WASHINGTON — The day finally arrived: DC bars opened early, interns who had camped out in the Capitol overnight filled the room, and dozens of cameras were set. All eyes were on former special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday as he appeared before two House committees.
It’s a day Democrats had been eagerly awaiting for weeks. Mueller, finally, would sit before them and, under oath, discuss the findings of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was, many pundits speculated, the thing that would finally break the dam, forcing the House to open an impeachment inquiry.
The reality, as it often goes with congressional hearings, wasn’t quite so explosive.
In front of both the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees Wednesday, Mueller consistently declined to answer questions from members of either party, refused to discuss impeachment, often stuck to short answers, and — as he’d promised before the hearing — largely kept to the text of his report.
Many Democrats said they thought the hearings were valuable, but some griped that the party has pinned too much on Mueller’s testimony, and that while the testimony wasn’t good for the president, per se, it didn’t move the ball in the way many had hoped.
“I didn’t expect more than this,” Rep. Jared Huffman of California said in a brief interview with BuzzFeed News several hours into the hearings. “I do think it’s a bit of a dud, but that’s what I was expecting all along. … The bigger takeaway is probably the questions he refuses to answer.”
Huffman, who has called for an impeachment inquiry, continued, “That leaves us in a frustrating place. Frankly, our Democratic majority has pinned a lot on Mueller and his report … In retrospect, we made some tactical mistakes.”
The party, Huffman said, has lost the messaging war to Trump and his allies by raising expectations about Mueller’s report and putting the former special counsel on a pedestal. Now the party lacks a clear message about impeachment.
“The whole thing leaves us at a deep strategic disadvantage to the Trump administration that is willing to shout these lies in the right-wing echo chamber, and they have succeeded,” Huffman said.
Another Democratic member said in a text message Wednesday that the event was “more or less” what he expected, and was pleased to hear Mueller say that any campaign should report foreign solicitations to the FBI, a brief but rare diversion from the special counsel’s report. The Democrat declined to be named in order to speak freely.
Asked if he thought the public’s expectations were too high, the member responded, “Not sure what they were. I was trying to tamp them down.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who has also supported impeachment efforts, was trying to do the same ahead of the hearing.
“I think one must reconcile ourselves that maybe there is no silver bullet here,” he told reporters Tuesday evening. “What I hope it leads to is more consciousness on the part of the public. Whether that motivates more calls for impeachment from members of Congress especially in our caucus? I can’t answer that.”
Even Democrats who were pleased with the substance of the hearings said it didn’t make for great TV, as many Democrats hoped it would.
“Strong on substance. Poor on style,” one senior Democratic aide said in a text message. The structure, he argued, didn’t work to Mueller’s benefit.
“Each member asked a random question about a portion of the report and quickly demanded an answer before their five minutes ended,” the aide wrote. “I was right behind him. I watched him struggle to find the page, read it and respond in time[.] It was ridiculous.”
“He’s a 74-year-old man,” the aide added. “Who the fuck can memorize 448 pages? At any age much less 74.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, who sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, was more optimistic. Asked if the hearing went as well as he’d hoped it would, Swalwell quickly responded via text message that it had.
“We showed that the president sought to cover up his role in working with Russians by committing at least 10 acts of obstruction,” the California Democrat wrote. “Yet he’s shielded from criminal liability because his own DOJ policy prohibits a sitting president from being charged. It was chilling to hear that when Donald Trump leaves office he could be charged with a crime.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, who is also on the Judiciary committee, argued the hearing went "splendidly" and that it gave Mueller an opportunity to educate the public about the evidence his team collected.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, another Judiciary member, said she was “very pleased that Director Mueller came in and spoke with so credibly, with such integrity, about the findings of the contents of this report.”
“I think it’s a very important first day, to be very, very honest. Some people are saying it’s the last day. This is the beginning,” Dean said.
Kadia Goba contributed reporting to this story.