‘It is not a witch hunt’
WASHINGTON — Former special counsel Robert Mueller told lawmakers during a highly-anticipated public appearance Wednesday that the investigation he supervised revealed a “serious” threat to American democracy from Russian election interference and reinforced his conclusion that he had “not exculpated” President Donald Trump.
And he rebutted Trump’s persistent critique of the inquiry: “It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee during the second of two back-to-back hearings.
The Kremlin’s efforts to sway the election that put Trump in office “is not a hoax,” Mueller said as he made his second public appearance since he was appointed as special counsel more than two years ago. Asked which of the two 2016 presidential candidates benefited from Russia’s actions, Mueller said: “Donald Trump,” but declined to say if the interference changed the outcome of the election.
In several hours of testimony, Mueller seldom veered from the written text of his 448-page report, which he said is a “signal” to those in power “not to let this kind of thing happen again.” Then he warned that Russia’s actions in the last presidential election were not a one-time effort to undermine American democracy.
“They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it again during the next campaign,” Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee. Russian meddling, he said, “deserves the attention of every American.”
Mueller testified for nearly seven hours Wednesday before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees during a pair of hearings that Democrats hoped could change the trajectory of Trump’s presidency, but that ultimately delivered few revelations about the investigation that cast a shadow over the first two years of his administration.
“Your investigation determined that the Trump campaign – including Trump himself – knew that a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it, built Russian meddling into their strategy, and used it,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said. “Worse than all the lies and the greed is the disloyalty to country.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, echoed accusations that the FBI investigation that later became the special counsel probe was “marred with corruption” and bias against Trump. “It’s time to close the curtain on the Russia hoax,” he said. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”
House Democrats spent the morning asking him to confirm episodes detailed in that report, focusing on the president’s efforts to thwart the special counsel investigation, while Republicans sought to poke holes in Mueller’s legal theory and air allegations of bias and wrongdoing. Both factions were eager to score points from Mueller’s remarks even as many lawmakers have already made up their minds about whatever it is he might have to say.
Mueller, in terse answers, offered little for either side.
“The report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text,” Mueller said at the start of a pair of hearing.
Mueller, who led the FBI during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said he considers Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” interference in American elections is among the most serious challenges to democracy he’s seen. He also said that his team’s investigation of efforts to obstruct the inquiry into Russia’s actions “was of critical importance.”
“Obstruction of justice strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and to hold wrongdoers accountable,” Mueller said.
Echoing the findings of his report, he told lawmakers that the Russian government had interceded in the election to benefit Trump, though he acknowledged that his office had not found sufficient evidence to charge Trump or anyone associated with his campaign had conspired in that undertaking. At the same time, however, he affirmed the steps Trump took to thwart his inquiry, including ordering an aide to fire the special counsel and asking his lawyer to create false records.
At times, Mueller appeared to struggle to keep up with the volley of inquiries, asking that questions be repeated, appealing for help locating citations in the report. At other times, lawmakers raised their arms to flag Mueller’s attention, as the questioning moved across the panel.
Asked by one lawmaker, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., whether “you did not indict Donald Trump is because of (Justice Department) opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?” Mueller replied: “That is correct.”
During his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller clarified the answer and said his team did not reach a determination on whether Trump had obstructed justice.
He told another lawmaker that Justice Department rules allow the government to bring charges against a president once he leaves office, but he did not say Trump should be charged.
Democrats went into the hearings betting that the spectacle of Mueller’s public appearance will carry far more weight than the report his investigation produced. They had hoped that words from Mueller himself would be pivotal and would make the case that the president’s conduct should be punishable by impeachment or a 2020 defeat.
Republicans, who have long questioned the integrity and genesis of the Russia inquiry that they say exonerated the president, used the rare public appearance to highlight the lack of charges against Trump and the perceived political motivation behind the probe. The president and his allies have accused Democrats of trying to redo the investigation by staging a belated spectacle.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, began the hearing with a summary of Mueller’s years in public service as a Marine officer who was awarded a Purple Heart and as director of the FBI.
“Director Mueller, we have a responsibility to address the evidence you’ve uncovered,” Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a prepared opening statement. “You recognized as much when you said, ‘the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.'”
Nadler said the hearing would highlight episodes in which Trump sought to thwart Mueller’s investigation. “Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with a crime. And in this nation, not even the president is above the law.”
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, the panel’s ranking member, emphasized that Mueller’s investigation did not find that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia. Trump’s reaction to the investigation of him and his campaign was “understandably negative,” Collins said, “but he did not shut down” the inquiry.
Acknowledging his role as a reluctant witness, Mueller warned lawmakers that his answers would likely be limited to the contents of his investigation and will likely decline to respond to questions that may be central to ongoing investigations into the origins of the Russia inquiry.
“Public testimony could affect several ongoing matters,” he said. “In some of these matters, court rules or judicial orders limit the disclosure of information to protect the fairness of the proceedings. And consistent with longstanding Justice Department policy, it would be inappropriate for me to comment in any way that could affect an ongoing matter.”
He largely rebuffed requests from Republican lawmakers to talk about their critiques of his investigation, some repeated by the president. He declined to answer questions about former British spy Christopher Steele, an FBI informant who wrote a “dossier” alleging Trump had plotted with Moscow to win the election. He sidestepped allegations of political bias, and declined to answer questions about how the FBI began investigating Trump, because he said the Justice Department, which is conducting its own review, asked him not to.
Throughout the hearing, Democratic lawmakers focused on the investigation’s most damaging findings, flashing selected excerpts from Mueller’s report on video screens on the walls of the hearing room in an attempt to bolster evidence that Trump had engaged in obstruction. In each case, Mueller acknowledged that underlying conduct by the president necessary to support had been identified, including an alleged “corrupt intent” by Trump.
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Mueller largely responded with one-word answers as Democratic lawmakers asked him to confirm several instances when Trump sought to limit or obstruct the investigation.
“No,” Mueller said when asked of Trump was totally exonerated.
“True,” Mueller said when asked whether the president sought to have then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse a decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia inquiry.
“True,” he said when asked if Trump had ordered White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire the special counsel.
“Yes,” when asked whether obstruction of justice warrant a lot of jail time if convicted.
Republicans, meanwhile, stepped up their challenges to Mueller, suggesting that the special counsel went beyond his authority by indicating that Trump could not be “exonerated” from accusations of obstruction of justice. Stacking law books on the desk in front of him, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, called on Mueller to point to a specific provision in the law that allowed him or other prosecutors to make such a determination.
“I’m not prepared to have a legal discussion in that arena,” Mueller said.
In one of the most animated exchanges of the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, launched a broadside on Mueller’s investigation, questioning why prosecutors did not bring charges against a Joseph Misfud, a Maltese academic who helped kick-start the Russian election interference inquiry in 2016.
Misfud first alerted Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had derogatory information on Hillary Clinton.
“Why?” Jordan asked, stabbing at the air, did the government choose not prosecute Misfud, asserting that prosecutors chose instead to focus on Papadopoulos and other Trump campaign advisers.
“I don’t agree with your characterization,” Mueller said.
Pressed to respond, Mueller said, “I can’t get into that.”
“There seems to be a lot things that you can’t get into,” Jordan snapped.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, echoed frequent criticisms voiced by the president, questioning Mueller’s relationship with former FBI Director James Comey, who Trump abruptly fired. And he suggested that Mueller failed to act quickly when he learned that two former FBI officials working on the investigation, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, had exchanged messages disparaging Trump.
Of Comey, Mueller described the former FBI director as a “friend and business associate.”
Mueller said he first learned of the Strzok and Page communications in the summer of 2017 and “acted swiftly” to remove them.
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa, contended that Mueller should have been prohibited from sharing details about Trump’s alleged obstruction when the special counsel chose not to make a determination that the president had committed a crime.
“This flies in the face of American justice,” said Reschenthaler, a former military lawyer. “I find this entire process un-American.”
Mueller, however, contended that the report was not written with the expectation that its contents would be made public. Attorney General William Barr ultimately decided to release a redacted version of the report.
Mueller also defended his team under criticisms from Republicans that he hired a group of anti-Trump investigators.
“We strove to hire individuals who could do the job. I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years, I’ve not had an occasion once to ask about somebody’s political beliefs,” Mueller said.
Even before Mueller’s testimony began, Trump began issuing a series of pointed – and now familiar – critiques of the former special counsel and the investigation he ran. “Why didn’t Robert Mueller investigate the investigators?” Trump wrote in an early morning tweet, repeating unproven claims that Mueller had conflicts of interest and claiming that he had been the victim of “The Greatest Witch Hunt” in history.
The president has long contended that Mueller pursued the Russia investigation because Trump did not select him to succeed Comey as FBI director, whom Trump fired. But for the first time, Mueller said Wednesday that he never interviewed for the job and only met with Trump to advise him on the search of a new director.
In a letter made public on Monday, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer told Mueller that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries” of his report. Weinsheimer said information such as presidential communications, discussions about investigative steps and decisions made during the investigation can’t be disclosed.
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The department’s longstanding policy also prohibits publicly discussing the conduct of “uncharged third-parties,” Weinsheimer said.
Schiff told Mueller in his own letter late Tuesday that the Justice Department’s restrictions “will have no bearing” on what Mueller can and can’t say.
Mueller spent two years investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and whether Trump obstructed the inquiry that consumed Washington and the first half of his presidency. Trump and his allies spent nearly as much time questioning the basis of the investigation, deriding it as a witch hunt undertaken by a conflicted special counsel and politically biased investigators, some of whom the president has accused of spying and treason.
Mueller’s testimony comes about three months after the release of his exhaustive report. The investigation revealed a systematic effort by Russia to sway the election in Trump’s favor and a campaign that embraced the assistance but did not conspire with the Kremlin. The report also said Trump repeatedly tried to impede the Russia investigation, though Barr and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein determined that the evidence does not establish Trump had committed a crime.
During a brief public appearance in May, Mueller did not clear Trump of criminal wrongdoing, but said charges were “not an option” because of Justice Department policy of not indicting a sitting president.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that,” Mueller said.
In his letter to Mueller, Weinsheimer underscored the forced nature of the testimony.
“As the attorney general has repeatedly stated, the decision to testify before Congress is yours to make in this case, but the department agrees with your stated position that your testimony should be unnecessary under the circumstances,” Weinsheimer wrote. “The department generally does not permit prosecutors such as you to appear and testify before Congress regarding their investigative and prosecutorial activity.”
Contributing: Bart Jansen
More on Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation:
Trump’s aides were eager to take Russian dirt on Clinton. But it wasn’t a conspiracy, Mueller report said
Trump repeatedly tried to impede the Russia probe, Mueller report said. Was it obstruction?
Trump took steps to fire Mueller, stop probe after campaign welcomed Russian dirt on Clinton, Mueller report says
Spying, treason and politics: President Trump ups the stakes in Russia probe battle despite scant evidence