Offering little in the way of new information, Mueller instead urged House representatives to read the heavily redacted report, to the disappointment of many.
The Mueller report was released to the public months ago, heavily redacted by intelligence agencies to the point of near unreadability.
For many, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony in Congress was supposed to clarify allegations of US President Donald Trump’s collusion with Russian representatives during the 2016 United States Presidential campaign. For others, it was supposed to be the opening shot in a battle meant to impeach Trump.
It was neither, as viewers were left disappointed by Mueller’s testimony before two different Congressional committees on Wednesday July 24, which drew more than 13 million viewers worldwide.
Democrats present on the committees repeatedly asked Mueller for explicit condemnations of Trump, while Republicans attempted to use his reticence to exonerate Trump.
Mueller has admirers on both sides of the aisle for leading a long and scandal-free career. Having appeared before Congress 88 times prior to the most recent hearings, the special counsel developed a reputation for avoiding political manoeuvring, managing how little he would say.
Faced with questions from Republicans that went after the origins of the FBI investigation, and why Trump was targeted, Mueller evaded providing answers, repeatedly affirming that the questions were beyond his purview.
When asked about wording in the report, the former prosecutor avoided giving any explanation and consistently referred to the report; a practice he followed consistently since its publication.
Turning 75 in two weeks, the ageing special counsel had a hard time answering questions, showing trouble with his hearing as he asked representatives to repeat their questions 48 times.
In spite of his legendary reputation for stamina earned throughout his career, Mueller consistently responded with brief, short phrasing and often referred to single-word responses.
His terse answers ranged from “yes,” “true,” “correct,” to “I would direct you to the report” and “I’m not getting into that”.
Mueller’s reticence frustrated some lawmakers, who found his lack of comments on the report bordering on being intentionally opaque.
For US Democrats, the testimony was a “disaster”, according to Fox News host Chris Wallace. Trump was quick to tweet the statement.
“This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.” Chris Wallace @FoxNews— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
But Democrats gained some ammunition against Trump, even if not as much as they hoped to acquire.
Hours into the testimony, Mueller told Representative Ken Buck that Trump could be subject to an indictment for obstructing justice as soon as he left the Oval Office. Mueller remained firm on this point after repeated follow-up questions to confirm the fact.
His testimony was not without its contradictions however.
In further commentary on indictment, Mueller confirmed to Representative Ted Lieu that his Office of Legal Counsel had a policy against indicting current presidents, and that this was the reason Trump was not already facing an indictment.
But according to a cowritten statement between Mueller and Attorney General William Barr, there were additional reasons to not indict Trump beyond the Office of Legal Counsel’s policy.
When confronted with the inconsistency, Mueller took issue with the phrasing of the question, and repeated that his investigation did not determine if Trump was guilty of a crime, giving rise to much confusion among viewers.
Republicans strike back
Republicans seized the opportunity to question Mueller about the hidden roots and reasons behind his investigation, which he refused to clarify.
The narrative as it stands is that George Papadopoulos, a mid-level foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, made the acquaintance of Maltese Professor Joseph Mifsud in March 2016 while in Rome.
Representative Jim Jordan questioned Mueller about Mifsud, the mysterious figure who the investigation has pointed to as the reason behind the Trump-Putin link investigation.
“I can’t get into that,” Mueller responded when repeatedly questioned if he had questioned Mifsud, and if the Maltese professor had ties to intelligence agencies.
Mifsud disappeared in late 2017, and is now presumed to be using a false identity.
What was Mifsud’s role?
In 2016, Mifsud approached George Papadopoulos, a former member of the foreign policy advisory panel for Trump's presidential campaign.
Mifsud presented himself as someone with contacts to the Russian government, falsely introducing Papadopoulos to Vladimir Putin’s alleged niece, as well as a Russian he also alleged worked with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In April 2016, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of compromising emails by Hillary Clinton.
The Mueller investigation states that Russian military intelligence (known as the GRU) had carried out a hack of the Democratic National Committee’s emails only two weeks prior to Mifsud leaking the information to the Trump campaign.
But Mifsud could have been referencing the near 30,000 emails deleted on Clinton’s private server while she served as Secretary of State.
In May 2016, Papadopoulos shared the same information with an Australian diplomat, who reported it to his own government, which then relayed the information to US authorities. The FBI went on to open the probe in July 2016. Papadopoulos however, denies ever discussing the topic with the Australian diplomat, giving rise to many questions around the origins of the investigation.
Gaps in the report
Mueller took heavy fire from Representative Tom McClintock, particularly when he did not provide satisfying answers to key questions.
Democrats have long since maintained that former campaign consultant and lobbyist Paul Manafort’s sharing of internal polling data with Russian-Ukrainian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik is evidence of collusion.
Manafort was part of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign when he exchanged data with Kilimnik. Manafort actually began his political career in 2005 as an international political consultant to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska however, who Mueller’s office has since identified as “closely aligned with Vladimir Putin”.
Democratic Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Sheila Jackson Lee both describe him as a Russian operative.
In the testimony hearing, McClintock went after Mueller by citing reporting showing Kilimnik was actually an intelligence source for the US State Department.
“I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of what we had,” Mueller responded.
In early 2018, Mueller launched an indictment against the Internet Research Agency, owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prizgozihn, which had carried out managed online trolling using hired fake users and engagement experts to influence public opinion.
Mueller explicitly described the agency as a front for the Russian government, making it the basis for his claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
On 1 July 2019 however, Mueller was shut down by District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich’s order that he stop referring to the Internet Research Agency as a front for the Russian government.
In one stroke, Judge Friedrich concluded that Mueller’s indictment did not provide enough evidence to make an accusation of that size.
Representative McClintock asked Mueller to address this. Mueller refused to comment, instead citing his report.
Democratic prospects for indicting Trump seem to have reached a standstill, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resists calls for impeachment.
With the 2020 election campaign taking off, it seems more likely that new controversy will come to dominate the presidential race, in place of a controversy that claimed the United State’s attention for too long with little to show for it.