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Five takeaways from Robert Mueller’s testimony

  • Author: Aaron Blake, The Washington Post
  • Updated: July 24, 2019
  • Published July 24, 2019

WASHINGTON - Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress on Wednesday about his investigation into Russian interference and President Donald Trump’s conduct related to it.

He appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in the morning and the House Intelligence Committee in the afternoon.

Below is what we have learned so far.

1. Mueller is struggling

Mueller opened by saying he wouldn't talk about how the Russia investigation was launched or the Steele dossier - despite the GOP's desire to grill him on the allegedly nefarious origins of the probe. Given that, Republicans set out to undermine Mueller's report in another way: by tripping him up.

They made plenty of progress.

Mueller emphasized in his opening statement that "collusion" is not a legal term, and that his report thus didn't address it. House Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Rep. Douglas Collins of Georgia asked him whether "collusion" was colloquially the same as "conspiracy."

"No," Mueller said flatly.

Collins then pointed to the report, which states that certain legal dictionaries do regard the terms as "largely synonymous." Mueller didn't seem to have much of an answer, eventually stating that the report spoke for itself.

Later, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, pressed Mueller on why he said he couldn't exonerate Trump. Republicans have argued that Mueller stepped outside his mandate, when generally people who aren't accused of crimes are presumed innocent. Mueller responded that this was an unusual situation (presumably because Justice Department policy is that a president can't be indicted), but he didn't elaborate.

At another point, Rep. Louie Gohmer, R-Texas, grilled Mueller on whether he knew that former FBI agent Peter Strzok, whose anti-Trump text messages got him removed from the investigation, "hated" Trump. "I did not know that," Mueller said, adding that "when I did find out, I acted swiftly to have him reassigned elsewhere in the FBI." He notably didn't disagree with Gohmert's premise that Strzok hated Trump.

At another point, Mueller said he was "not familiar" with Fusion GPS - the opposition research firm that funded the Steele dossier.

The tactic from Republicans suggests they weren't satisfied to point out the portions of Mueller's report that were good for Trump - including the lack of a conspiracy with Russia - despite Trump's claims that it exonerated him. They seemed to be aiming to argue that Mueller's deputies, some of whom have donated to Democrats, were actually in charge of the probe.

Mueller was even tripped up over more sympathetic questioning by Democrats. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., asked Mueller about a much-discussed quote from the report in which Trump says, upon learning of Mueller's appointment, "I'm f-----." Mueller said he couldn't recall who originally relayed that quote. At another point, Mueller couldn't recall which president appointed him as a federal prosecutor in the 1980s. (He guessed "Bush"; it was Ronald Reagan.)

2. Democrats’ lack of progress

This exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., had plenty of Trump opponents excited:

LIEU: The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?

MUELLER: That is correct.

Some felt Mueller had made big news, arguing Mueller was saying Trump would have been indicted if not for that policy.

"Robert Mueller just reaffirmed in response to questioning from Rep. Ted Lieu that the only reason he declined to indict Donald Trump was because of an Office of Legal Counsel opinion stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted," the Democratic super PAC American Bridge declared in a news release.

But it wasn't to be. At the start of the second hearing, Mueller offered a correction: He was simply saying they made no conclusion because of the OLC opinion - not that he would have charged Trump otherwise.

The correction underscored the fact the Democrats simply weren't getting the moment they desired from Mueller. And when they thought they had, he soon snatched it back.

3. Mueller says the Trump campaign lied

As the above shows, Democrats generally only got Mueller to restate findings from his report. That was true when Mueller said, "The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed," and also when he said Trump could still be charged once he's out of office. Neither was new, despite efforts to play them up as big statements.

Democrats did get a big sound bite from the second hearing, though.

"The Trump campaign officials built their strategy, their messaging strategy, around those stolen documents?" Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked.

Mueller responded: "Generally, that's true."

"And then they lied to cover it up?" Schiff asked?

Mueller again responded: "Generally, that's true."

4. He contradicts Trump on the FBI job

Trump has argued that Mueller was conflicted, in part, because he interviewed at the White House for the job of FBI director shortly before becoming special counsel. Before the hearing, reports indicated that Mueller disputed this claim, and Trump took to Twitter to challenge Mueller to testify under oath on it.

"Hope he doesn't say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the . . . interview, including the Vice President of the United States!" Trump said.

Mueller did just that, twice. He stated that he visited the White House about the job search, but "not as a candidate." He later reiterated the meeting "was about the job but not about me applying for the job."

This contradicts months of Trump's claims, and Mueller said so under penalty of perjury.

5. The investigation wasn’t shut down

There have been conspiracy theories that Attorney General William Barr might have shut down Mueller's probe in some way, but Mueller dispatched with them.

"At any time in the investigation, was your investigation curtailed or stopped or hindered?" Collins asked.

"No," Mueller responded.

Collins’s question covered pretty much anything that could be understood as Barr reining in the investigation, so that should put this one to bed.