In testimony to two committees of the House of Representatives – the judiciary committee and the intelligence committee – the 74-year-old stuck largely to details already contained in the 448-page report that was released by the Department of Justice in April.
He did confirm that the president had asked his special counsel to lie on his behalf, and that his team did not exonerate the president on the issue of obstruction – something Mr Trump repeatedly claims they did.
He also said “yes” when asked by a congressman if the reason he did not indict the president was because of department of justice regulations preventing such a move, although he later retracted that comment.
Democrats seeking to impeach Mr Trump admitted they hoped the testimony would strengthen their hand. Has it?
Did Mueller say anything new on Capitol Hill?
As expected, the former special counsel stuck largely to the contents of his team’s report, something he had said he would do. Mr Mueller did not seem pleased to be appearing, and at times he was halting in his answers.
However, although his stated conclusions mirrored what his report said, hearing him say them out loud, undoubtedly carried fresh weight to their import. Perhaps the closest to the bombshell moment Democrats were looking for was when he was questioned by Democratic congressman Ted Lieu, a longtime backer of impeachment, whether department of justice guidelines had been the reason he did not seek to indict the president. Mr Mueller replied in the affirmative, but then rather muddied his response by adding:
“The only thing I want to add is I’m going through the elements with you. That does not mean I subscribe to what you’re trying to prove through those elements.”
For Mr Lieu that was enough. He later told reporters: “What we established today in the hearing is we have a felon sitting in the White House.”
Yet in his afternoon session, Mr Mueller walked back his comment. He said that Mr Lieu had asked if he had not charged Mr Trump because of longstanding guidelines that it was not constitutional to indict a sitting president.
“That is not the correct way to say it,” said Mr Mueller, to the presumed groan of Democrats. “As we say in the report, and I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
Will it impact the impeachment mathematics?
When Texas congressman Al Green recently tried to bring an impeachment resolution against the president, he had the support of 94 other Democrats in his party. This was not his first attempt to table the resolution, and this third effort had more support than his earlier efforts, suggesting the mood among the party is changing. Mr Mueller’s appearance may persuade one or two more Democrats that it’s time to press ahead with an inquiry. One of the committees could go ahead and start an inquiry without any vote. To open a formal hearing, Democrats would require a simple majority of 218 votes. There are currently 235 Democrats in the House.
The problem for Mr Green and others is that Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and other top officials, believe impeachment could backfire and help the president energise his supporters further ahead of the 2020 election. She has repeatedly pushed back on demands for such a move.
What about away from Capitol Hill?
It may be true that Mr Mueller’s appearance does not change the opinion of a single member of the US public as to whether the president should be impeached.
Polls show that Mr Mueller largely has a positive image and people trust him. Polls also show Mr Trump has at times had historically low approval ratings.
At the same time, polls have consistently shown a majority of the public is opposed to going ahead with impeachment. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found 59 per cent of people said the House should not begin impeachment proceedings, while 37 per cent support such a move. Among Democrats, 61 per cent support impeachment. As many commentators point out, the public long ago made up its mind about Mr Trump.
Is Mr Trump in a more precarious position after Mr Mueller’s testimony?
Not really. The president, his supporters and the White House will take the hearings as a win. They would probably have done so anyway, but many Democrats will be disappointed.
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