9 key takeaways from Robert Mueller’s testimony

Posted at 12:06 PM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-24 14:12:58-04

The big day is underway. After months of legal wrangling — and more than 100 days after the release of his report detailing Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election — former special counsel Robert Mueller will take questions from Capitol Hill lawmakers throughout the day.

I am watching all of it and offering some key takeaways throughout the hearings, which I will add here as they happen in real time. (Mueller will testify before the House Judiciary Committee this morning and the House Intelligence Committee this afternoon.) They’re below.

1. Trump’s tweets show how anxious he actually is

President Donald Trump and his aides have gone out of their way to paint the President as annoyed but unconcerned about Mueller’s testimony. “No, I’m not going to be watching, probably, maybe I’ll see a little bit of it,” Trump told reporters on Monday in the Oval Office. “I’m not going to be watching Mueller because you can’t take all those bites out of the apple. We had no collusion, no obstruction.”

Except that Trump’s Twitter feed — a direct window into how he’s thinking and feeling at any given time — is sending the exact opposite message. By 8:15 a.m. on the east coast, the President had already sent seven tweets about the Mueller hearing, tweets that largely revisited many of his old hobby horses, like this one: “Why didn’t Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats spend any time investigating Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ & Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more, including HIMSELF & Andrew W?”

Is that the tweet of a man who is entirely unworried about what the former special counsel will say — and what it might mean for his political future? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

2. Mueller has already disappointed Republicans

In his opening statement, Mueller made clear that he would be unable to address anything related to the origins of the counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election or the so-called “Steele dossier,” an opposition research document put together by former British spy Christopher Steele.

President Trump has long insisted that the entire investigation — the initial probe which led to the appointment of the special counsel and all that followed from it — was illegal because it was based on the Steele document, which contained research that was partially funded by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.

Mueller’s affirmation that he would not answer any questions about the genesis of the probe and/or the Steele dossier takes a major line of questioning off the table for Republicans.

3. … and Democrats

In that same opening statement, Mueller said he would not address any questions involving Attorney General William Barr or the actions of Congress. That’s a big blow for Democrats, who very much wanted to explore differences in public statements about the special counsel investigation between Mueller and Barr, particularly as it related to how Barr characterized the findings of the report on obstruction.

It’s not entirely clear if Democrats on the committee will have any success in even nibbling at the edges of the Barr-Mueller divisions and discrepancies, but what is obvious is that the former special counsel has zero interest in engaging on it.

4. Mueller has been shaky so far

If Democrats hoped that Mueller would easily bat away Republican attacks — on him and on his report — they have been sorely disappointed in the opening moments of his testimony. Mueller seemingly contradicted himself (and the report) when he told Doug Collins, the ranking Republican member on the committee, that collusion and conspiracy were not the same thing.

Mueller also seemed to struggle to hear and/or understand questions from member of both sides as well as to find various references members were making to the Mueller report, asking for questions to be repeated. Democrats viewed the hearing as a chance for the public to hear what the President did (and didn’t do) from a straight-out-of-central-casting prosecutor. Mueller isn’t coming across like that so far.

5. Mueller directly contradicts Trump on FBI job

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted this: “It has been reported that Robert Mueller is saying that he did not apply and interview for the job of FBI Director (and get turned down) the day before he was wrongfully appointed Special Counsel. Hope he doesn’t say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the interview, including the Vice President of the United States!”

Except … under questioning from Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, Mueller directly contradicted Trump’s version of events. As Gohmert was attacking Mueller’s alleged conflicts of interest, he cited Mueller meeting with Trump the day before he was appointed as special counsel as a job interview for the open FBI spot. “Not as a candidate,” for the job, Mueller said.

So someone is lying here. Worth noting: Mueller’s testimony is under oath. Trump’s tweet is, uh, not.

6. This is actually two different hearings

When Democrats ask questions of Mueller, they mostly follow this blueprint: a) praise Mueller for his service b) ask Mueller to draw conclusions from his report c) when Mueller declines to do so, read a portion of the report d) say that Trump clearly obstructed the investigation and e) thank Mueller for his service.

When Republicans ask question of Mueller, they mostly follow this blueprint: a) yell at Mueller b) ask him questions about Christopher Steele that — per point No. 2 above — he has already said he will not go into and c) conclude that Mueller unfairly persecuted Trump and his inner circle.

The whiplash is stark. And means — stop me if you’ve heard this before — that people will likely hear what they want to hear coming out of this hearing.

7. Mueller says that he didn’t consider indicting Trump on obstruction because of Justice guidelines. Except…

In an exchange with California Rep. Ted Lieu (D), Mueller said, unequivocally, that the reason that he did not even consider indicting the President on obstruction charges was because of guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel (within the Justice Department) that a sitting President cannot be indicted.

That contradicts repeated assertions by Barr that the OLC ruling was not the only reason that Mueller didn’t indict Trump. It also seemingly contradicts aMay joint statement from spokespeople for the special counsel’s office and the Department of Justice that said this: “The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice. The Special Counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination — one way or the other — about whether the President committed a crime. There is no conflict between these statements.”

When questioned about this seeming contradiction by Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko (R), Mueller said only that he “would have to look at it closer.” Uh, yeah.

Mueller later clarified — during his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee — that he had misspoken to Lieu when asked about the role the OLC opinion played in his decision not to consider charging Trump. “We did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime,” Mueller said.

8. Mueller came to life when his underlings were attacked

In a rare break from a low-key performance in front of the Judiciary committee, Mueller pushed back hard against Florida Rep. Greg Steube’s (R-Florida) attacks on the political affiliations (and donations) of the lawyers who worked for him in the special counsel’s office.

Mueller said that at no time in his 25 years of doing just this sort of thing had he “had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done.” That is a clapback at not just Steube but also Trump, who has been fixated for much of the last two years, on donations made to Hillary Clinton by some members of the special counsel’s office.

9. Mueller has (re)confirmed lots of details Trump doesn’t acknowledge

Donald Trump is clearly thrilled with the way the morning hearing went. “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” he tweetedjust after 1 p.m. ET. “Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff – an Embarrassment to our Country!” And while it’s clear that Democrats have not reaped the huge wins some of them expected they might, it’s also true that Mueller has confirmed, verbally that is, lots of facts that the President of the United States seems reluctant to admit. Among them: a) Russia interfered in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton b) the Trump campaign was thrilled about that effort and c) Trump was involved in business dealing in Russia (the discussions of the construction of Trump Tower Moscow). None of that is good news — at all — for the President and his many past denials on these issues.