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Robert Mueller Biographer Weighs In On Former Special Counsel's Testimony

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's a different way of looking at today's hearings here in Washington. Of course, they were an airing of the Mueller report, which looked into two big issues - one, Russian interference in the 2016 election and, two, whether President Trump tried to obstruct justice as the investigation of his campaign proceeded.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

However, today's hearings felt, at times, less like an investigation of Donald Trump and his motives and his actions than an investigation of Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the witness chair today.

I want to bring in Garrett Graff, who wrote a biography of Mueller. He also wrote the cover story for the June issue of Wired magazine headlined "The Making Of Robert Mueller." And he's in our studio now.

Hey there, Garrett.

GARRETT GRAFF: Hi.

KELLY: I want to start by asking you about something that's a little delicate but that you couldn't help but notice as hour after hour of the hearing unfolded, which was how halting Mueller seemed. He was fumbling for words. I want to play just one example. He was fielding a question here from Democrat Zoey (ph) Lofgren of California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZOE LOFGREN: Did your investigation find that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from one of the candidates winning?

ROBERT MUELLER: Yes.

LOFGREN: And which candidate would that be?

MUELLER: Well, it would be Trump.

LOFGREN: Correct.

KELLY: Now, we all misspeak under pressure. In fact, I just called Zoe Lofgren Zoey Lofgren, so, you know, we take all this with a grain of salt. But did it strike you as you listened, Garrett?

GRAFF: Yeah. I think there were sort of a couple of things unfolding today that, perhaps, made Mueller seem less in command of some of his answers than you might expect him to be. One is, remember; this is someone who was shaking off the rust of not testifying before Congress, really, over the last six years. I mean, he's been primarily in public life, has not spoken publicly during his time as special counsel.

At the same time, he seemed very committed to saying as little as possible. And so he was trying to be both as reticent as he could be in his answers while also being as legally precise as he could.

SHAPIRO: I suppose one question, given the amount of time you have spent with him interviewing him for the biography you wrote about him, is, did the man on the witness stand today seem different to you from the man who you've come to know over many years?

GRAFF: He seemed an older version of the man that I know and that is sort of familiar from previous congressional hearings. I mean, this is someone who has never been verbose in congressional hearings but who has always gone out of his way to keep his answers as short as possible.

KELLY: And I think one thing that struck me was that he was tripped up by some very basic questions about the ground covered in his own report but also questions about his own biography. There's another example. This is Republican (ph) Congressman Greg Stanton from Arizona questioning him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG STANTON: Which president appointed you to become the United States Attorney for Massachusetts?

MUELLER: Which senator?

STANTON: Which president?

MUELLER: Oh, which president? I think that was President Bush.

STANTON: According to my notes, it was President Ronald Reagan had the honor to do so. Under whose...

MUELLER: My mistake.

KELLY: Garrett Graff, setting aside whatever might have been going on with Robert Mueller today - and I have to confess I wondered if he could hear all of the questions. I wear hearing aids myself, and it's loud in those cavernous hearing rooms. And, you know, he's not able to hear things as cleanly as we are listening on headphones. But to the broader question of his credibility, which was central to these proceedings, did he damage it today?

GRAFF: I don't know that he helped himself greatly. I do think...

KELLY: He was supposed to be the star witness...

GRAFF: Yeah.

KELLY: ...For Democrats.

GRAFF: I do think there was a notable change over the course of the morning from the first half to the second half, where you actually saw him after that first break - I think he must have gotten some sort of pep talk in the locker room during the break in the morning - where he came out and he was more forceful and just a tad bit more combative in sort of taking on some of the questions as he parried them and stepping up to defend the integrity of his investigation and particularly the integrity of his team.

SHAPIRO: And that came up again and again. It seemed as though Republicans and Democrats alike began by thanking him for his lifetime of public service. And then Republicans went for the jugular, questioning his own independence and impartiality, which Democrats, including Congressman Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, then stepped up to defend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: When Donald Trump called your investigation a witch hunt, that was also false, was it not?

MUELLER: I like to think so, yes.

SCHIFF: Well, your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?

MUELLER: It is not a witch hunt.

SCHIFF: When the president said the Russian interference was a hoax, that was false, wasn't it?

MUELLER: True.

SHAPIRO: In this late stage of Mueller's career, did it seem to you that his reputation was sort of on trial today before Congress?

GRAFF: I think that Democrats certainly were doing everything they could to bolster it while Republicans - that was the thing that they were most trying to muddy. You know, the Republican line of attack on Mueller for the better part of three years now - or two years, really, during the course of the special counsel - has been to try to drag Mueller, this widely respected, apolitical figure, sort of down into the political swamp with the rest of Washington.

KELLY: I want to turn to a historical comparison and ask whether it's apt or not. I have heard you talk before about how back during Watergate, it was the televised proceedings that shifted public opinion, that eventually opened the door to Nixon's downfall. That is what a lot of Democrats were hoping to watch the beginnings of today - that, you know, these live hearings broadcast coast to coast would capture the public imagination in a way that this very long, very lawyerly report did not. In your view, did that happen?

GRAFF: I don't think that that happened today. You know, Democrats, I think, very skillfully - I was sort of surprised at how well-organized they seemed today - did put together a pretty substantive and damning collection of the five major points of obstruction by the president in the morning and then, in the afternoon, really did dig deep into the question of the help that the Trump campaign was willing to accept from Russia during the 2016 election.

But I think probably most people who listened to larger portions of either hearing or both hearings came away sort of slightly befuddled about the whole thing.

SHAPIRO: Garrett, I remember the last time Mueller spoke publicly in May as he was stepping down from the post of special counsel, you tweeted words to the effect that this was Mueller's apolitical, diplomatic way of screaming for Congress to pick this up and begin impeachment investigations and impeachment proceedings. Did you have the same impression from his testimony today?

GRAFF: I didn't. And - although I think that that was still true of his May comments. And it sort of seems like in many cases today, Mueller said, in not so many words, I've done my part here, guys. I've laid out all of the evidence that you need. This is really up to you now. Don't expect me to step in as the white horse and save American democracy.

KELLY: So in your view, what is it that Mueller wants Americans to take away from today?

GRAFF: Well, I actually was surprised by how forceful he was in talking about the Russian attack on the 2016 election and the need to confront that aggression and combat it in 2020 and going forward. You know, he was quite clear, even saying at one point, you know, look. We've probably understated the importance of this half of our investigation and really need leaders to be engaging going forward on this.

KELLY: That's Garrett Graff, contributing editor for Wired and author of "The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller's FBI And The War On Global Terror."

Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAPOLLO'S "ADAM'S PEAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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