Here’s pretty much all you need to know about former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Wednesday testimony before two congressional committees about his now-completed investigation into Russian election interference and the Trump campaign: It was a battle between a town, Washington, ravening for new news and a man, Mueller, determined not to give them any. In the end, Mueller won.
When Mueller submitted his long-anticipated report in April, he announced that he had not established that any member of the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia to interfere in the election. He had, however, unearthed 10 instances in which the president had deliberately worked to obstruct the probe into him and his campaign, potentially a criminal act itself. Long-standing Justice Department policy prevented a president from being indicted while in office; for that reason and others, Mueller declined to make “a traditional prosecutorial judgment” about whether Trump was criminally guilty of obstruction. He had laid out the facts; now it was up to Congress and the American people to draw their own conclusions.
And then—there was nothing. After two years of frenzy and speculation, the Mueller report came, and went, and things were much the same as before. When Mueller’s public testimony was scheduled, then, many who had long hoped the Mueller report would be the end of Trump looked forward to it with a near-eschatological intensity. As the hearing was about to begin Wednesday, an MSNBC commentator set the tone: With his testimony, Mueller could “play it safe, or he can answer to history and tell the American people what they need to know.”
That commentator had apparently not listened when Mueller announced, well ahead of time, that he would not speak beyond the authority of the report his office released in April, and that he would not comment on a number of matters, from the origins of the Russia probe to the prosecution of Trumpworld figures like Roger Stone, that were the subject of ongoing investigation at the Justice Department. On Wednesday, he was true to his word. Headline artists who’d prepared to feast were left to pick over the detritus like jackals. When Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asked Mueller to explain “in plain terms” his findings “so that the American people can understand it,” and Mueller replied, “The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” I actually laughed aloud.
If Mueller displayed any personality at all, it was a slight ornery streak in declining to play along with either party’s partisan strategies for the hearing. It was widely speculated that Democrats would try to milk the former special counsel for as many money quotes as they could, to turn his image—if not the man himself—into a #Resistance hero going into 2020. But Mueller dismissed even softball questions designed to make him look noble as immaterial to the task, and declined to read aloud particularly damning chunks of his own report for the cameras. “I’m happy to have you read it,” he told multiple Democrats with a hint of a smile. And he was phlegmatic in the face of the rage of GOP questioners who seemed determined to exact revenge for two years of headaches from him in their brief period of questioning. He was, perhaps most of all, almost uniformly boring.
Boringness is not a quality that is exactly in favor in today’s GOP—or indeed anywhere in today’s hair-trigger politics. Contrast Mueller’s demeanor with that of some of his more flamboyant questioners, like Louis Gohmert or Matt Gaetz, who each spent their five minutes of questioning working themselves into a towering rage, firing off conspiracy theories about Mueller’s purported “witch hunt” at faster and faster speeds. That’s the ability prized today: the ability to bludgeon an opponent into submission with a torrent of retweet-ready verbiage—true verbiage if you can manage it, but if not, plausible-sounding verbiage delivered at high speed works just as well. Meanwhile, the style Mueller displayed—slow, laconic, careful, sometimes even halting as he searched for just the right phrase—can make a person seem an easy target. Your everyday web-news addict, nerves jangling, eyes bloodshot, takes a look at a guy like that and asks himself: That guy’s being pretty careful with his words; what does he have to hide?
Why did Mueller testify at all? Plainly not because he felt it was necessary to his work—as he made clear time and again Wednesday, Mueller considers his report to be his first and last word on the findings of his investigation. Certainly not too out of desire to seek publicity or grandstand, as was so transparently the case with many of his questioners on both sides of the aisle. Rather, it seems Mueller came only because he was asked, and considered it part of his duty to answer for his work if called to do so. To partisans incapable of judging a public figure’s actions except through the lens of whose tribe it helps and whose tribe it harms, it may have seemed a foolish endeavor. Perhaps Mueller privately felt so too. But it is to his credit that he came and slogged through the whole silly spectacle regardless.
If this is the last we see of Mueller—as it very likely is—it was a fitting sendoff. The Robert Mueller who showed up Wednesday was neither party’s caricature of him: Not the duplicitous, Trump-deranged witch-hunter bedeviled by much of the right, not the messianic, giant-slaying #Resistance hero adored by much of the left. Rather, he was just the dowdy old lawyer and public servant who was called on to do a crazily difficult and controversial task, and did it as best he could with the least possible amount of drama or fuss. That was the Robert Mueller we needed, and the Robert Mueller we got. Don’t blame him if we can’t handle the rest.