No, it doesn’t, Mueller made clear at the outset of his grilling on Capitol Hill.
What’s more, Mueller took a rather dim view of the Trump team’s enthusiasm for Moscow’s interference on their behalf in the 2016 election — while stopping short of accusing Trump of outright “collusion,” a non-legal term he avoided.
“The campaign welcomed the Russian help, did they not?” asked Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Mueller replied that his report holds “indications that occurred, yes.”
Trump could be charged after he’s out of office
Trump may be immune from criminal charges while he’s president, but he’ll have no such protection after he leaves office, Mueller said.
Mueller essentially confirmed that his decision not to charge Trump rested on the Department of Justice’s own policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted.
“Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?” asked Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado.
“Yes,” Mueller said.
Republican members of the committee pressed Mueller over allegations of bias among his team members. But their failure to rebut evidence of obstruction of justice “suggests that they have no substantive response,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York.
Mueller almost accused Trump of breaking the law — but then walked it back
Mueller appeared to agree that if he hadn’t been held back by DOJ policy, he would have slapped Trump with an indictment for obstructing justice.
But then he took it back.
In his report, he wrote that he hadn’t made a traditional prosecutorial decision about Trump because of that policy, which is based on an internal memo commonly referred to as the “OLC opinion.”
“I’d like to ask you, the reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump was because of the OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?”
“That is correct,” Mueller replied.
In that moment, Mueller seemed to be finally saying what he really thinks, even if it wasn’t on purpose, said Paul Rosenzweig, a former member of Ken Starr’s investigation into former President Bill Clinton.
“To my mind, he just spoke the truth,” Rosenzweig said.
But after returning from a midday break, Mueller said he needed to correct himself.
“That is not the correct way to say it,” Mueller said. “We didn’t reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
Russia’s still at it
Mueller appeared most comfortable ringing alarm bells about Russian interference in the American electoral process.
Russia’s attack on the 2016 election was “among the most serious” threats to American democracy of his lifetime, said Mueller, who was born shortly before the end of World War II.
What’s more, Russian attempts to undermine American democracy are still underway, he warned.
“They're doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said. “And they expect to do it in the next campaign.”
Mueller warned that a world in which hostile foreign powers secretly conspire to tilt U.S. elections, and American politicians encourage their efforts, may be the “new normal.”
Mueller was pretty stoic, but he didn’t hide his scorn for Trump’s “love” of WikiLeaks.
“Problematic is an understatement,” Mueller deadpanned.
On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump had publicly exalted in WikiLeaks’ releases of Democratic files that had been hacked by Russian intelligence officers.
Trump's comments gave “hope, or some boost, to what is or should be illegal activity," Mueller said.
“I’d gather that you believe that knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do?” asked Schiff.
“And a crime,” Mueller agreed, “given certain circumstances.”
So, about impeachment?
Both sides eventually cut to the question that’s on everyone’s mind: Impeachment.
Unsurprisingly, Mueller wasn’t too interested in going there.
At one point, he even dodged a question that would have pretty much involved confirming that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to boot a troublemaking president out of office.
Mueller didn’t provide Democrats with a fresh impetus to open up impeachment proceedings against Trump, said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School.
“His report was legalistic and so was his testimony,” Ohlin said. “If the Democrats want to impeach Trump, they’ll need to do it without any additional assistance from Mueller.”
Cover: Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 24, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)