If there was a surprise in Mueller’s appearance, it was in how rusty a witness he was. In 12 years as FBI director, Mueller appeared before Congress dozens of times, making him one of the most frequent witnesses on Capitol Hill of any official in the government. But this was his first hearing in six years, and the 74-year-old showed clear signs of age today. He struggled to follow many lines of questioning, especially from fast-talking younger members, and he frequently asked lawmakers to repeat themselves. Each member of the committees got five minutes to question Mueller, and precious minutes were wasted as the former special counsel tried to find references in the printed report sitting next to him. At one point in the afternoon, Mueller could not summon the word conspiracy—the legal standard his team used instead of the more colloquial collusion in determining whether the Trump campaign acted criminally in coordination with Russia in 2016.
“This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then,” tweeted David Axelrod, the longtime confidant to former President Barack Obama. “This is very, very painful,” he added later.
Mueller was strongest in defending his investigation against Republican attacks of bias. “I don’t think you’ve reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us,” he declared at one point.
And though he was reluctant to comment on the president at all, he seemed to be inviting lawmakers to ask him about the implications of his finding that Russia made “a systematic” effort to interfere in the 2016 election. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” he said to close his opening statement. “As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
Yet even on this topic—far removed from domestic politics or the potential criminality of the president—Mueller was extremely cautious. He declined multiple opportunities to offer advice to Congress on how to bolster the security of the U.S. election system, other than to offer the most generalized endorsement of information-sharing and new legislation. When Representative Jackie Speier of California gave him the open-ended chance simply “to tell the American people what you would like them to glean from this report,” Mueller showed flashes of eloquence, but he couldn’t quite hammer home a clear, specific message.
“Well,” he said, “we spent substantial time assuring the integrity of the report, understanding it would be our living message to those who come after us. But it also is a signal, a flag, to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly, and don’t let this problem continue to linger, as it has for years.”