While Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee claim to have been “blindsided” by Robert Mueller’s poor performance on Wednesday, at least one Republican claims his caucus strategized for Mueller’s “frailty.” Rep. Matt Gaetz told the Washington Times that the topic of Mueller’s health was a significant issue in their prep sessions, and that they crafted a strategy to capitalize on it. And afterwards, there were backslaps all around for their success in doing so (via Hot Air’s libertarian contributor Taylor Millard):
A day after Mr. Mueller’s appearance before Congress, described by some as “befuddled” and by others as a “disaster” for Democrats, the Florida Republican said the 74-year-old prosecutor’s health was a hot topic in prep sessions.
“There were some House Republicans in our prep sessions patting themselves on the back about that and feeling optimistic about assertions he might not be all there,” Mr. Gaetz told The Washington Times.
He said he didn’t believe those colleagues and warned them to expect a razor-sharp witness, but “it turned out the rumors we’ve been hearing about his condition seemed accurate.”
Color me at least a little bit skeptical on both sides of the “blindsiding.” In a town where lawmakers and DoJ officials live, breathe, and party together, Mueller’s supposed “frailty” could not have gone unnoticed by every single Democrat in Congress for that long. The negotiations with special counsel officials alone for updates and testimony would have generated enough buzz to tip people off about it. The New York Times had gotten wind of it to the point of being able to write an in-depth analysis of Mueller’s supposed hands-off stewardship of the special counsel investigation within hours of Mueller’s appearances on Capitol Hill.
On the other hand, it’s not clear that Republicans’ strategy relied on “frailty” at all. Instead, they challenged Mueller on the somewhat self-imposed limits of his testimony as well as the limits of his search for Russian interference. Gaetz’ own interrogation of Mueller on this point provides an excellent example. Gaetz hammers Mueller on his refusal even in the report to explore whether Russian interference in the election included passing disinformation to Christopher Steele or whether Steele lied about the provenance of his information, much of which was later discredited. As Gaetz does here, Republicans spent much of their time making their arguments rather than allowing much time for Mueller’s responses, which isn’t exactly a way to highlight “frailty”:
Mueller’s frailty was much more on display during what was supposed to be friendly or neutral questioning. Steve Chabot’s question about Fusion GPS was just to establish a foundation for his broader point, and the Republican looked surprised when Mueller claimed that the name “didn’t ring a bell.” Democrats tried to make Mueller’s own arguments in the report, only to have Mueller equivocate, struggle to keep up, or contradict himself.
In the same Washington Times report, other Republicans contradict Gaetz. Chabot says he didn’t hear anything about Mueller’s health and was stunned that Mueller couldn’t answer the question at first. Ranking Judiciary member Doug Collins denied strategizing at all over any potential health issues, telling the Times that their strategy was to aggressively and directly challenge the process and scope of the investigation.
One other GOP leader does say that Mueller’s condition wasn’t exactly a secret. However, Lindsey Graham reserves his ire for Democrats who put him in position to be humiliated:
“He’s an American patriot. He was wounded in Vietnam. He served as FBI director after 9/11. I am very upset that [Democrats] would put him in that spot. It was clear to me based on common friends that he’s in a weakened condition, and what happened was really over the top,” Mr. Graham said.
That’s the way it looked on Wednesday. Perhaps Graham should have a word with Gaetz about that. Republicans did well for themselves in Wednesday’s hearings, so it’s not really necessary to spike the football on Mueller’s health issues and claim that the GOP set out to exploit them. Better to follow the lead of Collins and Chabot and let the experience speak for itself.