Within the first few minutes of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican politicos and pundits jumped on social media en masse, claiming the former FBI director looked “old” and “shaky.”
Mueller, 74, is testifying in front of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees Wednesday to talk about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He is set to answer questions for three hours in the judiciary hearing and two hours in the intelligence hearing.
The first hearing, which began at 8:30 a.m. ET, started off with a series of quickly worded questions from Chairman Jerry Nadler who focused on getting Mueller to underscore the fact he did not exonerate the president from wrongdoing. Nadler asked the former special counsel questions he could answer in the affirmative.
The exchange went smoothly. But soon after, in a series of questions from Republicans on the committee, Mueller started to stumble, asking lawmakers to repeat questions multiple times. He at one point seemed not to recognize portions of his team’s report.
The Republican questions posed to Mueller were often phrased in the double negative. In a particularly intricate question, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) pressed Mueller on his knowledge of DOJ policies and guidelines, asking which rule allowed a special counsel to not fully exonerate an individual if every American is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Mueller had difficulty hearing questions in a loud room filled with chatter and camera clicks; he also frequently referred to his notes. There was at least one audible sigh from the GOP side of the dais when Nadler asked Mueller, again, to speak more directly into the microphone so he could be heard. Even friendly Democratic questioners showed slight frustration with the pace of Mueller’s responses. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) ran out of time in part because Mueller needed her to repeat her questions a few times. “I just want to make sure I have it right,” Mueller said.
But in his first appearance before Congress in six years, the former special counsel also showed his wit, at points, prompting laughs from the crowd. In the middle of a rundown over the number of subpoenas issued and FBI agents employed in the investigation, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the judiciary ranking member, asked Mueller, “You did a lot of work?”
“That,” he said, “I agree with.”
Republican officials, operatives and pundits, along with right-wing media personalities, rushed to frame Mueller as weak, feeble, and confused while testifying before Congress.
“Mueller hearing becoming very confusing and sad,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
A splash headline atop the Drudge Report blared “Could You Repeat the Question?” Hours later, the conservative aggregator headlined his website with an image of Mueller and a caption: “DAZED AND CONFUSED.” Matt Drudge added on Twitter, “Drug test everyone in Washington. Everyone!” implying the former special counsel was intoxicated.
Far-right, conspiratorial news site The Gateway Pundit screamed in a headline: “WOW! Robert Mueller FALLS APART! Caught off Guard, Mumbling, Bumbling, Stuttering, Confused, Doddering, Nervous — COMPLETELY LOST!”
Fox News pundit Harlan Hill mocked the former special counsel, writing that Mueller “looks and sounds dazed and confused. He can’t even say Trump’s name right! ‘Tre, Trimp... uh uh uh... Trump.’
Similarly, Fox News weekend host and right-wing radio star Mark Levin tweeted during the proceedings that Mueller is “feeble” and that his performance proves a conservative theory that the special counsel’s deputy Andrew Weissmann—long a target of right-wing media for having attended a Clinton 2016 election-night event—was actually in charge of the investigation. Alt-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec echoed the claim, tweeting: “Mueller can’t clearly remember what his report said for a simple reason that every grade school teacher knows. He didn’t write it himself. Weissman did.”
National Review editor Rich Lowry, too, suggested Mueller was doddering during the hearings. “Hate to say it, but Mueller so far making Joe Biden look youthful and sprightly by comparison,” Lowry wrote.
Prominent Republican political operatives, including Rick Tyler, Josh Holmes, and John Feehery wasted no time seizing upon the former FBI chief’s shaky start. “Mueller Time is looking more like duller time,” Tyler wrote on Twitter. “Mueller looks very old. Older than I expected,” Feehery remarked.
American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp, a key Trump ally, tweeted that Democrats were “spoon feeding” questions to the special counsel to avoid “having Mueller try to string coherent sentences together.”
Democrats, too, noticed Mueller’s performance.
“This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years,” David Axelrod, a former advisor to President Obama said on Twitter. “And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.”
And during a brief recess in the first hearing, reporters echoed similar observations.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier described Mueller’s initial performance as “Halting, slow, and painful.” His colleague Chris Wallace, another consummate newsman, described the ex-FBI chief’s performance as “a disaster,” and questioned the degree to which Mueller actually was in control of the investigation.
“The years have clearly taken a toll on the Bob Mueller we used to see, and I think that’s affected his ability to be as facile with answering the questions, as perhaps both sides wanted him to be,” NBC correspondent Pete Williams said on-air.
In a public press conference in June, Mueller explained the framing of his report and said he did not want to testify in front of Congress.
“There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress,” Mueller said. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report.”
Mueller has worked with several individuals in preparation for his testimony, including those within the Department of Justice and attorneys with the law firm Wilmer Hale.
—With additional reporting by Andrew Kirell.