Adam Schiff Regrets Making Robert Mueller Testify: Book

The following is taken from Adam Schiff's book, Midnight in Washington. In this extract, he recalls Special Counsel Robert Mueller's testimony in 2019.


Ever since the release of the Mueller report, my staff had been in contact with his team to arrange for his appearance. Mueller was deeply reticent. In a rare press conference over a month after the release of his report, he stood alone behind the lectern at the Department of Justice for just under ten minutes, saying that his report was his testimony and that an appearance before Congress would yield nothing beyond it, before attempting to disappear, J. D. Salinger–like, back into obscurity.

No doubt, Mueller hoped his short utterance would satisfy the public hunger for his testimony. Of course, it did not. I sat down at my desk and handwrote him a note. I thanked him for his years of public service, and for accepting a task that he must have known would be difficult and subject him to scorn. Nonetheless, I told him that "you have one more service to perform," and that that was his testimony, and that I awaited his reply.

For some time, he didn't respond, and I reluctantly told my staff to prepare a subpoena. This is not the way I wanted Mueller's career to end, compelled to testify against his will, but the matter was one of cardinal importance to the country, involving the misconduct of the president of the United States, and he would be heard, willingly or otherwise. It was not that I thought Mueller's testimony would be transformative, or would lead a stampede to impeachment, and I tried to set expectations appropriately. But I did feel he could bring a sense of urgency to his findings that his report had not. Finally came word: Mueller would accept a subpoena, and he would testify.

There would be two Mueller hearings—early in the day in the Judiciary Committee, and later that afternoon in the Intelligence Committee. And on the morning of his long-awaited testimony that July, I asked the members of my committee to join me in the SCIF so we could watch his appearance before Judiciary together, in case we needed to make any adjustments. As we did, the immense gravity of the moment was clear. All across the country, Americans were tuning in to hear from one of the most important figures of our time, and one who had spoken publicly for less than ten minutes in two years.

The hearing began, and within minutes, I knew that something was wrong. Seriously wrong. After opening statements by Chairman Jerry Nadler and Ranking Member Doug Collins, Nadler began the first round of questions. "Director Mueller," he said, "the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction, and that it completely and totally exonerated him. But that is not what your report said, is it?"

"Correct," Mueller said. "That is not what the report said."

"Now, reading from page two of volume two of your report that's on the screen, you wrote, 'If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.'"

Mueller seemed to be furrowing his brow as he tried to follow the short preamble to the question, but when Nadler concluded by asking, "Does that say there was no obstruction?" Mueller straightened in his chair.

"No," he said firmly.

"In fact, you were actually unable to conclude the president did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?" Nadler asked.

"Well, we, at the outset, determined that we . . ." Mueller seemed to lose his train of thought and paused. "When it came to the president's culpability, we needed to—we needed—we needed to go forward, only after taking into account the OLC opinion that indicated that a president—a sitting president—cannot be indicted."

I felt myself stiffen. In more than a decade of speaking with Mueller, I had never heard him grope for words. Yet as Nadler continued to ask him questions, Mueller seemed increasingly halting, and uncertain. When Nadler asked, "Did any senior White House official refuse a request to be interviewed by you and your team?" Mueller's eyes darted left and right, visibly searching his memory. "I don't believe so," he said.

Now I was alarmed. Nadler's question was almost rhetorical; anyone following the investigation could have answered it. The most senior White House official of all—President Trump—had strung them along for over a year before refusing to speak with Mueller's team.

I could see that Nadler was equally puzzled. He raised his eyebrows in disbelief, and said slowly, "The president . . ."

Mueller raised a hand in recognition of his error. "Well, I take— let me take that back," he said.

Nadler tried again. "Did the president refuse a request to be interviewed by you and your team?"

"Yes," Mueller said quickly.

Nadler soon reached the end of his time and yielded to Collins for the first round of Republican questions. Collins was not interested in a discussion of the evidence contained in the report. He was focused on trying to undermine Mueller and discredit the investigation, peppering Mueller with a series of rapid-fire questions that focused little on the substance of his findings.

"Since closing the Special Counsel's office in May," he began, "have you conducted any additional interviews?"

"In the—in the—in the wake of the report?" Mueller asked.

"Since the closing of the office in May," Collins said.

Mueller frowned. "And the question was, have we conducted . . ."

"Have you conducted any new interviews, any new witnesses, anything?"

"No," Mueller said.

"And you can confirm you're no longer Special Counsel, correct?"

"I am no longer Special Counsel."

Over the next five minutes, Collins asked Mueller arcane details: how many FBI agents contributed to the investigation, how many lawyers worked for his office, how many search warrants he executed, how many subpoenas he issued. Mueller obviously did not know the numbers and was clearly struggling to respond. Collins didn't make it any easier for him, speaking in staccato bursts and often stammering his own questions. Mueller had to ask Collins to repeat himself, saying things like "That went a little too fast for me," to which Collins would reply, "Okay, in your report—I'll make this very simple" or "We'll walk this really slow if we need to."

I winced at the sight of this and turned to my Democratic colleagues. It was heartbreaking to see Mueller, this person whom I so admired, having difficulty answering some of the most basic questions. Even on a bad day, Mueller had been capable of performing better than ninety-nine percent of the witnesses I had heard testify in my decades of public service. But this was not the Bob Mueller I knew. Two years had brought a striking change, and I suddenly understood not only his own reluctance to testify, but the protective instincts of his dedicated staff. Had I known how much he had changed, I would not have pursued his testimony with such vigor—in fact, I would not have pursued it at all.

Adam Schiff Midnight in Washington
Penguin Random House

We would have to scrap everything we had planned to ask and prepare instead for a very different interview. "We need to cut our questions down," I told my colleagues. "We have to cut the number and the length." Instead of open-ended questions to prompt fully developed answers, we would pose the shortest and most direct questions possible. "No questions calling for a narrative answer," I told them. "No multipart questions. If you think your question may be too long, it is. Cut it down." The members pored through their materials with a sense of urgency, flipping the pages, crossing out lines, simplifying the language. I was rushing to do the same.

My colleagues and I walked silently over to the Rayburn Building and the Judiciary Committee room, where our hearing would also take place. I took my seat behind the rostrum and waited. As the minutes ticked by, my staff grew increasingly anxious. The Judiciary Committee session had run much longer than they promised Mueller, and his staff was furious. Maher Bitar, my committee general counsel, came and whispered in my ear: "It may be helpful if you go talk with him. Mueller and his staff are in the small anteroom." I made my way behind the hearing room and found Mueller and a couple of his staff sitting around a small table. He stood up as I approached, and we shook hands. "Thank you for coming," I told him, and he nodded. "I really appreciate your service to the country. I hope you got my note."

"Yes," he said, "thank you."

"I know the Judiciary Committee ran over, and I can assure you, we won't. We will follow our agreement to the letter. See you shortly."

When it was our committee's turn, we tried our best to accord Mueller the great respect he deserved, especially for what seemed certain to be his last such public appearance. In a perfect illustration of the chasm between the two parties, I framed my opening remarks in a way that I hoped would help convert a four-hundred-page report into something much simpler, more visceral, more easily understood and digested—a tale of disloyalty, greed, and lies. When it came his turn, Devin Nunes said, "Welcome everyone, to the last gasp of the Russian collusion conspiracy theory."

Mueller seemed to relax as we settled into a staccato rhythm of questions and answers—and as the hearing continued, he spoke more forcefully about the findings of his investigation.

These were the occasional gems that our members were able to harvest by keeping their questions simple and direct, not pushing Mueller too hard for answers that he was unlikely to give. Our members always had the exact page references ready—thanks to excellent staff work—so that if Mueller faltered they could direct him to an exact paragraph, backing up the answer they sought.

And that is how the afternoon went, back and forth between objective reality and the Trumpian alternate reality into which all the Republicans on the committee seemed to have descended. Mueller recovered from the morning's stumbles and did his duty, with the help of my remarkable Democratic colleagues. It would be Representative Peter Welch who drew the most notable response of the day, asking Mueller whether we could now expect that candidates who were offered foreign help would accept it, rather than feel a sense of duty or legal obligation to report it to the FBI. "I hope that this is not the new normal," Mueller responded, his brow again furrowed and his gaze focused on my colleague seated to his far left, "but I fear that it is."

His words hung heavy in the air, and I later picked up where Welch left off. "From your testimony today, I gather that you believe that knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do?"

"And a crime."

"And a crime," I repeated, surprised by his willingness to go beyond the report.

"And to the degree it undermines our democracy and our institutions, we can agree that it's also unpatriotic?"

"True."

"And wrong."

"True."

"We should hold our elected officials to a higher standard than mere avoidance of criminality, shouldn't we?"

"Absolutely."

"You have served this country for decades, you've taken an oath to defend the constitution, you hold yourself to a standard of doing what's right."

"I would hope" was all that Mueller would say.

Adam Schiff impeachment hearing
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) delivers closing remarks at the end of an impeachment inquiry hearing, November 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. Schiff's new book, Midnight in Washington, is published October 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

From the book MIDNIGHT IN WASHINGTON: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could by Adam Schiff. Copyright © 2021 by Adam Schiff. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.