Breitbart News? Its homepage screamed, “Democrats Trumped Again. Dodges Questions—If He Understands Them.” Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School? “Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it.” The provocateur Glenn Beck? His website said that the testimony sounded “like an argument at an old folks home during pudding hour.” Marc Thiessen of The Washington Post? He said on Fox News, “I don’t think any of us knew Bob Mueller was so fragile.” The New York Times? Its correspondent Michael M. Grynbaum described Mueller’s “halting, donnish presence” under a print headline that declared simply, “News Media Turned Theater Critics Are Not Impressed With the Star Witness.” Donald Trump himself? “This was one of the worst performances in the history of our country.”
Because Mueller himself was determined to make no news and break no ground—and by and large, he didn’t—it’s perhaps inevitable that accounts of his testimony should focus on the visual and aural impression he left, and not the still-stunning clinical conclusions of his report. And in the beginning, especially, he did look halting, his voice tremulous, his eyes searching as he strained to locate his congressional interlocutors on the dais or asked them to repeat their questions—by one count, more than 30 times. For most of the hearing, the former special counsel’s favorite answers were “yes,” “no,” “true,” “generally,” “I can’t get into that,” and “I’m not going to comment.” CNN’s Evan Perez calculated that he declined to answer a question at all 206 times.
Read: Robert Mueller keeps his promise
But Mueller’s testimony nevertheless gathered a certain quiet force as the day wore on, first before the House Judiciary Committee and then the Intelligence Committee, whose chairman, Representative Adam Schiff of California, had the last word and sought to have Mueller help “broaden the aperture” at the hearings’ end.
“From your testimony today, I’d gather that knowingly accepting assistance from a foreign government is unethical,” Schiff had barely said before Mueller quickly interrupted him. “And a crime … given certain circumstances,” Mueller said.
“To the degree that it undermines our democracy and our institutions, we can also agree that it’s unpatriotic and wrong?” Schiff continued. “True,” Mueller agreed. “The behavior of a candidate shouldn’t be merely whether something is criminal,” Schiff persisted. “It should be held to a higher standard, you would agree?”
“I’m not going to answer that, because it goes to the standards applied by other institutions besides ours,” Mueller said, before finally acknowledging that “certainly,” as Schiff put it, “we should hold our elected officials to a higher standard than mere evidence of criminality.”
If Mueller’s testimony frustrated Democrats—and delighted the Trump White House—it’s because he repeatedly refused to be drawn into either partisan talking points or legal and constitutional hypotheticals. His staff had warned the committees that he would not so much as read aloud from his own report if asked, and at one moment, he pointedly declined even to utter the word impeachment as a remedy for presidential misconduct. Again and again, Mueller passed up the chance to utter anything that might approach a riveting sound bite, much less a bold headline.