Robert Mueller offered no new revelations today into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections or President Trump’s attempts to derail his probe. But he offered a stark warning on Russian election tampering — “They’re doing it as we sit here” — and a sober assessment of where politics are after the Trump campaign welcomed foreign interference in 2016.
“I hope this is not the new normal,” he told Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, “but I fear it is.”
In seven hours of highly anticipated back-to-back hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, Mueller, the special counsel who led the probe into Russia’s interference and whether Trump associates participated in it, hewed tightly to his script — the 448-page report he and his team produced in April.
He declined repeatedly to offer his opinion on key questions or even to read directly from the voluminous document.
Democrats did get him to confirm the most damaging elements of his findings.
After Trump and his campaign eagerly sought to benefit from and coordinate with this sweeping foreign attack on our political system, the president committed multiple acts meant to impede and obstruct the investigation into all of it.
Under intense questioning, Mueller said Trump had not been cleared of obstructing justice, nor had he been completely exonerated, as Trump has so often declared; he said that the president had been untruthful in some of his under-oath responses during the probe; and he called Trump’s encouragement of WikiLeaks “problematic,” to say the least.
WikiLeaks published emails stolen by Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, first from the Democratic National Committee, then from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Trump cheered the group on repeatedly, praised its actions and urged voters to read the purloined communications.
But the former special counsel, who sometimes appeared confused or at a loss for words and frequently responded to questions with one-word answers — “no,” “true,” “that’s accurate” — was a reluctant witness whose deflections sucked some of the punch out of his most damning findings, especially as Republicans sought repeatedly to undermine him and his investigation.
Mueller, for his part, defended his work and sought to drive home to lawmakers and the public the grave implications of his report, which laid bare that Trump was elected with Russia’s help and cataloged the president’s frantic efforts to undermine the investigation into Moscow’s election interference.
“It’s not a witch hunt,” Mueller told the Intelligence panel, under questioning from the chairman, Representative Adam Schiff of California.
Schiff said Mueller’s sparse answers demanded more aggressive attempts by Congress to investigate the president, an indication that the matter is not over, even if the special counsel is.
From the hearing:
Schiff: During the course of this Russian interference in the election, the Russians made outreach to the Trump campaign, did they not?
Mueller: That occurred. [. . .]
Schiff: The campaign welcomed the Russian help, did they not?
Mueller: We report indications that that occurred, yes. [. . .]
Schiff: The president himself called on the Russians to hack [Hillary Clinton’s] emails?
Mueller: There was a statement by the president on those general lines.
Schiff: Numerous times during the campaign, the president praised the releases of the Russian-hacked emails through WikiLeaks?
Mueller: That did occur. [. . .]
Schiff: Apart from the Russians wanting to help Trump win . . . Donald Trump was trying to make millions from a real estate deal in Moscow?
Mueller: You’re talking about the hotel in Moscow? Yes.
Schiff: When your investigation looked into these matters, numerous Trump associates lied to your team, the grand jury and to Congress?
Mueller: A number of people we interviewed in our investigation, it turns out, did lie. . . .
Schiff: When the president said the Russian interference was a “hoax,” that was false, wasn’t it?
Mueller: True. [. . .]
Schiff: In short, your investigation found evidence that Russia wanted to help Trump win the election, right?
Mueller: I think, generally, that would be accurate. [. . .]
Schiff: Russia committed federal crimes in order to help Donald Trump?
Mueller: You’re talking about the computer crimes charged in our case? Absolutely.
Schiff: Trump campaign officials built their strategy, their messaging strategy, around those stolen documents?
Mueller: Generally, that’s true.
Schiff: And then they lied to cover it up?
Mueller: Generally, that’s true.
Mueller said little about his decision not to compel the president to sit for an in-person interview during his investigation, telling lawmakers he opted against issuing a subpoena for Trump in order to “expedite” the probe.
But he made it clear near the end that he did not believe that Trump had been honest or transparent in his written responses.
Asked by Representative Val Demings, Democrat of Florida, whether it was “fair to say” that the president’s answers had been incomplete and those he did supply were not always truthful, Mueller responded, “Generally.”
As the Intelligence Committee hearing drew to a close, Mueller became increasingly stark in his warnings about Russia’s attack on the 2016 presidential election, and how future efforts could roil American politics.
Mueller has made little secret of his belief that the public has not fully grasped the elaborate and targeted nature of Russia’s attacks on the 2016 elections that were detailed in his report, nor has the government taken sufficient steps to address it or prevent such an assault from occurring again.
Mueller spent most of his time today avoiding expressing his opinion on the president’s conduct or anything else, but that changed when Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, questioned him on Trump’s response to WikiLeaks.
Asked for his reaction to candidate Trump’s praise for WikiLeaks during the campaign, Mueller did not mince words.
“It’s 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,” Mueller responded.
The special counsel also vigorously defended his investigation and his team, denying that they had been responsible for leaks and flatly rejecting the president’s incessant undercutting of his probe.
“Absolutely, it was not a hoax,” Mueller said, adding that the indictments his team brought related to Russia’s interference were “substantial” and had been “underplayed, to a certain extent.”
Attribution:The New York Times