Robert Mueller made it just minutes into the questions from Congress Wednesday before Republicans drew blood, trapping the former special counsel over his familiarity with his own 448-page report.
Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, asked a seemingly easy question about whether “collusion” and “conspiracy” were essentially the same. Mr. Mueller said that wasn’t necessarily true.
The only problem is that his own report said it was true.
It was the first sign that Wednesday wasn’t going to go well for Mr. Mueller, who during two hearings contradicted himself on key points, lacked familiarity with his own work and dodged roughly 200 questions posed to him.
The Twitter world dubbed Mr. Mueller “frail,” and even prominent Democrats admitted it wasn’t the performance they had expected.
Former top Obama strategist David Axelrod said Mr. Mueller didn’t appear to be very “sharp,” and liberal star filmmaker Michael Moore called him “stumbling.”
Republicans were less charitable, saying Mr. Mueller’s performance left them wondering who’d been running the show at the special counsel’s office.
“I predicted Mueller testimony would be a dud. Now I think it’s devastating for Mueller’s credibility,” tweeted Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a White House ally.
Among Mr. Mueller’s stumbles was his declaration that but for a Justice Department memo prohibiting indictment of a sitting president, Mr. Trump would have been charged.
“That is correct,” he told Rep. Ted Lieu under questioning before the Judiciary Committee.
That contradicted a public statement Mr. Mueller had issued along with Attorney General William P. Barr in the spring, and it contradicted Mr. Barr’s own testimony that Mr. Mueller had privately assured him the memo wasn’t the reason there wasn’t a prosecution.
“There’s a conflict,” Rep. Debbie Lasko told Mr. Mueller.
Minutes later, as he opened the day’s second hearing in the intelligence committee, Mr. Mueller admitted he’d botched it, and the memo wasn’t the reason for no charges.
“We did not make any determination with regard to culpability. We did not start that process,” he said.
Mr. Mueller also confused which president appointed him to be the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts back in the 1980s, citing President George H. W. Bush when it was actually Ronald Reagan.
When asked by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, Ohio Republican, if it was accurate that members of the Trump campaign were not involved in the theft of Democratic emails in 2016, Mr. Mueller responded, “I don’t know.”
When. Mr. Wenstrup pointed out that it was page 5 of the report that said no members were involved, Mr. Mueller responded that “it was not in his purview.”
Mr. Mueller then struggled to respond to a follow-up question asking if his longtime deputy Aaron Zebley, who he asked to sit beside him during the testimony, could give the answer.
“I’d like to ask you, sir,” Mr. Wenstrup shot back. “It’s your report.”
Mr. Mueller declined to answer hundreds of questions, sometimes saying it was outside of his investigation, and other times saying he didn’t want to.
One of those instances involved his statement in his report, and again in testimony, that he wasn’t exonerating the president.
Republicans said that’s not a prosecutor’s job, and demanded to know why Mr. Mueller exceeded his powers.
“I’m going to pass on that,” Mr. Mueller said. “I’m not prepared to do a legal discussion in that arena.”
He also declined to say whether he was personally responsible for key moments in the investigation, such as writing — or leaking — a letter criticizing Mr. Barr’s initial summary of the special counsel’s report.
“I can’t get into who wrote it,” he told Rep. Martha Roby.
The congresswoman wondered why the letter was written, given Mr. Mueller had already spoken with Mr. Barr. The special counsel said he couldn’t answer that, either.
When Ms. Roby then wondered whether the letter leaked or whether he authorized its release, he pleaded ignorance.
“I have no knowledge of either,” he said.
Mr. Mueller repeatedly refused to answer questions from lawmakers on both sides, saying at times he couldn’t, and other times he wouldn’t stray beyond what was in his report.
The Washington Times counted nearly 200 instances of refusals ranging from “I can’t get into that” to “I don’t want to wade into those waters.”
The former prosecutor had warned lawmakers of this when, in May, he’d said it would be useless to call him to testify. He said his report spoke for itself, with each word carefully weighed and crafted.
Democrats during the hearings said Mr. Mueller was the honest broker the country needed.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler kicked off the first hearing by noting Mr. Mueller’s Vietnam war service and the Bronze Star and Purple Heart he earned.
Mr. Nadler called Mr. Mueller’s legal career “a model of responsibility” and said the two-year investigation was conducted “with remarkable integrity.”
Afterward, Democrats insisted they’d gotten what they needed, particularly with Mr. Mueller saying Mr. Trump was not exonerated by the investigation.
“It was a giant step in making sure that the American people got a picture of all of this,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, who said the foundations of democracy were at stake. “I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on.”
Yet Republicans repeatedly portrayed Mr. Mueller as tainted and said he went beyond the charge he was given in his investigation.
Rep. John Ratcliffe demanded to know whether there was another example of a prosecutor not bringing charges, but announcing a target was not exonerated because his innocence wasn’t conclusively proved.
Mr. Mueller said he didn’t know of any.
“But this is a unique situation,” the former special counsel insisted.
Mr. Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor himself, said Mr. Mueller broke the cardinal rule of presumption of innocence.
“You wrote 180 pages, 180 pages about decisions that weren’t reached,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “By doing that, you manage to violate every principle and the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that aren’t charged.”