With just one opportunity to skewer former special counsel Robert Mueller, Republicans on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday tried every angle imaginable to try to discredit him and his work.
Sometimes employing long-winded rants and angry rhetoric, Republican lawmakers grilled Mueller on the origins of the investigation and lamented the former special counsel’s approach to his obstruction of justice probe.
Despite the limitations Mueller faced in testifying before Congress — he was formally instructed by the Justice Department not to stray outside the bounds of his report — Republicans quizzed the former special counsel on topics he was not able to discuss. Mueller was forced to tell members dozens of times that he could not answer fully, or at all.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) embodied the strategy with a series of off-the-wall questions, starting by asking Mueller if he was confident that the so-called “Steele Dossier” was “not part of Russia’s disinformation campaign?”
“That part of the building of the case,” Mueller responded, noting that the dossier “pre-dated me by at least 10 months.”
Kicking off the Republicans’ questions during Intelligence Committee hearing, Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA) launched a left-fielder, asking about a woman named Svetlana Lokhova’s alleged affair with Michael Flynn, as reported by a British intelligence historian.
Mueller stared blankly. “I’m not going to get into those matters to which you refer.”
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), on the Judiciary Committee, pursued this tactic for nearly his entire five minutes, asking repeatedly about Fusion GPS — the firm that solicited the dossier — and other things that Mueller, repeatedly, said were “outside my purview.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and a few others took the technical route, pandering to the Fox News super fans — including President Donald Trump — who’ve for months tracked the cable news network’s painstaking efforts to discredit Mueller’s efforts altogether.
Eyebrows raised, filled with bravado, Jordan laid out the complex timeline surrounding the start of the probe into Russian election interference. “Papadopoulos tells the diplomat Russians have dirt on Clinton. Diplomat tells the FBI. What I’m wondering is who told Papadopoulos?” After pausing for dramatic effect, Jordan asked, “How did he find out?”
Mueller declined to answer, so Jordan cited the report. Joseph Mifsud, he said, “the mysterious professor who lives in Rome and London and works and teaches at two different universities.” Why wasn’t Mifsud charged for lying to the FBI? Jordan asked.
“It’s obvious, I think, that we can’t get into charging decisions,” Mueller replied.
The congressman grew more blunt. “Is Mifsud western intelligence or Russian intelligence?”
“Can’t get into that,” Mueller responded.
Mueller was constrained by Trump’s Justice Department from getting into the details on certain figures, but the congressman used the forced stonewalling to complain about Mueller anyway.
“A lot of things you can’t get into,” Jordan snarked.
Some Republicans, rather than posing questions Mueller could not answer, instead spoke aloud to themselves in longwinded monologues that barely included Mueller.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX), for example, expounded upon his frustration that Mueller investigated Trump for potential obstruction of justice and recorded the evidence in his report even though Trump could not be indicted in office.
“Can you give me an example other than Donald Trump where the Justice Department determined that an investigated person was not exonerated, because their innocence was not conclusively determined?” he asked at one point, one of only four questions he asked.
“I cannot, but this is unique situation,” Mueller began.
Ratcliffe cut him off. “Let’s just leave it at, you can’t find it,” he said, before making his point for three more minutes and then dramatically slamming Mueller’s report down with a thud.
While many Republican committee members focused on trying to discredit Mueller, others sought a positive light for the President.
Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA), for example, simply asked Mueller to confirm that Trump, personally, was not “involved in the underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
There was “insufficient evidence,” Mueller responded.
“So that’ll be a yes,” Collins replied. “Thank you.”