Six takeaways from Mueller's day before Congress

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Image: Robert Mueller
Former special counsel Robert Mueller checks pages in the report as he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, on July 24, 2019 in Washington.Alex Brandon / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Two things can be true about former special counsel Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony yesterday.

It was damaging to President Trump, contradicting the president’s key claims and defenses about the Russia probe.

And it all but closed the door on the likelihood of Democrats impeaching the president – given the congressional math.

Here’s a fuller breakdown on our six takeaways from yesterday:

  1. Mueller contradicted Trump’s story on the Russia probe: “It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller said… “It was not a hoax.”… Russia’s intervention helped Trump’s campaign — not Hillary Clinton’s… Trump was NOT exonerated by the report… And “problematic is an understatement” is how Mueller described Trump’s use of the WikiLeaks disclosures in the final month of the 2016 race.
  2. The odds of impeachment seem much less likely today: But if the idea of yesterday was to galvanize Democrats to impeach Trump, it didn’t do the trick. It’s hard to disagree with the Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “If Democrats hope to end the Trump presidency, they will have to do so by defeating him at the ballot box in November 2020.”
  3. Democrats hurt their cause by starting with obstruction before discussing Russia’s interference: It’s worth asking if yesterday might have played differently if they began with Russia’s interference (which was the afternoon part) instead of obstruction of justice (which was the morning portion). After all, the obstruction becomes clearer if you understand what was being obstructed.
  4. Mueller was most animated about Russia’s interference: “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” he said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
  5. There was less urgency from Mueller on the other matters: And that’s perhaps the chief reason why yesterday was a bomb if you only cared about the impeachment angle. There was no clarion call from Mueller — especially on obstruction of justice.
  6. Mueller was a credible witness: Yes, he wasn’t sharp. And, yes, it seemed like he had a difficult time hearing members of Congress. But you can’t say he wasn’t credible – he carefully answered what he wanted to answer, and he ducked the questions he wanted to duck. Also, the one time he misspoke (on whether Trump would have been charged had he not been the sitting president), Mueller corrected the record.

Tweet of the day

The consequences of Democrats not pursuing impeachment

While impeachment looks less likely today after Mueller’s testimony (was that by design?), Democrats need to grapple with these consequences.

One, not pursuing impeachment allows Trump to declare victory — no matter how damaging yesterday’s testimony was to Trump. Everything will be riding on the outcome of the 2020 election.

Two, Democrats won’t be able to bring up impeachment at a later date. Given the 2020 calendar, it’s pretty much now or never.

And three, not pursuing impeachment normalizes Trump’s conduct during the Mueller probe.

2020 Vision: Booker vs. Biden — a preview of next week’s debate

Cory Booker “has spent the past few days criticizing Joe Biden's support for the 1994 crime bill decried by many progressive criminal justice reform activists for being too harsh on issues like mandatory sentencing,” per NBC’s Ben Kamisar, Deepa Shivaram and Marianna Sotomayor.

“Biden pushed back Wednesday, pointing to a federal investigation into the Newark Police Department that found that officers ‘engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests, use of excessive force and theft.’”

On the campaign trail today

Joe Biden, Cory Booker, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar and Tim Ryan all address the National Urban League conference in Indianapolis… John Hickenlooper and Kirsten Gillibrand stump in Iowa… Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg are in Los Angeles… And Mark Sanford attends a “Pints and Politics” event with the Charleston Post & Courier in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Beto O’Rourke held a town hall in Flint, Mich., where NBC’s Shivaram noticed a difference in how O’Rourke talks about immigration compared to other candidates:

“One thing to note on Beto’s immigration rhetoric is that he emphasizes not just the benefits immigrants have coming to America but how Americans have benefitted from immigrants. It’s a small but powerful difference — he frames the conversation in a way that is about how America is lucky that immigrants have chosen here, that they have made our country safer. It struck me as a different tone than some other candidates I’ve heard.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 198

198.

That’s the number of times Mueller deflected or declined to answer questions during yesterday’s hearings, according to an NBC News count.

Those non-responses included variations of “I direct you to the report,” “That’s outside my purview,” “I can’t get into that,” and simply “I am not going to answer that question, sir.”

The Lid: Russia, if you’re listening…

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at what Americans really think about potential foreign election interference in the future.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

NBC’s Ken Dilanian writes about Mueller’s performance — and how it differed from past times he has testified before Congress.

Trump says yesterday was “a great day for me,” and Democrats say they don’t see much additional momentum for impeachment.

Dan Balz writes that Democrats’ only option to end Trump’s presidency now is the 2020 election.

In a New York Times op-ed, Rep. Ilhan Omar writes “It is not enough to condemn Trump’s racism.”

The governor of Puerto Rico is out after days of massive protests.

Trump agenda: Deficits don’t matter

POLITICO looks at how Trump silenced the party’s deficit hawks.

Our team of fact-checkers was on the case during the Mueller hearing.

A federal judge in California has stopped Trump’s latest asylum move.

Trump has vetoed a congressional effort to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

2020: Flying first class … up in the sky

Pete Buttigieg is the 2020 candidate taking the most private flights.

Kirsten Gillibrand is calling for $10 trillion to fight climate change.

Bill de Blasio won’t say if he definitely supports reparations.

Joe Biden says he’s not relying on Obama as a “crutch.”

Kamala Harris picked up the backing of a top Obama bundler.