The Blockbuster That Wasn’t: Mueller Disappoints the Democrats

WASHINGTON — In the days leading up to the special counsel’s much-anticipated appearance before Congress, Democrats argued that hearing from Robert S. Mueller III on television could transform the impeachment debate. While Americans might not read the book, the argument went, they would watch the movie.

If so, the movie Americans tuned into on Wednesday was not the blockbuster Democrats had sought nor was Mr. Mueller the action star they had cast. Dignified but shaky, and at times struggling to keep up, he largely stuck to “yes” and “no” and “refer you to the report” answers, steadfastly refusing to dramatize his conclusions as President Trump’s critics wanted him to do.

By the time he finished nearly seven hours later, Democrats were disappointed they did not get the made-for-TV accusatory moment they wanted, and the prospect for impeachment appeared far more difficult. Although the president’s critics vowed to persist, a gleeful Mr. Trump claimed he was completely cleared while shouting angry insults at reporters on the South Lawn.

“Much as I hate to say it, this morning’s hearing was a disaster,” Laurence Tribe, the Harvard law professor who has argued that the House should pursue impeachment, wrote on Twitter. “Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it. The effort to save democracy and the rule of law from this lawless president has been set back, not advanced.”

For all of the dismal reviews of Mr. Mueller’s performance, the day did not end talk of impeachment, and afterward, in fact, one more House Democrat came out for an inquiry into whether he committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Democrats advocating such an investigation strategized over how to move forward despite reluctance among moderates representing districts friendlier to Mr. Trump.

Still, after Mr. Mueller’s first extended discussion of his investigation since he was appointed two years ago, the threats to Mr. Trump’s presidency appeared distant. Just last week, federal prosecutors in New York signaled they were unlikely to file additional charges in the election year hush-money scheme to silence two women alleging sexual encounters with Mr. Trump. The week before that, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Mr. Trump had violated the Constitution by collecting money from government guests at his hotel in Washington.

Mr. Trump also asserted his executive power on Wednesday to dismiss threats to two cabinet officers referred for criminal contempt charges by the House for defying subpoenas for information about the census citizenship question dispute. The Justice Department said it would not prosecute Attorney General William P. Barr or Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, because Mr. Trump’s assertion of executive privilege over the information made it lawful for them to refuse to provide it.

All of this does not mean Mr. Trump or his associates are out of political or legal danger. The hotel lawsuit or a similar one regarding the Constitution’s “emoluments” clauses could still reach the Supreme Court. Other investigations of Mr. Trump, his associates and his organizations remain active. Democratic lawmakers continue to fight to enforce various subpoenas and have gone to court seeking access to Mr. Trump’s tax returns.

And some Democrats said they still got what they wanted from Mr. Mueller on the merits, if not the theater. Although he did not go beyond the contours of the report he submitted four months ago, the special counsel reaffirmed that he did not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice charges, and he made clear that Mr. Trump willingly profited from Russian help during the 2016 election, even if there was not enough evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy.

“It decimated any claim the report exonerated the president or said he was innocent,” said Michael J. Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor and an impeachment scholar at the University of North Carolina. “Instead, I think he underscored that the report was passing the matter to Congress and particularly the House.”

Barbara L. McQuade, a former United States attorney in Michigan, said that the totality of the case was still powerful. “The format and Mueller’s stubborn neutrality make the facts come out haltingly, but the facts would be compelling, if not shocking, for anyone who has not heard them before,” she said. “Mueller testified today that Russia committed crimes to help elect Trump, that Trump welcomed the help and that he then lied about it.”

For the most part restrained and reluctant to be drawn into the political debate surrounding him, Mr. Mueller grew more passionate in defending the integrity of his investigation and team, firmly rejecting Mr. Trump’s attacks. “It is not a witch hunt,” Mr. Mueller said. As for Russia’s interference, he said, “Absolutely, that was not a hoax.”

In fact, he agreed that many around Mr. Trump lied to cover up what was going on during the 2016 election and that the president’s own written answers were “generally” inadequate, incomplete and not always truthful. And he chastised the president for encouraging WikiLeaks to release emails stolen by Russia in 2016, saying that Mr. Trump’s public comments offered “some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”

The day was marked by the predictable partisan crossfire between Democrats acting as prosecutors of Mr. Trump and Republicans acting as his defense lawyers. While Democrats sought to get Mr. Mueller to agree with their interpretations about the illegality of Mr. Trump’s actions, Republicans drilled in on what they called the unfair origins of the investigation.

For every time a Democrat declared that “no one is above the law,” including a president, a Republican pontificated about the “presumption of innocence.” The Republicans seemed not at all concerned by any of the president’s actions, and the Democrats were not at all concerned by any of the prosecutor’s actions.

The messages were not always consistent. Mr. Trump has claimed that Mr. Mueller’s report represented “complete and total exoneration,” which the special counsel made clear again on Wednesday was not true. So Republicans spent much of the day trying to establish that Mr. Mueller actually did not have the power to exonerate, despite the president’s own false claims that he had done just that.

The hearings left some viewers looking for a clear bottom line. Neal K. Katyal, a former acting solicitor general under President Barack Obama, agreed that the morning hearing before the House Judiciary Committee focused on obstruction of justice “was meandering.” But he said the afternoon session before the House Intelligence Committee focused on Russia’s clandestine campaign on Mr. Trump’s behalf was more damaging.

“It paints a picture of Russia massively interfering in our election, doing it to help Trump, and with Trump campaign encouraging it,” Mr. Katyal said. “It’s really hard to ignore, whatever one’s politics. And then the natural question that has to be asked is why Trump tried to terminate the investigation instead of getting to the bottom of it.”

For House Democrats, who have been debating among themselves the virtues and wisdom of impeaching Mr. Trump if a Republican-controlled Senate would most likely not convict him, the day made clear that Mr. Mueller would not resolve that question by himself. At the least, they concluded there would not be a huge popular groundswell absent new evidence or some other change in circumstance, meaning that lawmakers were left to make the difficult decision whether to proceed or not on their own.

“The job of leaders is to lead,” said Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, the first freshman Democrat from a swing district to call for an impeachment inquiry. “I’ve never expected the public to be ahead of their representatives in Congress on interpreting the meaning of the Mueller report and deciding what our responsibility is.”