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Here Are the Biggest Moments of Mueller’s Testimony

Mueller is finally fielding questions on his damning Russia report. Here are the biggest moments.

by Greg Walters
Jul 24 2019, 1:11pm

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WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller spent 22 months investigating every corner and crevice of President Trump’s universe. His report, released to the public in April, is the culmination of 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants and 37 indictments.

Oh, yeah, his investigation also led to the arrest of Trump’s campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, personal attorney, oldest political adviser, National Security Adviser and others.

Despite the damning evidence, which over 1,000 former prosecutors say would have seen Trump charged with a crime if he weren't the president, the report hasn’t broken through.

Now, Democrats are hoping the famously camera-shy prosecutor will simplify all that work into a few made-for-TV moments.

They’ve got five hours to try.

Mueller’s day begins with the House Judiciary Committee, where he’ll be grilled for three hours, starting at 8:30 a.m. He’ll weather two more hours before the House Intelligence Committee, starting at noon.

Here are the major moments from Mueller's testimony before Congress.

Accepting foreign help in an election is “a crime”

Mueller closed off his appearance on Capitol Hill by warning that any American politician who accepted secret help from a foreign power would be breaking the law.

“From your testimony today, I’d gather that you believe that knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do?,” asked Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“And a crime,” Mueller agreed, “given certain circumstances.”

Schiff: “And to the degree that it undermines our democracy and our institutions, we can agree that it’s also unpatriotic?”

Mueller: “True.”

Schiff: “And wrong?”

Mueller: “True.”

But earlier in the afternoon, Mueller said he worries that future elections may be riven with attempts by hostile foreign powers to secretly spin the results in their favor.

"I hope this is not the new normal,” Mueller said. “But I fear it is."

Why it matters: Just last month, Trump said he thinks “there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” if a foreign power came forward with opposition research about his political opponent.

But Mueller’s exchange with Schiff marked one of the rare occasions during his appearance Wednesday in which he went further than the person asking him a question.

Schiff started out calling accepting foreign help “unethical.” Mueller replied, unprompted, it would be criminal.

And yet he signaled that despite his own investigation, we can expect more of it going forward. Mueller warned of a world in which foreign interference in American elections becomes a regular occurrence, and American politicians commit the crime of accepting it to win.

Mueller explains why he didn't subpoena Trump

Mueller said he didn’t subpoena Trump because he thought Trump would resist, and fighting it out in court would take too long.

“He would fight the subpoena,” Mueller said.

Mueller declined to answer whether Trump’s refusal to speak to Mueller’s investigators involved exercising his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination.

In the end, Mueller said, he wanted to get the investigation over with, and he simply ran out of time.

"Finally, when we were almost towards the end of our investigation, and we had little success in pushing to get the interview of the President, we decided that we did not want to exercise the subpoena powers because of the necessity of expediting the end the investigation," Mueller said.

Here’s why it matters: Trump was never forced into a face-to-face reckoning with Mueller’s investigators, and that was a very good thing for Trump. When Trump turned in written answers, they mostly consisted of Trump stating, over and over again, that he couldn’t remember.

Trump was in grave danger of committing perjury if he was forced to answer questions from Mueller’s team under oath, Trump’s own lawyer believed, according to the veteran Washington reporter Bob Woodward.

That attorney, John Dowd, called Trump “a fucking liar” who couldn’t be relied on to safely take the witness stand without perjuring himself, according to Woodward’s book, Fear.

Yet a former investigator, Ken Starr, managed to get a past president, Bill Clinton, to testify under oath. That discrepancy prompted questions about my Mueller let Trump go.

If Trump kept himself off the witness stand by taking the fifth, or threatening to, then by his own estimation, that would have been an admission of guilt. He’s railed against others who’ve gone that route.

“If you’re innocent, why are you taking the fifth?,” Trump said on the campaign trail.

Russia is still interfering in U.S. elections

Mueller said Russia’s still deep in the game of election-meddling.

Pressed by Rep. Will Hurd about whether Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 vote was a one-off, Mueller gave an emphatic: No.

“They're doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said. “And they expect to do it in the next campaign.”

Why it matters: Plenty of Russia-watchers and election-security experts say there’s little to stop Moscow from doing it again.

Trump himself has downplayed the threat. Sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, Trump almost turned it into a joke, grinning at Putin and saying, “Don’t meddle in the election.”

Mueller joined high-ranking members of the intelligence community who have warned that Russia remains an ongoing threat to the U.S. election process.

Trump’s “love” for WikiLeaks: “Problematic is an understatement”

Mueller has a problem with Trump’s “love” for WikiLeaks.

“Problematic is an understatement,” he said, when asked about statements Trump made on the campaign trail expressing enthusiasm for the outfit's leaks of hacked Democratic data.

Trump's comments gave “hope, or some boost, to what is or should be illegal activity," Mueller said.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has come up repeatedly during Mueller’s testimony before the House Intel Committee.

But Mueller declined to confirm that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, never met with Assange.

“I’m not certain I would agree with that assumption,” Mueller said.

Why it matters: Besides Manafort’s link to a man tied to Russian intelligence, questions have also been raised about whether he ever communicated with WikiLeaks during the campaign.

Much of Mueller’s report on WikiLeaks and its potential connections to the Trump campaign remain redacted, leaving it unclear how close he got to really showing that the campaign and WikiLeaks coordinated the release of Democratic documents hacked by Russia.

In public, however, Trump welcomed WikiLeaks’ involvement.

And in this case, Mueller didn’t hide his disdain.

Manafort shared polling data with an alleged Russian spy for money

Mueller said Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort was looking to get paid when he shared 2016 polling data with a man assessed by the FBI has having links to Russian intelligence, Mueller said.

Rep. Andre Carson asked whether that marked a “betrayal” of his country.

“I can’t agree with that,” Mueller said.

But he also wouldn’t say it’s not the case.

“Not that it’s not true,” Mueller said, “but I can’t agree with it.”

Why it matters: Mueller appeared to endorse the view that Manafort was essentially selling Trump campaign secrets to a person linked to Russian intelligence.

Manafort handed off polling info to Kilimnik in the midst of the 2016 campaign, according to Mueller’s report, and told Kilimnik that Trump was relying on four midwestern states for victory: Wisconsin, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Those states, by a wafer-thin margin, ultimately helped put Trump over the top in 2016.

Read: Paul Manafort, a mysterious Russian jet, and a secret meeting

That connection between Manafort and Kilimnik marks one of the clearest instances of a connection between an insider on the Trump campaign and a person connected to Russian intelligence. The connection between Manafort and his former right-hand man, Konstantin Kilimnik, was a key focus of Mueller’s investigation.

The question that Mueller never answered, either in his report or his appearance before Congress, was whether the polling data was handed over by Kilimnik to the Russian social media propaganda effort to help focus efforts on the states Trump needed to win.

What Mueller Wants Americans To Take Away From His Report

Impeachment, you say?

Both parties went fishing for an impeachment nod from Mueller.

He wouldn’t bite.

The question of impeachment first came into focus when Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, tried to get Mueller to essentially wipe away the notion that his report recommends impeaching the president.

Johnson: “Your report does not recommend impeachment. Does it?”

Mueller: “I'm not going to talk about recommendations.”

Johnson: “It does not conclude that impeachment would be appropriate here, right?”

Mueller: “I'm not going to talk about that issue.”

Democrats then weighed in near the end of his appearance, probing Mueller for the opposite answer.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas, pressed him about text his report referencing “processes” for dealing with wrongdoing by a president other than criminal indictment — a clear reference to impeachment.

Escobar: “What are those constitutional processes?”

Mueller: "Uh, I think I heard you mention at least one."

Escobar: “Impeachment, correct?”

Mueller: “I’m not going to comment.”

Why it matters: Despite turning in a report that many observers saw as an impeachment referral, Mueller refused to discuss his views on the I-word, through he did give a hint to Escobar during their exchange.

On the whole, Mueller failed to give Democrats the sort of green light many in the party are looking for when it comes to launching impeachment proceedings against the president. Instead, as promised, he stuck closely to his report.

Don’t go after Mueller’s team

Mueller finally pushed back against allegations of bias.

Faced with a blistering attack on the alleged anti-Trump bias among his team of investigators, Mueller raised his voice — insisting on the “integrity of his team.”

During the 25 years he worked in the Department of Justice, “I have not had occasion once to ask about the political affiliation” of one of his DOJ colleagues, Mueller said.

What he cared about were “individuals that could do the job.”

Why it matters: Republicans and Trump loyalists have sought to undermine Mueller’s findings by characterizing his staff as a group of Trump-hating partisan hacks.

Earlier in the hearing, Mueller seemed to just let those attacks roll off, refusing to rise when Rep. Gohmert of Texas, one of Mueller’s most strident critics, leveled a similar criticism.

The question now is whether Mueller might have convinced more viewers that he led a gang of straight-shooters if he’d pushed back against such comments earlier in the hearing. The comments came nearly three hours into his testimony, after repeated criticisms from other Republican members of the panel.

Blame the OLC

In two significant exchanges, Mueller appeared to pin his decision for not indicting Trump on the OLC opinion, which says that a sitting president can’t be indicted while in office.

But he stated, very clearly, that Trump could still theoretically be charged with a crime after he's no longer president.

“You could charge the President with obstruction of justice after he left office?” asked Rep. Ken Buck.

“Yes,” Mueller said.

Soon after that exchange, Mueller was asked point-blank about the OLC opinion: Rep. Ted Lieu asked whether the Department of Justice’s policy against indicting a sitting president was the reason Mueller decided not to indict Trump.

“Correct,” Mueller said.

After a brief break, Mueller appeared to walk back his exchange with Rep. Lieu

“Before we go to questions," Mueller said to the House Intel Committee. "I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said 'you didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.' That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report and as I say in the opening, we didn’t reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime. With that I’m ready to answer questions.”

Why it matters: Mueller just told Lieu, for the first time, that government policy against indicting a sitting president was the key point that kept him from attempting to nail Trump for obstruction of justice.

An opinion by the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel argues that charging a sitting president would be unconstitutional — although plenty of lawyers, including former Clinton investigator Ken Starr, think that view wouldn’t survive a challenge in the Supreme Court.

Mueller is essentially confirming that he could say the president did not commit a crime but was blocked from saying the president did commit one, said Paul Rosenzweig, a former member of Starr’s team, who’s been watching the hearings closely.

“He viewed the OLC prohibition as a one-way ratchet,” Rosenzweig said. “He could exonerate, but he could not indict.”

Mueller may not have meant to go there today, but taken literally, he just pretty much stated that he would have indicted Trump if he’d been allowed to, Rosenzweig said.

But it remains to be seen whether he’ll let that statement stand. “He may issue a statement later to try to clean that up, and hew back to his original position of not wanting to say anything new,” Rosenzweig said. “But to my mind, he just spoke the truth.”

Read more about the OLC memo here.

Rep. Jordan Tries and Fails to Rattle Mueller

Mueller Won’t Say If Barr’s Letter Was Inaccurate

Rep. Martha Roby pressed Mueller to respond to Attorney General William Barr’s letter summarizing his findings — which has been widely criticized for being misleading.

But Mueller wouldn’t go there. “I’m not going to answer that,” he said.

Why it matters: Mueller just turned down another opportunity to create real drama in his appearance. And the odds of giving Democrats the kind of made-for-TV moment they want appear to be dwindling.

Barr and Mueller offered different views on why Trump shouldn’t be accused of a crime.

Barr had said the evidence of obstruction of justice in Mueller’s report didn’t rise to the level of criminal activity. Mueller had a different view: That he didn’t reach a firm prosecutorial decision, because he couldn’t indict the president anyway (and it therefore wouldn’t be fair to publicly label him a criminal).

Tension had reportedly risen behind the scenes at the Department of Justice after Barr’s letter was released, and Mueller’s report was still a secret. Mueller pushed Barr in a letter to release Mueller’s own summaries — a letter Barr dismissed as “a bit snitty.”

Mueller is essentially choosing to let Barr’s version of events hang out there unchallenged.

Louie Gohmert Freaks Out on Mueller

Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas pushed Mueller about one of the Republicans’ favorite talking points: former FBI agent Peter Strzok.

GOP members of Congress have argued that text messages critical of Trump meant that Strzok, who played an early role in the FBI probe into Trump’s ties to Russia and Mueller’s investigation, showed the whole probe had a blatant anti-Trump bias.

“Peter Strzok hated Trump,” Gohmert said.

Mueller said that as soon as he learned about Strzok’s texts, he “acted swiftly” to transfer him away from the investigation.

But Mueller refused to take the bait. Pressed about potential bias at the origins of his investigation, Mueller said simply: “I take your question.”

Why it matters: Some observers had said Republicans might get a rise out of Mueller today by pushing too hard on his team — potentially creating a real, notable TV moment.

It didn’t work.

Mueller, who has been said to have resisted testifying for fear of looking political, deflected the criticism.

The exchange shows just how far Mueller is prepared to go to keep the hearing from devolving into the kind of food fight that congressional hearings often turn into.

Yet he seemed to turn down a chance to defend his own staff in doing so.

Paul Rosenzweig, a member of Ken Starr’s investigation, told VICE News he was puzzled by Mueller’s reluctance to offer a defense.

“I would have expected him to be more vigorous in defending the integrity of his people and his office,” Rosenzweig said.

Gohmert had signaled he planned to go on the attack. Prior to Mueller’s appearance, he referred to Mueller in an interview as “anal opening.”

Impeachable offense?

Mueller declined to weigh in on the question of impeachment explicitly — at least for now.

Asked by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner whether Volume 2 of his report on obstruction of justice amounts to documenting impeachable conduct, Mueller passed.

“Our mandate does not go to other ways of addressing conduct,” Mueller said.

Why it matters: Many legal observers have interpreted Mueller’s report as a referral to Congress for possible impeachment. Mueller just declined to endorse that view explicitly.

Advocates for impeaching Trump have hoped that Mueller’s appearance would help push more Democrats to endorse opening impeachment proceedings. That likely would have been helped considerably if Mueller had said that was his purpose.

Russia preferred Trump

Mueller stated flatly that Russia had a clear preference for Trump when it interfered in the 2016 election.

Asked by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, if "the Russian government perceived it would benefit from one of the candidates winning," Mueller said they did.

Lofgren got specific: "And which candidate would that be?"

"Well, it would be Trump," Mueller replied.

Why this matters: This is Mueller knocking down another recurring Trump talking point: Casting doubt about the degree to which Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf.

But Mueller here reinforced the finding of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia formed a clear preference for Trump during the election. Trump had criticized the NATO military alliance and talked up the benefits of having a positive relationship with Russia on the campaign trail.

No exoneration for Trump

Asked point blank by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, whether he cleared Trump of a crime, Mueller replied that he didn’t “exculpate” the president.

If that wasn't clear enough, the two simplified the matter.

Nadler: "Did you actually totally exonerate the president?"

Mueller: "No."

Why this matters: President Trump has claimed “complete and total exoneration” by Mueller, despite the Mueller report’s voluminous evidence on potential obstruction of justice.

Mueller didn’t reach a traditional prosecutorial judgement about Trump due to Department of Justice policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted. Mueller reasoned that it wouldn’t be fair to accuse Trump of a crime.

But that’s not the same thing as saying Trump is innocent — and Mueller just spelled that out on national television.

Trump could be prosecuted after he steps down

Mueller confirmed that Trump would lose his shield of presidential immunity from prosecution after he steps down from office.

“Under Department of Justice policy, the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice crimes after he leaves office, correct?,” Nadler asked

Mueller replied: “True.”

Mueller's opening statement

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