WASHINGTON — Some of Robert Mueller’s findings were potentially powerful.
His presentation was decidedly not.
The long-awaited hearings Wednesday on Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election put the taciturn and at times stumbling former special counsel in the national spotlight and presented a test: Whether a straightforward recitation of facts can break through in a moment when politics has become inextricably linked with hype, entertainment, and misinformation.
Mueller, 74, made clear in response to Democratic questions that members of President Donald Trump’s campaign sought to benefit from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election; that Trump tried to disrupt the investigation into that interference; and that the president did not receive “total exoneration” in his report, as Trump has repeatedly claimed.
Mueller typically answered in one, two, or three words. He deflected key questions. He often declined to respond to Republican criticism of the origins of his probe. He seemed intent on avoiding saying anything that might crop up in a campaign ad, and in doing so provided none of the clip-and-save moments that tend to grab attention and move opinions.
He hesitated, frequently stumbled over the details of his own report, and often asked lawmakers to repeat their questions. He was repeatedly reminded to speak into his microphone.
In limiting his answers, Mueller reinforced his image as a man who respects institutions and boundaries, who adheres strictly to guidelines and norms. In an age of viral video and theatrics, Mueller seemed to be the rare American who doesn’t want attention — and that cut against the very reason for a hearing into a three-month old report.
“His presentation was way off,” Trump, a consummate showman and former TV star, told reporters after the hearing.
Mueller had serious messages, but he was speaking after months of aggressive spin had taken hold.
He warned that Russian interference in American elections was real, ongoing, and one of the most significant issues he has confronted in decades in law enforcement. “This deserves the attention of every American,” he said. He later warned that he fears such interference could become “the new normal.”
Mueller said, as he had before, that a sitting president could be indicted after leaving office. He said that even though he did not find enough evidence to charge Trump or his campaign aides with conspiracy, that does not mean he found no evidence.
In the instant-reaction Twitter world, a debate centered on whether the optics of the hearing mattered, or only the substance. In many ways, the two are inseparable. Facts can only affect outcomes if they penetrate the public consciousness and bring pressure on public officials to respond.
That’s why Democrats called Wednesday’s hearing. Much of the substance of Mueller’s report has been lost in its density, and obscured by political attacks and competing narratives.
Democrats knew Mueller would not say much beyond what was in his report, but hoped that by having a respected, gray-haired lawman speak about it on camera, he might add a dose of urgency and provide new momentum for their push to impeach Trump. Few seemed to think that happened.
“This morning’s hearing was a disaster,” tweeted liberal Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe. “Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it. The effort to save democracy and the rule of law from this lawless president has been set back, not advanced.”
One of President Barack Obama’s former political advisers, David Axelrod, tweeted of Mueller’s performance, “This is very, very painful.”
Others seemed to blame the times more than the man.
“It shouldn’t reflect on Mueller that he didn’t light himself on fire to dramatize a report detailing an attack on our democracy and a president’s efforts to obstruct the investigation,” tweeted Ned Price, a former Obama national security aide. “It should reflect on us that theatrics are needed to attract attention to something like this.”
Mueller “is of a different distant time. When probity, integrity and honor mattered,” tweeted John Weaver, a Republican Trump critic and top aide to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Democrats’ strongest moments came when they coaxed Mueller into affirming key elements of his report.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, got Mueller to agree that the Trump campaign welcomed Russian offers of help, that the president had business dealings in Moscow even when he denied it, and that several people in the president’s circle lied to investigators.
When Schiff asserted that “knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do,” Mueller added: “And a crime, given certain circumstances.”
“The report did not conclude that [Trump] did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?” asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.), chairman of the House judiciary committee.
“That is correct,” Mueller said.
“And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?”
“In fact, your report expressly states that it does not exonerate the president.”
Yet when Nadler asked Mueller to explain “in plain terms” what that means, the special counsel responded with a lawyerly construction that seems unlikely to make for a rallying cry.
“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said.
Trump showed no sign of being deterred. “A phony cloud, that’s all it was,” he said after the hearings. “It was a great day for me.”
His campaign released a statement declaring “no collusion, no obstruction,” even though Mueller had explicitly rejected those assertions. (He said he did not investigate collusion, and did not reach a conclusion on obstruction).
Mueller offered little illumination for some his most significant findings. Rep. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.) asked about one of the report’s defining moments, when Trump ordered then-White House counsel Don McGahn to remove the special counsel. McGahn prepared to resign rather than follow the order. While Deutch laid out the dramatic narrative, Mueller responded:
“I direct you again to the report.”
“That is directly from the report.”
“Whatever was said will appear in the report."
Mueller did push back on some of the most sweeping claims from Republicans, saying that Russian interference was "not a hoax” and that his investigation was “not a witch hunt.”
And when Rep. Mike Quigley (D., Ill.) asked about Trump’s praise for WikiLeaks, the online outfit that published stolen Democratic emails, Mueller said, “Problematic is an understatement.”