Mueller, in occasionally halting testimony, warned of foreign interference and offered some sharp criticism of Trump


JULY 24, 2019

Former special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III is seen during a congressional hearing Wednesday on his investigation of President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election. – Matt McClain/Washington Post

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, in quiet and occasionally halting testimony, warned Congress Tuesday that Russia was attempting to interfere with American democracy, and that many other countries would attempt to do the same.

“They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” Mueller told the House Intelligence Committee, the second of two highly anticipated public hearings about his investigation of Russian election interference and President Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.

The long-awaited public testimony lacked blockbuster revelations, but he did offer some sharp criticism of the president, and sounded an ominous alarm about what Mueller said was the growing threat of foreign interference.

At times, Mueller faltered in his answers, or seemed confused or unable to hear the questions — particularly on the main issue he faced in the morning as to whether or not the president obstructed justice by attempting to impede Mueller’s work. In the afternoon, he was much more forceful in describing the dangers posed by foreign meddling in U.S. elections.

“We have underplayed to a certain extent that aspect of our investigation,” Mueller said. adding that Russia’s multipronged effort to undermine the 2016 election could do “long-term damage to the United States that we need to move quickly to address.”

The 74-year-old Mueller said the 448-page report written by his team was meant to serve as “our living message to those who came after us” so that they “don’t let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years.”

He also faulted Trump for praising the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials have said acts like a “hostile intelligence service,” and was a conduit for files hacked by Russians in the 2016 election.

Rep. Mike Quigly (D-Ill.) read to the former special counsel a series of statements made by Trump when he was a candidate, including his declaration “I love WikiLeaks.” Quigly then asked if he found those remarks disturbing.

“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal behavior,” Mueller said.

Mueller also explained a critical decision he made that has long concerned Democrats – why his team decided not to subpoena the president. Trump’s lawyers offered written answers to the special counsel’s office, which viewed the answers as incomplete.

After a year of negotiating for an interview with the president, Mueller said he and his team determined it wasn’t worth a prolonged legal battle, because they expected Trump would challenge any subpoena in the courts.

“The reason we didn’t do the interview was because of the length of time that it would take to resolve the issues attendant to that,” Mueller said. When one lawmaker suggested he wasn’t “the kind of guy who flinches,” Mueller replied, “I hope not.”

The president, who had angrily tweeted about Mueller before the hearings even began, declared once they were over: “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!”

Over hours of testimony, Mueller offered short, clipped answers to most of the questions thrown at him Tuesday, often referring lawmakers back to his report.

Politicians and the public have waited anxiously for two years to hear Mueller describe his investigation and findings. With the first few words of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning, Mueller sought to tamp down expectations that his spoken words would go beyond his report.

“I do not intend to summarize or describe the results of our work in a different way,” Mueller said, a statement that he repeated in the afternoon session before the House Intelligence Committee.

As lawmakers peppered him with questions, Mueller often replied with variations of “I will refer you to the report,” or “I’m not going to get into that.”

Some of Mueller’s most impassioned testimony came in defense of his staff in the special counsel’s office. Trump and his supporters have attacked the prosecutors on the case as “angry Democrats” embarked on a “witch hunt” to bring down the president.

“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years I’ve not had occasion once to ask about somebody’s political affiliation,” Mueller said. “It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job seriously and quickly and with integrity.”

Mueller later added: “It was not a witch hunt.”

The most potentially newsworthy statement Mueller made in his morning testimony came in response to a question from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who asked if the reason Mueller did not indict the president was because of a Justice Department policy memo by the Office of Legal Counsel that bars indictment of a sitting president.

“That is correct,” Mueller answered. That statement went far beyond what Mueller had said in his report, which said prosecutors took pains not to decide whether or not the president had committed a crime, due to the OLC position.

Democrats quickly seized on Mueller’s answer, which he promptly rescinded as soon as the second hearing started in the afternoon before the Intelligence Committee.

“That is not the correct way to say it,” Mueller said of his earlier answer. “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”

His reluctance to elaborate on any topic seemed to stem from more than just his previously stated desire to avoid the hearing altogether.

He frequently asked lawmakers to repeat their questions. At times he said he could not hear them, sometimes asserting they were speaking too fast. In contrast to his inquisitors, Mueller spoke slowly, and on a few occasions seemed confused by lawmakers’ inquiries.

For a prosecutor who built a distinguished career on digging deep into the weeds of investigations, to the point that many of his subordinates complained he was a maddening micromanager, Mueller said several times he was not familiar with some of the specifics of the investigation.

He called the president “Trimp,” before quickly correcting himself. At another moment, he said he was “not familiar” with the opposition research firm Fusion GPS that commissioned a dossier of allegations that played a key role in the early days of the investigation into Russian interference, before Mueller was appointed as special counsel.

At another point, he could not recall the word “conspiracy” — a basic staple in any federal prosecutor’s lexicon — and a lawmaker supplied it for him.

In the hearing room, Mueller’s muffled voice made his minimal responses nearly inaudible, a sharp contrast to the lawmakers’ whose voices often boomed with indignation.

David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted: “This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.”

Before the hearing, current and former law enforcement officials who have worked with Mueller expressed concerns that he was stepping into a high-octane hearing that would be a tough test of his public demeanor — typically understated and technical. Mueller’s advisers had told committee staff before the hearing he did not plan to read sections of the report out loud, according to people familiar with the discussion.

Part of Mueller’s approach appeared strategic — with so many sensitive investigative areas that he was unwilling to talk about, the less he engaged on those subjects, the easier his time at the witness table might pass. When Republicans charged that the gen­esis of the Russia investigation was hopelessly tainted by anti-Trump bias among some of the investigators, Mueller declined to discuss the issue, saying those matters are under review by the Justice Department inspector general, and therefore beyond his purview.

At other times, Mueller’s approach seemed particularly ill-suited for a nationally televised interrogation by dozens of lawmakers rushing to pose as many questions as possible in the five minutes they were each allotted.

Congressman Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) caused an awkward moment for Mueller by trying to praise him.

When Stanton asked which president nominated Mueller to serve as the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, Mueller guessed George H.W. Bush. In fact, it was Ronald Reagan.

Republicans quickly seized on the issue. Matt Schlapp, a key Trump ally, tweeted: Devastating Mueller can’t remember that Reagan picked him to be a USA from Massachusetts.” As the morning hearing wore on, Republicans outside the hearing room repeatedly suggested Mueller’s answers showed a poor command of the cases he oversaw.

But Mueller still made some politically charged comments.

“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” the former special counsel said early in the hearing.

“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” asked the committee chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

“No,” Mueller replied.

Asked if the president, under Justice Department policy, could potentially be prosecuted for obstruction of justice after he leaves office, Mueller responded: “True.”

Republicans accused Mueller of being unfair to the president and ignoring the traditional presumption of innocence.

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), noting that Mueller’s report said it could not exonerate the president, said it was a prosecutor’s job to charge or not charge someone — not make a statement about exoneration.

“This is a unique situation,” said Mueller, who pointed time and again to a long-standing Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller’s team concluded the policy also prohibits the Justice Department from saying whether a sitting president committed a crime.

Courtesy/Source: Washington Post