Lindsey Graham turns on Mueller as prosecutor testifies before Congress

Former White House special counsel Robert Mueller was less than an hour into his testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning when the chairman of the Senate’s counterpart panel began to tweet.

“Wow,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wrote. “Robert Mueller changing the job of a prosecutor from proving someone ‘Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’ to ‘Not being able to exonerate someone accused of a crime.’ Dangerous and ridiculous.”

Soon after, Graham tweeted, “Thus far Mueller completely contradicts what he told (Attorney General William) Barr about the reason not to proceed on the obstruction of justice.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Graham summarized his feelings on the matter in a single, terse, two-sentence statement: “After today’s hearing — and for the good of the country — I hope this is the end of the Mueller report. Now it’s time to find out how this debacle started and went so far.”

From the beginning, Graham has insisted that Mueller’s 448-page report on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct the inquiry, should be the end of a chapter.

As Democrats who control the U.S. House hauled Mueller to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for nearly six hours of testimony — first before members of the Judiciary Committee, then the Intelligence panel — Graham reiterated what he’s said many times before: He won’t invite Mueller to testify before his committee.

“I’m more committed than ever not to bring him before the Senate,” he told reporters.

But in every other way, Graham’s response to Mueller’s performance Wednesday represented a departure from his previous, unwavering praise for the longtime veteran prosecutor and former director of the FBI.

Graham had always extolled Mueller’s integrity and defended him against attacks throughout the course of the special counsel’s inquiry, from fellow Republicans and Trump himself.

Once Mueller’s work concluded, Graham said he wanted the Justice Department to appoint a new special counsel to investigate whether the Obama administration unlawfully issued a warrant to conduct surveillance on a Trump campaign associate based on the content of the “Steele dossier,” a report, partially funded by Democrats, filled with salacious details about Trump’s alleged ties with Russia.

That special counsel, Graham said, should be someone just like Mueller.

In contrast, Graham’s response on Wednesday seemed in sync with the GOP’s larger strategy of undermining Mueller to bolster Trump. Graham’s renewed calls for an investigation into the Steele dossier also echoed a talking point House Republicans hammered home during Mueller’s day-long testimony.

Speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill, Graham appeared a bit more subdued in his review of Mueller’s performance than he had been on social media. Asked specifically how he thought Mueller was doing, Graham paused before delivering a slow and measured response.

“I like Bob Mueller. And the hearing’s confusing, and Bob Mueller has served our nation well for a very long time. And this hearing should not be the judge of his service to our country,” Graham said. “He’s a decorated Marine, received a purple heart. He was the FBI director after 9/11. I’ve known him for a long time, and I’m not going to let this hearing change my opinion of Mr. Mueller.”

‘It’s wrong’

It wasn’t until an appearance on Fox News late Wednesday evening that Graham fully articulated his belief that Mueller, who is 74 years old, was simply not up to the task of delivering complex testimony as the nation watched.

At may points, Mueller stumbled through his responses, seemed confused by lawmakers’ queries and asked members to repeat themselves.

For the first time publicly, Graham said he had been hearing murmurs for months “by people close to Bob Mueller that he really shouldn’t have to go through this,” and that was part of the reason why he didn’t want to call Mueller to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Their hatred for Trump knows no bounds,” Graham said of Democrats. “They used this man “

But Graham went further, suggesting for the first time that Mueller — the man he’d once said was the best person equipped to handle the Russia investigation — might not have actually had much control over the final report.

“The report is in name only,” Graham told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “I had more to do with the Mueller report than probably he did. And you know what bothers me a lot is, they knew he was in a weakened state ... he should not have been called.”

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day Wednesday, Graham had made it clear he was upset — with the position in which Mueller had been placed but also with Mueller’s decision to suggest publicly that he did not exonerate Trump with his report in large part because the law prohibits indictment of a sitting president.

“No prosecutor’s job is to exonerate the accused,” Graham said. “The prosecutor’s job is to bring a case that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the only job they have. It’s improper to say we couldn’t exonerate somebody. That’s changing the burden of proof.

“It’s wrong for a prosecutor to say, ‘oh I couldn’t exonerate the person.’ That’s not right,” he continued. “I thought it would have been better if he had just read his report and (we) made our own decisions.”

Graham also seemed troubled by Mueller’s affirmation that his report did not definitively conclude there was “no collusion, no obstruction,” as Trump and his allies have claimed, and that nothing could prevent Trump from being charged with a crime once he leaves office — statements Graham suggested were out of line coming from someone in Mueller’s position.

“Bill Barr has decided that he’s not” guilty of obstruction, Graham said. “He’s made that decision. ... Mueller punted on making an obstruction case. Barr made a decision. He’s not going to change his mind. It’s over, and if you want to impeach the president based on this report, you certainly can do that.

“I think it will blow up in your face,” Graham added.