- Justice Department veterans are deeply frustrated with the way politicians handled the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s historic testimony this week, and how it was later covered by the media.
- “The debate people are having right now is about style rather than substance,” Elie Honig, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, told INSIDER, adding: “Why should that matter? Look at what he said.”
- A former senior Justice Department official who worked closely with Mueller when he was FBI director echoed that view, telling INSIDER that the way Mueller’s hearings were handled “was a f—ing travesty.”
- “The criticism that everyone has is that Mueller refuses to reduce his report to a sound bite,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor. “And with all this circus over who won and who lost and how Mueller performed, we’ve blown past the historical significance of this moment.”
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The Russian government interfered in the 2016 US election in a “sweeping and systematic” fashion to propel Donald Trump to the presidency. The Trump campaign welcomed the intrusion. Trump and his associates tried to weaponize their political positions for financial gain. After assuming office, Trump significantly obstructed the investigation into Russia’s meddling on nearly a dozen occasions. He ordered the White House counsel to fire the man investigating him. He urged witnesses not to cooperate with prosecutors. And contrary to his repeated assertions, he was not “totally and completely exonerated” of wrongdoing.
The former special counsel Robert Mueller testified to these findings before Congress this week, but none of it was actually news.
Nearly everything the former FBI director told lawmakers was plucked directly from the 448-page report that the Justice Department released in April. At a news conference the next month when he formally closed the investigation, Mueller told reporters that if he were forced to testify before Congress, he would not go beyond what was contained in the document, because “the report is my testimony.”
So it surprised – and frustrated – Justice Department veterans when politicians and pundits were disappointed that Mueller’s six-hour testimony this week wasn’t more theatrical.
- Leah Millis/Reuters
Mueller ‘behaved like a dignified man who didn’t want to be turned into some sort of performing monkey’
“Anybody who was disappointed by Mueller’s performance simply wasn’t paying attention,” Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who has worked with members of Mueller’s team, told INSIDER.
Elie Honig, a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, told INSIDER that “the debate people are having right now is about style rather than substance.”
“Let’s take away the superficiality of whether he looked assured, or whether he hesitated, or looked too old, or if he fired off his answers quickly enough,” Honig said. “Why should that matter? Look at what he said.”
Mueller’s report stands in contrast to that of Ken Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel.
The Whitewater investigation started as a probe of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton’s real-estate investments. But the matter quickly ballooned to include explicit details of the president’s personal life and his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
The Starr report “was a perversion of what a prosecutor should do, and it went for the lurid details instead of staying within its scope, and it was blatantly partisan,” Cotter said.
“Mueller’s report was the opposite,” he added. “It is a model of clarity. It’s well written. It’s well organized. He hit the main points over and over again. There are summaries and previews. It’s all there. He behaved like a dignified man who didn’t want to be turned into some sort of performing monkey.”
‘One slip of the tongue could be used to undermine his team’s work’
When he could, Mueller stuck with “yes” or “no” answers, or he directed lawmakers to read the report themselves. He demurred when asked to read aloud portions of the document, and he flatly refused to discuss topics that strayed from his mandate or were currently involved in investigations.
“As a prosecutor, he had to ensure he stayed detached from the political process, presenting his findings in a manner that did not make it appear he was choosing a side or advancing an agenda,” Renato Mariotti, another longtime former federal prosecutor, wrote for Politico Magazine. “One slip of the tongue could be used to undermine his team’s work.”
Mariotti added that even though Mueller’s monotone answers may not have made for dramatic TV, “they weren’t without effect.”
At one point, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, walked Mueller through a particularly incriminating line of questioning in which he got Mueller to confirm, with one- or two-word answers, that Russia wanted to help Trump win in 2016, that Trump and his campaign encouraged the effort, and that Trump lied to the public about his financial dealings in Russia.
In another instance, Democratic Rep. Val Demings got Mueller to confirm that the president was “generally” untruthful in his written answers to prosecutors’ questions.
Elsewhere, Mueller said that welcoming foreign assistance in an election is “unpatriotic” and “wrong,” and that “‘problematic’ would be an understatement” regarding Trump’s effusive praise of WikiLeaks.
Among other things, he also revealed that some members of Trump’s inner circle are still subjects of counterintelligence investigations.
‘It was a f—ing travesty’
Given the substance of Mueller’s testimony, former officials expressed frustration with the media’s coverage of the hearings.
“Everything we saw in the aftermath was about Mueller asking for questions to be repeated, how it played for the Democrats, how it looked for Republicans, whether this was good or bad for the president,” a former senior Justice Department official who worked closely with Mueller when he was FBI director told INSIDER. “And very little was about the value of what Mueller said and what’s in his report. It was a f—ing travesty.”
Cotter echoed that view.
“What should have been a very serious, very important inquiry into an attack on our democracy – from outside and from within, reaching to the very highest levels of our government – was treated as a TV show, and it was reviewed as though Mueller was an actor in a play,” he said.
“The criticism that everyone has is that Mueller refuses to reduce his report to a sound bite,” Cotter added. “He won’t lie. He won’t pervert. He won’t take something complex and present it as simple. And with all this circus over who won and who lost and how Mueller performed, we’ve blown past the historical significance of this moment.”