Robert Mueller’s use of “I take your question,” as defined by a legal expert

Taking your questions.
Taking your questions.
Image: Reuters/Johnathan Ernst
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Robert Mueller’s testimony before two House committees didn’t resolve many questions about Russian meddling into the 2016 US presidential election or Donald Trump’s efforts to thwart the special prosecutor’s probe. And it has raised yet another query: What does it mean, technically, when Mueller responds to a lawmaker with the formulation “I take your question”?

M. Tia Johnson, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and former assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the US Department of Homeland Security tells Quartz that this is a standard legal response.

“‘I take your question’ is used often when the witness doesn’t know the answer to the question,” she said. It’s distinct from a straight “no” because it indicates that the answer may well be knowable, just that this witness doesn’t know it.

From a technical perspective, the answer can preserve the question for follow-up on the record. After the hearings, committee chairpersons give their colleagues a deadline for submitting additional questions based on the witness’s testimony and Mueller might be asked to provide a more substantive response.

Johnson notes that in the context of today’s hearings, and specifically the first instance when Mueller said “I take your question” after what she calls “a rant” by Republican Louie Gohmert of Texas, the response is also a way of saying, “I got you. I hear you.” But it doesn’t mean Mueller has an answer, and in this case it seemed to mean that the former special counsel wasn’t happy that Gohmert left no obvious question for Mueller to answer.

“My sense was, based on special counsel’s demeanor, with him just kind of sitting there, that it was almost like ‘I’ve had enough’ or ‘I got it.'”

Certainly, that’s how the response was interpreted by some viewers.

Johnson points out that in the afternoon hearing with the House Intelligence Committee, there were instances when the response seemed to be more official. Asked by Republican Devin Nunes of California how many times a Russian lawyer met with Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, Mueller also said, “I take your question.” In that case, it appeared more likely to indicate that he doesn’t know the answer but that it’s theoretically knowable, rather than indicating his distaste for the query.

Witnesses prepped for testimony are often given a series of possible responses designed to defuse tension. The last thing Mueller would want to do in a situation like the one with Gohmert is to get in a back and forth dialogue. Johnson believes he likely used “I take your question” to acknowledge there was one but also to deflect the rant.

“It’s a way of saying ‘noted,’” she explains. “There are different ways in which you can use that, so we still have to interpret. But I think Gohmert could put in a question.”