Robert Mueller Gets Ambushed By the Washington Post: “A Hangdog Mona Lisa”…”Stumbling Over His Words”…”Dazed and Confused”…”The Creeping Effects of Age”

Former Marine Robert Mueller faces “a gallery of bobbleheads” on Capitol Hill.

As with many Washington sagas, it came down to this: an old man in a charcoal suit who didn’t want to talk. A former Marine just shy of his 75th birthday, dragged into serving his country one last time, though there’s little honor in it now. A hangdog Mona Lisa before a gallery of bobbleheads, subjected in the winter of a dignified career to the indignities of Congress. He had taken a bullet to the thigh in Vietnam, steered the FBI through the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks, and yet on Wednesday — during congressional hearings on his last act of public service — Robert Swan Mueller III seemed wary of the microphone itself.

“Director, could you speak more directly into the microphone, please?” the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), said early in the first of two hearings.

“Yes,” Mueller replied. It would be one of the few words he murmured during the day, along with “No,” “True,” and “This is outside my purview.”. . .

It was supposed to be a juicy dramatization of a 250,000-word government report that very few people have read. An anti-Trump protester out on Independence Avenue summarized the meaning of the day: Once Mueller talks out loud, said Anne Alston of Herndon, Va., the report becomes “a movie rather than a book.”. . .

Inside, as the first hearing began, the floor seemed to be made of photographers. A bearded protester in a striped scarf easily slipped into the room after Mueller took his seat. “Kushner and Manafort downloaded encrypted apps on the day of the Trump Tower meeting!” the protester shouted as he was hauled out. There would be few exclamation points to follow, as the movie turned plodding and ponderous. . . .

The star’s head has gone white over the past 10 years, though his hairline has held valiantly. He looks like he smells of Vitalis and Old Spice. He’s never been a suave speaker, and his stammering Wednesday got people talking. Was this just his trademark care with words? A sign of old age, or just weariness? People judged his performance, as if he was an actor in a movie with a clear plot. . . .

“Mr. Mueller is very hard to hear,” a Democratic staffer in the room said by email. “Most answers are short, but his longer responses are almost indiscernible. His hands shook noticeably before he swore in. That seems to have gone away for now so I hope it was just his nerves.”

—From a Washington Post Style section story, by Dan Zak and Jada Yuan, headlined, “The gentleman’s time has expired.”
He could be quick, abrupt, precise — a familiar version of Robert S. Mueller III, the Marine and FBI director who had established himself in a lifetime of service as a paragon of Washington nonpartisanship. Again and again, he dispatched questions from Democrats and Republicans alike: “True.” “Accurate.” “Correct.”

But in what was likely to have been his final act on Washington’s center stage Wednesday, the special counsel who spent nearly two years investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election also displayed an unfamiliar and troubling side, repeatedly asking for help finding quotations from his own report, over and over seeming to struggle to follow questions. He spoke softly, stumbling over his words, occasionally trailing off, as if he’d lost his train of thought.

Mueller’s halting testimony on Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees examining what went wrong in the 2016 presidential election was at times painful to watch.

The proceedings seemed to change few, if any, minds about Trump’s connection to Russian interference. But the day definitively altered perceptions of Mueller, one of the nation’s most honored public officials, a symbol of bipartisanship as FBI director in the harrowing months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. . . .

Mueller phased in and out of the precise, pointed style that had characterized his long legal career. At times, especially in the afternoon session before the Intelligence Committee, he seemed his old self, anticipating questions, displaying sharp command of his investigation. He artfully avoided stating any opinions about Trump’s actions, even as he vigorously defended the integrity of his investigative staff. Every hair was in place, his trademark white shirt was crisp, his grasp on the boundaries of his testimony seemed firm. . . .

He sometimes searched for words. His hesitations at times seemed intentional, like Jimmy Stewart in one of his aw-shucks roles as a character who strategically stumbles in the service of deflecting unwanted questions. At other points, Mueller’s halting manner seemed involuntary.

He tripped on the president’s name: “It would be Trimp, uh, Trump,” he said at one point. He said he was “not familiar” with the name Fusion GPS, a company that played a central role in the origins of the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign. He said, after a long pause, that he’d been appointed U.S. attorney in Boston by President George H.W. Bush, when it had actually been President Ronald Reagan. . . .

On TV and online, the verdict on Mueller’s day on Capitol Hill was, for once, unanimous across ideological divisions: “frail” (NBC), “dazed and confused” (Drudge Report), “a disaster for the Democrats, and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller” (Fox News). That last quote, from Fox anchor Chris Wallace, appealed to Trump, who quickly tweeted it out to his followers. . . .

Brow furrowed, eyes searching, Mueller sometimes reached over to one of his attorneys for help identifying a passage he’d been asked about, or for direction about which House member had just spoken, or for a word or two about how to answer a question. . . .

Whatever the reasons for Mueller’s halting performance, whether his apparent befuddlement was artful dodge or evidence of the creeping effects of age and strain, this was always going to be a reluctant, cautious witness.

—From a page one Washington Post story, by Marc Fisher, headlined “A performance full of stumbles shakes a sterling Washington image.”

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. . . .

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.

—From Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank is a column headlined “A sad coda to a grand career.”

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