Mueller, a man of few words, may disappoint Trump impeachment advocates

Robert Mueller is a man of few words. Once, when he was FBI director, he picked up complaints — passed along by his wife — that he was pushing his aides too hard. So, he called up, Chuck Rosenberg, his chief of staff.

“How are you doing?” Mueller asked him.

“Fine,” Rosenberg replied. “What can I get you, boss?”

“Nothing,” replied Mueller, ending the conversation, satisfied he had done all he needed to do to check up on his overworked staff.

That exchange, recounted in “The Threat Matrix,” a penetrating book about the FBI by journalist Garrett Graff, is emblematic of the taciturn, straight-laced Marine who will take center stage Wednesday when he appears before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees to testify about his landmark report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The hearings are being billed as a watershed moment in a political drama that has gripped Washington ever since Donald Trump was sworn in as president. Democrats clearly hope that simply hearing Mueller speak will give new life to a dry, dense 448-page report that they argue has damning evidence of presidential misconduct. “The Mueller book will never be read by most of the American public, but the Mueller movie will be watched,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said when it was announced that Mueller would testify before the congressional committees.

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Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Mueller report
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Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Mueller report
Attorney General William Barr is photographed as he sits down to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Attorney General William Barr, right, is sworn in by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, as he faces lawmakers' questions for the first time since releasing special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Attorney General William Barr is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the Russia report by special counsel Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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But those who know him best say Mueller is unlikely to deliver — or say much, if anything — that will advance the cause of those advocating Trump’s impeachment. The 74-year-old former special counsel has shunned the public limelight for decades, rarely giving interviews or holding press conferences. When he was required to testify before Congress, Mueller would generally speak in clipped, stilted and legalistic terms, almost never straying from his written talking points. “A lot of people are going to be disappointed,” said one former FBI veteran when asked what to expect when Mueller, at long last, appears under the klieg lights.

To be sure, Mueller has pretty much telegraphed as much. “The report is my testimony,” he memorably declared last May when he made his only public comments about the investigation that the political world has been obsessing over for the past two years. It is worth noting that Mueller — unlike special counsels or independent counsels in the past — said absolutely nothing public during the course of his probe. He never defended himself when Trump repeatedly derided his investigation as a “witch-hunt” or attacked his staff members as “angry Democrats.” After Mueller delivered what was arguably his most important indictment — against Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Democratic National Committee and delivering the stolen contents to WikiLeaks — it was then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who gave the press conference detailing the charges. The noteworthy point wasn’t just that Mueller didn’t conduct the press conference. He didn’t even show up.

Moreover, a Justice Department official just made Mueller’s desire to stay as mute as possible a lot easier. In a remarkably broad letter, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer gave Mueller strict guidelines he should follow when he testifies about his tenure serving as the Justice Department special counsel. Mueller should “not go beyond” the public wording of his report, Weinsheimer wrote. He should say nothing about redacted portions that may impact ongoing cases, such as the upcoming trial of Roger Stone, the president’s longtime political adviser. He must adhere to the department’s “longstanding policy” of not discussing “uncharged third parties” (read: Trump or members of his family). And perhaps most critically, the letter stated that Mueller should refrain from saying anything about the internal deliberations of his office — how and why it reached the decisions it made on the grounds that such matters could be covered by executive privilege, attorney work product and other potential legal bars.

What got less attention than the heavy-handed edict from the department was the predicate for the letter itself. It was Mueller who asked for it. On July 10, Mueller requested the department give him guidance on what he could or could not say to the committees. The unanswered question (so far) is whether Mueller feels unduly constrained by the Justice letter — or whether it was exactly what he wanted to give him the cover he needed to say nothing.

That said, there are legitimate questions that Mueller will be asked, and many will want him to answer regardless of where they come down on the impeachment question. First and foremost, is why he did not reach a legal conclusion as to whether Trump obstructed justice — a dereliction of his duty as a prosecutor, in the minds of many of his critics.

As is now well known, Mueller’s report documents 10 instances of potential obstruction. The most serious instances were Trump’s directive to White House counsel Don McGahn to call up Rosenstein and have Mueller removed for potential conflicts and, after this got reported months later by the New York Times, his instruction to McGahn to write a memo denying what the Times accurately reported. (McGahn refused both orders from the president.)

Mueller detailed other highly problematic instances — such as Trump’s directive to former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to deliver a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from the Russia probe and then order Mueller to restrict the probe to “investigating election meddling for future elections.” (Lewandowski, like McGahn, balked — and there was no explanation of how the Justice Department special counsel was supposed to restrict his investigation into events that hadn’t yet happened.)

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Robert Mueller
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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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The Mueller report dwells at some length on preexisting Justice Department legal opinions that conclude that a sitting president cannot be indicted while in office. That will undoubtedly prompt Democrats to press Mueller hard on the fundamental question: Would he have recommended that Trump be indicted were he not president?

But the actual wording of Mueller’s report doesn’t suggest there is an easy answer to that question. It notes, for example, that “the evidence we obtained did not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” While that does not preclude a criminal charge of obstruction — a defendant can obstruct an investigation into conduct that was personally or politically embarrassing even if it wasn’t criminal — it does make such an indictment less saleable to a potential jury.

In the end, Mueller wrote in his report in one of its more ambiguous passages, he and his team did not reach a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” as to whether Trump committed a crime. The evidence they compiled “presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if were making” such a judgment, he wrote. Just what those issues are would be central to resolving the biggest issue of all for House Democrats: whether they should proceed to the impeachment of Trump based on Mueller’s evidence. If history is any guide, Democrats shouldn’t expect Mueller to make their job any easier.

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