Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Testifying to the House Judiciary Committee this morning, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller reiterated that his investigation did not “totally exonerate” Donald Trump, as the president has stated. Further contradicting Trump, Mueller also said he did not find that the president did not obstruct justice.

Both statements came in response to questions from Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, in the opening moments of the hearing.

“The president has repeatedly claimed your report found there was no obstruction and it completely and totally exonerated him. That is not what your report said, is it?” Nadler asked.

“Correct, not what the report said,” Mueller replied.

“The report did not conclude he did not commit obstruction of justice? Is that correct?” Nadler asked a moment later.

“That is correct,” Mueller said.

These answers are dry and clinical, following the highly restrained tone that Mueller has adopted for the hearing. (When Nadler asked Mueller to explain the finding on obstruction in plain English, Mueller offered a similarly obscure response: “The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the act he allegedly committed.”)

They are likely not the type of fireworks that many Democrats hoped the testimony might elicit as part of their attempt to swing public opinion against Trump. But as a matter of substance, each of these answers is significant, because it directly contradicts the president’s spin.

Despite what Trump has repeatedly said, the report does not exonerate him. And while Mueller has been forced into semantic linguistics to avoid saying what is clear, his report laid out in great detail multiple examples where Trump met the three-prong test for obstruction of justice. But Mueller said in his report, and again today, that he had decided at the outset of his investigation that he would not bring charges against Trump regardless of evidence, because of Justice Department guidance that says a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.

Aside from those exchanges, most of the first two hours of today’s hearing has been fairly dull. Mueller has stuck stubbornly to yes and no answers whenever possible. The former FBI director announced at the outset of his testimony that he wouldn’t answer any questions on some of the topics that both sides are most eager to hear about: for Republicans, the origins of the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the election, and anything related to the Steele dossier; for Democrats, the actions of Attorney General Bill Barr, or whether Congress ought to impeach.

That has left representatives on both sides to try to construct questions that are packed with detail and delivered at great speed, thanks to time constraints. Mueller—and probably many audience members at home—has been struggling to puzzle through them. His answers have been terse, except when he has simply declined to answer, and he has often simply referred representatives to the report he wrote.

Despite the rather low level of excitement overall, Mueller has, in several cases, contradicted the president’s claims. This extends beyond the president’s claims that the report exonerated him and found no evidence of obstruction of justice.

Trump and his defenders have argued that he cooperated fully with the investigation, but that’s not correct, as Mueller noted. As he told Nadler, Trump refused to submit to an interview with the special counsel’s team, despite repeated requests and Mueller’s argument that it was in the interest of both the public and presidency to do so. Trump also declined to answer written questions about obstruction, and when he submitted responses on other matters, Mueller “viewed the written answers to be inadequate,” according to the report.

Trump has also claimed that Mueller was a compromised investigator, because Trump had interviewed him to be FBI director following the firing of James Comey in May 2019. The president made the claim once again this morning, tweeting, “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!”

But under oath on Wednesday, responding to a question from Representative Louie Gohmert, Mueller stated that when he met with Trump about the FBI-director job, he was not a candidate for the post.

These moments are important because, as I have laid out, the Mueller report reveals a president who lies repeatedly, wantonly, and reflexively, and who asks his aides to lie on his behalf. Mueller’s answers today show that the president lies, asks others to lie, and then lies about the lies.

Whether this will get through to the public is, of course, a different matter. As my colleague Elaina Plott and I have both written, Barr was able to set a false narrative in place in the public consciousness before Mueller’s report was made public. Beyond that, Mueller’s testimony doesn’t make for good sound bites—crisp yeses and no’s are unlikely to have the same power even that Mueller’s own, brief televised statement in May did. Since Mueller believes it is improper to make the obvious logical connection to say that Trump obstructed justice, Democrats aren’t going to get the answer they really want out of these hearings. Finally, Trump’s dishonesty is already well known. But the vagaries of public reaction shouldn’t obscure the importance of Mueller’s statements.

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