- Former special counsel Robert Mueller spoke at two committee hearings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as lawmakers seized their first chance to ask him directly about unanswered questions in his final report on the Trump-Russia affair. Speaking to the House judiciary committee in the morning, he reaffirmed that his report did not exonerate President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice, but did not charge him with it either. But when asked whether Mr. Trump could be charged after he left office, Mr. Mueller said yes.
- At the intelligence committee in the afternoon, Mr. Mueller corrected a previous statement from the first hearing that he didn’t charge Mr. Trump because of an Office of Legal Counsel decision. He said that the process never started to reach a determination, and that his work was not a witch hunt. “Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” he said about Mr. Trump’s 2016 tweets following WikiLeaks’ publications. Later, Mr. Mueller touched on the implications of Russian meddling for the elections, saying, “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.”
- Mr. Mueller stressed repeatedly that he would not stray beyond what was in his report, which he had in a binder beside him while testifying. That report, released in redacted form in April, gave an extraordinary account of Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Here are some in-depth looks from Washington correspondent Adrian Morrow about the report and its implications and the major players involved.
What Mueller said (and didn’t say) Wednesday
Whether Trump could be indicted: Mr. Mueller held fast to his position that, due to Justice Department policy, a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime like obstruction of justice. But under questioning by judiciary committee chairman Jerry Nadler and Republican Ken Buck, he said that Mr. Trump could be indicted after he left office. He also reaffirmed that Mr. Trump “was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed."
What he said he couldn’t say: In his brief opening statement, he warned the judiciary committee that there were “certain areas that I know are of public interest” that he couldn’t talk about because of Justice Department policies and ongoing investigations. “For example, I am unable to address questions about the opening of the FBI’s Russia investigation, which occurred months before my appointment, or matters related to the so-called ‘Steele Dossier,’” he said, referring to a file of information on Mr. Trump collected by former British spy Christopher Steele. Pressed with questions from the judiciary committee about Mr. Steele’s firm, Fusion GPS, he said repeatedly that the subject was “outside my purview” because it’s part of a different investigation.
The interview that wasn’t a job interview: Before Mr. Mueller testimony, Mr. Trump tweeted accusations that the special counsel wasn’t telling the truth when he said that in May, 2017, he did not apply and interview for the FBI director’s job, which Mr. Trump had recently made vacant by firing James Comey. Asked about that at the justice hearing, Mr. Mueller said he met with Mr. Trump shortly before he was appointed as special counsel and was asked for his general input about hiring an FBI director. “My understanding of it was [I was] not applying for the job, I was asked to give my input on what it would take to do the job.”
Why he didn’t subpoena Trump: Mr. Mueller told the intelligence committee that the team decided not to subpoena the president because it wanted to expedite the end of the investigation, and taking that action would have risked leading to a long legal fight. He said this was a balanced decision in terms of both evidence and time the subpoena fight would take. He also refused to say whether his team subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr.
What Mueller has said publicly before Wednesday
Aside from a statement in May, Mr. Mueller has been mostly quiet about how he reached his conclusion that the Trump campaign did not co-ordinate with the Russians to meddle in the 2016 election, fueling confusion about why he didn’t definitively say whether the President broke the law or not.
In his May 29 statement, Mr. Mueller said that because he was bound by Justice Department policy, charging the President with a crime was “not an option we could consider … So beyond what I have said here today and what is contained in our written work, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further about the investigation or to comment on the actions of the Justice Department or Congress.”
What Barr has (and hasn’t) said
So far, Mr. Barr – who became Attorney-General this past February after Mr. Trump fired his predecessor, Jeff Sessions – has done much of the work of interpreting and filtering Mr. Mueller’s findings, which has made him a magnet for criticism from Democrats who say he’s not an impartial judge of the President’s conduct. Speaking to the Senate in May, he faced accusations of lying to Congress for failing to disclose a letter from Mr. Mueller criticizing Mr. Barr’s handling of the final report. Mr. Trump also gave Mr. Barr a mandate and expanded powers to investigate the investigation, and specifically whether U.S. officials wrongly put the 2016 Trump campaign under surveillance.
Why Wednesday’s Mueller testimony was important
Mr. Mueller has insisted that he should not be the one to decide the President’s fate. That set the stage for Mr. Barr’s conclusion that Mr. Trump should not be charged with obstruction of justice, which he announced in March when he first received Mr. Mueller’s report. Mr. Trump praised that decision, and since then the phrase “no collusion” has been a common phrase in speeches where the President claims to have been exonerated.
But several Democrats, still unconvinced by Mr. Barr’s version of events, said the report and Mr. Mueller deserve more scrutiny because of the troubling revelations about Mr. Trump’s conduct in the White House, such as his attempts to fire Mr. Mueller while the investigation was still ongoing.
Trump’s attacks and untruths
Before Mr. Mueller even took his seat, Mr. Trump took several shots at him on Twitter, repeating several of the false claims he’s used against Mr. Mueller in the past. Here’s what some of his tweets said:
It was NEVER agreed that Robert Mueller could use one of his many Democrat Never Trumper lawyers to sit next to him and help him with his answers. This was specifically NOT agreed to, and I would NEVER have agreed to it. The Greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. history, by far!
This is an apparent reference to Aaron Zebley, the aide who helped Mr. Mueller with his testimony to the justice committee. A Washington Post analysis last March found he was not affiliated with either the Democrats or Republicans and had made no donations to either party.
So why didn’t the highly conflicted Robert Mueller investigate how and why Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress? She must have GREAT lawyers!
This apparently refers to a claim, since disproven by Justice Department ethics experts, that Mr. Mueller, a lifetime Republican, was in a conflict of interest when he was appointed to the special counsel's job.
NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!
“Collusion,” as Mr. Mueller explained in his report and testimony, is not a specific crime outlined in U.S. law, so charging Mr. Trump with it was never an option. Mr. Mueller declined to charge Mr. Trump with obstruction of justice, but testified that he did not exonerate him.
What the report says
In the nearly two years since Mr. Mueller’s probe began, 34 people and companies have been criminally charged. The two-volume, 448-page final report, which the public has so far seen only in redacted form, looked at three things:
- Collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign
- Obstruction of justice and lying
- Financial fraud and other crimes
- Mr. Trump’s campaign had numerous contacts with Russians – including an alleged spy – but it didn’t amount to co-ordination
- President Trump aggressively sought to fire Mr. Mueller and thwart his investigation
- Mr. Mueller did not exonerate Mr. Trump of obstruction of justice
How we got here
2016: Mr. Trump has already announced he’s running for President. The Internet Research Agency, a group based in Russia specializing in disinformation, buys ads on social media backing Mr. Trump and opposing Hillary Clinton. Quietly, people close to Mr. Trump are involved in talks with Russia. His son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort discuss damaging information about Ms. Clinton with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney who has ties to the Kremlin. WikiLeaks releases 20,000 hacked e-mails from Democratic Party computer servers. The FBI opens a counterintelligence investigation. By the end of the year, Mr. Trump is elected as President.
2017: The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees both open investigations. FBI director James Comey confirms to them that his office is investigating, but he is later fired by the President. When Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein comes under criticism for his role in firing Mr. Comey, he appoints Robert Mueller as special counsel. Mr. Mueller and investigators begin laying charges against former Trump officials, including Mr. Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates.
2018: Mr. Mueller’s team charges 13 Russian nationals and three companies for interfering with the election, along with a dozen Russian military intelligence agents for hacking the Democrats’ computers. Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleads guilty to misleading Congress, but agrees to co-operate in the investigation.
2019: Mr. Manafort is sentenced to a total of 7 ½ years in prison for various federal crimes while Mr. Cohen says that he is resentful of his actions in supporting Mr. Trump. In March, Mr. Mueller hands over his report to Mr. Barr, who said in later April the president was not in collusion with Russia. Mr. Mueller resigns in May, stating that he would like to go back to his private life.
What happens next
With the public’s attention dwindling since the report was released, both parties have stakes in Mr. Mueller’s version of events. Mr. Trump has repeatedly called the investigations against him a “witch hunt,” and Republicans hope to make the Mueller testimony look like just that. Democrats are looking for Mr. Mueller to bring to life some of the more troubling details from the report, and renew the public’s sense of urgency in understanding what really happened between Mr. Trump and Russia.
The Democrats’ debate about impeachment has been coming to life again since Mr. Trump’s xenophobic attacks on four congresswomen, which led to an unsuccessful impeachment motion by Texan congressman Al Green.
As of last week, more than 80 House Democrats had publicly said there should be impeachment proceedings, and Mr. Mueller’s testimony could increase that number.
Opinion and analysis
Compiled by Sierra Bein and Evan Annett
With reports from Associated Press, Reuters, Adrian Morrow and Evan Annett
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