If you watched even part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday, you saw a man who was clearly befuddled, out-of-touch with basic facts of the investigation he headed and unknowledgeable about the report bearing his name, and at sea when it came to answering even basic questions put to him by members of the committees before whom he appeared. It was, to put it in kind terms, most uncomfortable to watch someone who has been lauded by some as such a sharp and able personage and straight shooter embarrass himself before the nation.
Beyond casting further doubt on any attempt to impeach the President, Mueller’s performance raised serious questions about what kind of peril the nation might be in if this is indicative of what can be expected from someone as highly lauded as Mueller, and in positions as influential as those he’s held. We’ll look at these questions and the former FBI director’s history in a bit.
Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committee had hoped that Mueller’s testimony before those committees would pave the way toward impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, but it didn’t take the full day of hearings to cast those hopes onto the rocks for many. Even Trump critics and impeachment advocates characterized Mueller’s testimony as “a disaster.”
As Harvard law professor and former Obama judicial adviser Laurence Tribe tweeted, “Much as I hate to say it, this morning’s hearing was a disaster. Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it. The effort to save democracy and the rule of law from this lawless president has been set back, not advanced.”
No less than former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted, “This is very, very painful,” later adding, “Not a commentary on the content. The report is damning. That was reenforced today. He has been an exemplary public servant, as people are both sides attested, but he clearly was struggling today and that was painful.” And media people, ranging from Fox News’s Chris Wallace to NBC’s Chuck Todd, also characterized Mueller’s testimony as “a disaster.”
“This has been a disaster for the Democrats and I think it’s been a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller,” Wallace said.
I’m not a doctor, and being d’un certain âge myself, I do my best to avoid ageism. But watching as things unfolded Wednesday, it was hard not to conclude that the 75-year-old Mueller is perhaps suffering from some sort of dementia. Some have tried to attribute dementia and other such things to the 73-year-old Trump, but the contrast between the forceful Trump and the doddering Mueller could not be more stark.
NBC News took the trouble to count the number of times Mueller deflected or declined to answer questions put to him Wednesday: 198 times. “Outside of my purview,” was a term Mueller used over and over. Of course, another former FBI Director, James Comey, beat that total in his Congressional testimony on Dec. 14, responding a mind-boggling 245 times during his session that he didn’t remember, didn’t know, or didn’t recall, in response to questions put to him. It would seem, if these two are to be believed, that FBI Directors don’t know much, after all. At one point Wednesday, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert was able to get Mueller to admit he and Comey were friends. Mueller initially simply said they were “business associates.” Under further questioning by Gohmert, Mueller finally said, “We were friends.” This is a key point and goes to Mueller’s credibility since part of the Special Counsel’s mission was to determine if Trump’s firing of Comey constituted obstruction of justice. Mueller did concede that a president has the right to fire the FBI director.
It wasn’t just Mueller’s demeanor and comportment that were troubling. More disturbing were the things that became apparent during the seven hours Mueller was in the Congressional hot seat. These include:
- Mueller has little knowledge of what is in the 488-page report bearing his name. While he was instructed by the Justice Department not to go beyond what is contained in the report – an instruction that Mueller actually had sought – he frequently had to look around at staff members sitting behind him to confirm if something was or wasn’t in the report, and often requested confirmation of the page on which a certain issue being asked about appeared.
- Almost certainly, Mueller had little direct input to the 22-month-long, $30-million-some investigation with which he was charged as Special Counsel. Apparently he left the bulk of the investigation to staff members, most notably the highly controversial Andrew Weissmann. Despite Mueller’s stated high regard of Weissmann, a donor to the Democratic Party, Weissmann’s record is more than spotty. A unanimous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court overturned convictions Weissmann obtained based on overzealous prosecution in the Enron case of 2002-2005, but only after he had destroyed the Arthur Anderson accounting firm, putting 85,000 employees out of work. As head of the Fraud Section of the Obama DOJ, he also greenlighted the Uranium One deal that transferred control of one-fifth of America’s uranium to Russia following a $500,000 speakers fee paid to former President Bill Clinton by a Kremlin-linked bank and millions more paid by Russian sources to the Clinton Foundation about the time of the Uranium One deal.
- Astoundingly, Mueller said he didn’t know what Fusion GPS was or that the firm had paid former British spy Christopher Steele to prepare the so-called and unverified “dossier” as opposition research on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Mueller also was unaware that this “dossier” formed the basis for the initial FISA Court warrant that eventually became a key element in his appointment as Special Counsel and the investigation he headed. As Ohio Republican Steve Chabot put it, following Mueller’s confused response, “It’s not a trick question.” Mueller finally responded with one of his many “that is outside my purview” replies. I would say that it is outside reason that, short of being lost in the Borneo jungle for the past three years, one could not have heard of Fusion GPS or the Steele dossier. But there was Robert Mueller, Special Counsel and former chief cop of the U.S., looking for all the world like he was hearing these things for the first time.
- For a man who has spent much of his career in the upper echelons of government, Mueller seemed to have no knowledge of the political implications of his position. He said he had vetted his team carefully, but was unaware that virtually his entire team had Democratic Party connections and many had donated significant sums to the Hillary Clinton campaign and other Democratic candidates. During questioning by North Dakota Republican Kelly Armstrong, Mueller pushed back, elaborating one of the rare times in his testimony, “We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job. I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.” Armstrong proceeded to point out how DOJ rules require that officials not only be free of conflict of interest but even the appearance of conflict of interest.
- Mueller was unaware of the anti-Trump prejudice of several members of his team, such as Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, before that prejudice, expressed in their exchanged emails, was revealed in an investigative report of DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. He said when this matter was brought to his attention he fired them.
- Mueller, when asked by Arizona Democrat Greg Stanton, couldn’t recall which president first appointed him as U.S. Attorney. “Which senator?” Mueller asked in response to the question. “Which president,” Stanton replied. Mueller said he thought it was President Bush, referring to President George H.W. Bush. It was President Reagan.
- In the Judiciary Committee testimony Mueller told California Democrat Ted Lieu that they did not charge Trump with obstruction due to a DOJ legal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, seeming to give Dems the ammunition they were looking for. And then at the beginning of the Intelligence Committee testimony he walked the statement back, saying, “We did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime,” adding that his team “never started the process.”
As troubling as Wednesday’s testimony was, Mueller’s history raises even more serious questions. And that history makes one wonder how he was able to earn the accolades provided him and be selected as Special Counsel. It’s not hard to uncover that history, and here are just some of the bigger issues that litter Mueller’s career:
- There is strong evidence that, beginning in 1986, when Mueller was U.S. Attorney in Boston (appointed, as noted above, by President Reagan), and continuing when he was FBI director in the early 2000s, Mueller participated in the FBI cover-up that kept four innocent men in prison for decades. In 2007, after two of the men had died in prison, a court awarded the two surviving men and the estates of the two deceased men $101.8 million in compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
- Appointed FBI director on Sept. 4, 2001, a week before the 9-11 attacks, Mueller can’t be held responsible for the intelligence lapses that allowed those attacks to take place. But he actively engaged in a cover-up of the bungling that went on in the FBI, the White House, and the CIA that enabled the 9-11 terrorists to carry out their plans. A joint Senate-House inquiry conducted by then-Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who took intelligence matters very seriously, uncovered the depth of the ineptness that Mueller did his best to conceal [personal note: I’ve always had huge respect for Graham, a Democrat, and one of the bigger career blunders of my life was turning down an offer of an internship as a speech writer for Graham when he was Governor of Florida]. Along with giving what amounted to false testimony to the joint inquiry, Mueller later stonewalled Graham, refusing to respond to subpoenas to testify before the inquiry. As Graham later wrote, the FBI, under Mueller, “insisted that we could not, even in the most sanitized manner, tell the American people that an FBI informant had a relationship with two of the hijackers.”
- Mueller bungled the investigation into the anthrax attacks that followed the 9-11 attacks, focusing on an innocent man and pursuing him for seven years while the real killer walked free. After leaks to the press made life unbearable for the man, Steven Hatfill, wrongly focused on by Mueller and his deputy Comey, and the true perpetrator was finally identified and committed suicide, the government in 2008 reached a settlement with Hatfill for $5.82 million. Mueller wouldn’t even attend the press conference in which the settlement was announced and refused to apologize for any aspect of the investigation, adding that it would be erroneous “to say there were mistakes.”
- Further bungling by the FBI under Mueller may have led to the April 15, 2013, bombing of the Boston Marathon. In brief, the FBI in 2011 had warnings from Russian intel sources that Tamalan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who carried out the bombing, posed a potential threat. But after an investigation of Tsarnaev, the FBI closed the case on him. “As a result of this, I would say, thorough investigation,” Mueller told a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “based on the leads we got from the Russians, we found no ties to terrorism.” Meanwhile, he admitted that electronic notifications that Tsarnaev had left the U.S. and spent six months in Russia were not fully shared with the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston. More fascinating though, and worthy of a thorough reading, is the theory that Tsarnaev was actually an FBI operative.
Again, these are just some of Mueller’s missteps and the imbroglios he’s been involved with over the course of his career. There are lots more, but these are some of the bigger ones. At this point it’s pretty clear that his utility to Trump’s enemies is pretty much done as the Dems continue to battle between themselves over whether they should attempt to impeach the President or not. Meanwhile, the polls are pretty much all over the place, but the bottom line is that most Americans don’t favor impeachment.
In the wake of Mueller’s muddled testimony Wednesday, and even more after looking at the blunders and cover-ups he has been involved with over the years, I think there are bigger issues than this. All Americans should be concerned about the nature and quality of the people in charge of running the country. This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of good and qualified people. But if someone with Mueller’s record can attract the accolades that have been piled on him, what does that say of the standard to which they are held? It’s facile to assume that those in charge at some of our most important and powerful institutions are competent and right-headed. It is to the nation’s peril when they are not.
Featured image by Getty Images. All images used under Fair Use.