For two years, special counsel Robert Mueller hovered silently over the United States’ political system. His office’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia almost never issued statements, and no one on his staff seems to have leaked information about its ongoing work to the press. His report, when finally filed and released, was carefully—some would say maddeningly—written so as to neither condemn nor exonerate the president. When he appeared in public to discuss it, he spoke briefly from prepared notes and largely reiterated what was in the report.
The same pattern held throughout most of his testimony Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. If a question was put to him that required him to do anything but confirm information in the report, he demurred: “I cannot get into that,” “Those are areas I’m not going to discuss,” “I don’t feel comfortable speculating on that,” and so forth.
Taking his final questions of the day, though, from Intel chairman and California Rep. Adam Schiff, Mueller briefly became non-noncommittal. Schiff and the other Democrats on the committee had spent two-plus hours enumerating the various ways in which the Trump campaign, while it may have stopped short of joining an illegal conspiracy, had nonetheless welcomed, celebrated, and encouraged the crimes that Russian intelligence operatives committed against his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Schiff asked Mueller, essentially, what he thought about all that—and Mueller, however monosyllabically, told him.
SCHIFF: I’d like to see if we can broaden the aperture at the end of the hearing. From your testimony today, I gather that you believe that knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do.
MUELLER: And a crime.
SCHIFF: And a crime.
MUELLER: And a crime in given circumstances.
SCHIFF: And to the degree that it undermines our democracy and institutions, we can agree that it’s also unpatriotic.
SCHIFF: And wrong.
It was only a quick back-and-forth, and in the strict sense Schiff’s questions were hypothetical. But it followed another exchange in which Mueller, after being shown a slide of Trump’s enthusiastic comments about WikiLeaks’ publication of Democratic emails, responded that to call the president’s remarks about the stolen material “problematic” would be “an understatement”; it also took place just after Mueller told Florida Rep. Val Demings* that it would be “generally” fair to say that the president’s written answers to investigators’ questions were not entirely truthful or complete. If you cared to hear it, the message was there: After two years, Schiff was able to get Mueller to be as direct as he’s ever going to be about judging the way that Donald Trump and the people close to him conducted themselves in 2016—and we learned that the words that Mueller thinks it’s fair to use to describe that conduct are ones like unethical, criminal, unpatriotic, and simply wrong. True, indeed.
Correction, July 24, 2019: This post originally misspelled Val Demings’ last name.