So maybe this is why Robert Mueller didn’t want to testify.
For two years, he was the silent man behind the curtain, all-knowing and all-powerful, revered by Democrats, feared by President Trump. But when he finally sat before Congress for nearly seven hours on Wednesday, the former special counsel seemed remarkably weak. He looked dazed and confused as he listened, mouth agape, to his questioners, often struggling to identify who was talking. He stammered, licked his lips, consulted his aide and begged forbearance.
“Could you repeat that, ma’am?”
“And what was the question, sir, if I might?”
“I’m sorry, could you again repeat the question?”
“I apologize, can you start over again?”
At least five times, he was reminded to speak into the microphone. “Sorry,” he would say, then repeat the infraction.
Even the basic proved troublesome, as when asked which candidate the Russians tried to help.
“Well, it would be Trimp,” he replied. “Uh, Trump.”
Maybe the 74-year-old former FBI director had lost something off his fastball. Or maybe he simply felt hemmed in by so many restrictions — real and imagined — applied to his testimony by the Justice Department and by himself, that he couldn’t say anything at all. Whatever the reason, Republican lawmakers eviscerated him, assaulting his integrity and his ethics, questioning his political motivations, disparaging the FBI and even casting doubt on Russia’s interference in the election. Mueller offered little by way of defense and frequently absorbed the blows in silence.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, accused Mueller of a “fishing” expedition against Trump.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, called Mueller’s report inaccurate and accused him of lacking evidence implicating the Russian government.
The worst may have been Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who issued a fundraising appeal by email in the middle of the hearing, asking for money to show “you have my back when I take on Robert Mueller.” Gohmert told Mueller he had “credibility” problems and “maybe you’ve been away from the courtroom for a while.” He accused Mueller of hiring aides who “hate” Trump and, shouting, said Mueller “perpetuated injustice.”
“I take your question” was Mueller’s only reply. (For grins, Gohmert introduced into the record an article he wrote called “Robert Mueller: Unmasked.”)
Democrats tried to defend Mueller by recalling his heroism in Vietnam and his lengthy service as a Republican appointee, but even this was a struggle.
“Which president appointed you to become the United States attorney for Massachusetts?” asked Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz.
“Which senator?” a puzzled Mueller asked.
“Which president?” Stanton repeated.
“Oh, which president,” Mueller paused. “I think that was President Bush.”
Buzz. “According to my notes, it was President Ronald Reagan,” Stanton coached.
“My mistake,” Mueller said.
Democrats were disappointed the Sphinx didn’t speak boldly; Republicans were delighted. But for this honorable public servant, it was, above all, a sad coda to a grand career; sad for Mueller because he did not come off as commanding or authoritative, but more sad for the country because, once again, he failed to train the spotlight on ongoing foreign interference in our elections.
Just as when he issued his report in the spring, Mueller seemed to be operating under the assumption that everything was on the level; that people would digest and analyze his findings honestly. In this sense, he is an anachronism, a man from a time when people behaved as honorably as he does. This was naive. In trying to remain above the fray, he seemed unable to mount the forceful defense needed of his work, his staff and the FBI. While he was cautious and lawyerly, Republicans demolished him: Mueller was “fundamentally unfair” and “threw a bunch of stuff up against the wall to see what would stick” (Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado); “managed to violate every principle” (Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas); wrote a “one-sided attack on the president” (Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio); had an “amazing” double standard (Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio); was on a quest ” to stop Trump” (Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida); “left out significant exculpatory evidence” (Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, Pennsylvania); “mostly regurgitated press stories” (Rep. Debbie Lesko, Arizona); was “disruptive to the American people” (Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah); and perpetuated the “Russia hoax” (Rep. Devin Nunes, California).
Inevitably, Trump joined in the attack on this decent man. Quoting Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the president tweeted that “this has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.”
Sadly, the part about Mueller was true.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.