Struggles apparent in grueling questioning
WASHINGTON — The mere mention of Robert Mueller’s name has long conjured the image of a steel-jawed former war hero whose grasp of the law in all of its smallest details made him the perfect face of the FBI.
When he left the bureau in 2013 as its longest serving director since J. Edgar Hoover, he was widely credited with transforming an agency that had been exposed as vulnerable in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks.
Yet the Robert Mueller who appeared before two House committees Wednesday to explain the findings from a two-year inquiry into Russian election interference was a notably changed man.
His distinctive voice was weak and raspy. Facing even friendly questions, he appeared to struggle. Frequently, he called on lawmakers to repeat their questions. And at times, he appealed for direction in locating pertinent citations in his own report.
Perhaps the performance was a measure of the former special counsel’s stated reluctance to testify about the report’s findings. He has asserted that the 448-page final report should speak for itself and for him.
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Still, lawmakers acknowledged a noticeable difference between the FBI director who left the public stage six years ago and the 74-year-old former special counsel who returned to the arena Wednesday.
“It happens to us,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee who joined in the questioning Wednesday. “But the credibility of Director Mueller is unquestioned. And he was the greatest patriot in that room today.”
Even if the former special counsel struggled at times, Speier maintained that the hearing achieved what was intended.
“I think the public has a better understanding than they did yesterday,” Speier said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said Mueller’s periodic lapses were not a concern.
“Any of us would need to have our recollections refreshed from time to time,” Swalwell said.
Others were not so generous.
“Mueller had zero command of this investigation,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said.
And Mueller’s performance was the first observation offered Wednesday by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
“Mueller looked very frail,” Scalise said. “He wasn’t really answering questions directly that were related to his report.”
The former special counsel did, however, remain true to his promise that his testimony would not stray from the conclusions outlined in the text of his report. He repeatedly referred lawmakers back to the text of his report when he declined to offer his own interpretation.
Even in one lost moment, he managed to find some humor when he could not recall which president appointed him as a young United States attorney in Massachusetts. It was Ronald Reagan.