WASHINGTON – Things got a little awkward on Wednesday after former special counsel Robert Mueller whiffed a softball question lobbed by Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton.
The Democratic lawmaker was prepared to ask Mueller a series of questions showing that he had worked for GOP presidents. The line of questioning was meant to counter Republicans’ assertions that Mueller was biased against President Trump.
The first question: Which president had appointed Mueller to be U.S. attorney in Massachusetts?
Mueller hesitated. “I think that was President Bush.”
Stanton told him, “According to my notes it was President Ronald Reagan who had the honor to do so.”
Mueller laughed it off. “My mistake,” he said.
He aced the rest of Stanton’s quiz. (Mueller worked under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama).
Stanton, a Phoenix Democrat, lauded the work of Mueller and his team, calling the former special counsel a “patriot.” He told Mueller, “your report is damning. And I believe you did uncover substantial evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. Let me also say something else that you were right about: the only remedy for this situation is for Congress to take action.”
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria), the other Arizonan on the Judiciary Committee, was also among the dozens of lawmakers who questioned Mueller during his back-to-back appearances before two different panels on Wednesday.
She joined other Republicans criticizing the investigation. She slammed Mueller for heavily citing media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News in his report. “It looks like volume two is mostly regurgitated press stories,” she told him.
Little new information was revealed during Wednesday’s hearings, as the famously scripted Mueller largely stuck to the findings of his report, and repeatedly refused to answer lawmakers’ speculative questions.
But Democrats and Republicans alike on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees sought to use the closely watched hearings to gain political leverage – Democrats by asking Mueller to confirm portions of his 448-page report into Russian election interference, and Republicans by attacking Democrats’ motives and the integrity of Mueller’s team.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, kicked off questioning Wednesday morning by pressing Mueller on President Trump’s claims that he had been cleared by the report’s findings.
Mueller confirmed that his investigation did not “completely and totally exonerate” Trump of obstructing justice.
“The report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice,” Nadler said. Mueller replied, “That is correct.”
Nadler continued, “And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Mueller responded, “No.”
The report, Nadler went on, “expressly states that it does not exonerate the president.” Mueller said, “It does.”
Just before the hearing kicked off, Trump made his latest declaration on Twitter that the report found “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!”
‘This should have blown their minds’
House Democrats said it was important for the public to hear Mueller confirm portions of his report.
“For people who have read the Mueller report or followed these issues, this hearing was not surprising,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after the hearing. “For people who did not, this should have blown their minds, because they saw for the first time Robert Mueller saying yes to multiple instances of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said, “The critical thing is that the American people saw overwhelming and devastating evidence of obstruction of justice relayed in fine detail both by the committee and by the witness and it’s irrefutable.” Raskin called Mueller’s testimony “a great victory for the truth and for the possibility of justice in the country.”
Several other Republicans questioning Mueller attacked the integrity of his investigation and accused Democrats of using the hearings as political theater.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) accused Mueller’s team of having “infamous and widely publicized bias,” and defended the president’s frustrations during the long-running investigation.
“Mr. Mueller, there’s one primary reason why you were called here today,” Johnson said. “Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle just want political cover. They desperately wanted you today to tell them they should impeach the president.”
Mueller declined to discuss impeachment.
Trump said earlier this week that he “probably” wasn’t going to be watching Mueller testify, but his Twitter feed Wednesday morning was packed with clips and comments from the House hearings. “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” he tweeted after Mueller’s first appearance.