Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller returned to Capitol Hill today to rehash the report he submitted to the Justice Department in March. For over three hours, Mueller answered some questions and sidestepped others. But ultimately, he breathed more life into his written report and pointed to evidence showing Trump and his inner circles actively worked to obstruct justice.
What else did Mueller say? Perhaps not much, or perhaps plenty, depending on how you want to view it.
FYI for Mueller’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, click here. Stay here for my thorough report, full of random thoughts, occasional quotes, and notes of frustration, on Mueller’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.
Prologue: Once more, with feeling, no “EXONERATION!”
In March, Attorney General Bill Barr attempted to gaslight the entire nation with a four-page letter claiming Robert Mueller found no evidence of Donald Trump committing any crimes. It didn’t take long for intrepid journalists to debunk Barr’s memo, though unfortunately many more in the media simply fell for it. When Mueller’s own report was finally released in April, it confirmed all the reporting that had already revealed a rather cozy relationship amongst Trump, his inner circle of apparatchiks, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s network of oligarchs, kleptocrats, and apparatchiks. And while Mueller himself declined to state Trump and the innermost of his inner circle committed crimes, his report adds credence to the mountain of evidence pointing to their culpability in such crimes.
Thus far, Trump has successfully evaded consequences for his actions. When pressed for answers on when they will change this dynamic, Congressional Democratic leaders have pointed to Mueller and the hearings that finally happened today.
So what happened today? Below are my notes and observations from Mueller’s day in Congress. Mueller started with three hours in the House Judiciary Committee (to discuss more of the details on Trump, his inner circle, and their obstruction of justice), then shifted to three hours in the House Intelligence Committee (to discuss more of the Russia side of the Trump-Russia scandal).
5:30 AM PDT: It begins (in House Judiciary)
“Responsibility, integrity, and accountability.” According to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-New York), these are the themes for today. He praised Mueller’s conduct during his time as Special Counsel, then pivoted to recounting Trump’s campaign against Mueller and his investigation, which culminated in Barr releasing his now infamous letter.
Then, House Judiciary Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-Georgia) used his opening statement to recount Barr’s letter and apply that to Mueller’s findings. Collins also credited Trump for allowing this process to happen. “He did not shut down the investigation,” he insisted, though he left out the details on the obstruction of justice that Nadler hinted at (and sites like Lawfare have been tracking since 2017).
And then, Mueller finally began to speak himself. For him, “It was of paramount interest to determine if a foreign adversary intervened in the 2016 presidential election.” He said he wanted the investigation to be as thorough and expeditious as possible, and for it to be done fairly and with integrity. Mueller then pointed to the indictments and guilty pleas that have already begun racking up as proof of its value.
Mueller stated, “The Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” Yet from there, he expressed his frustration over being dragged into the political war over Russia’s cyber-war on America: “It’s unusual for a prosecutor to testify in a criminal investigation.” He said it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment on “ongoing matters”, hinting at indictments and criminal trials that are yet to come. Muller insisted he would not go into details on the Steele Dossier (where talk of the “pee tape” originated), and he again told the committee, “The report is my testimony, and I will stay within my text.”
5:45 AM: Guilty or not?
When Nadler asked Mueller point-blank if the report exonerates Trump, Mueller answered, “It is not what the report said.” And as Nadler quoted from the Mueller Report, Mueller himself confirmed that Trump personally sought to influence the process in a way that can easily be interpreted as obstruction of justice.
So why didn’t Mueller indict Trump? “You would not indict, and you would not indict because of the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion that it would be unconstitutional [to indict a sitting president],” he explained. Several constitutional law experts dispute Mueller’s and the Justice Department’s view that sitting presidents can’t be prosecuted, but Mueller did confirm to Nadler that Trump may face criminal charges once he leaves office.
When it was Collins’ turn to defend Trump, Mueller stated he had “insufficient evidence of the President’s culpability” in certain specific crimes. Yet when Collins tried to force Mueller to issue a blanket statement confirming Trump’s innocence in all charges he investigated, Mueller backed off.
6:00 AM: “Collusion”, conspiracy, obstruction, obfuscation
Then, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California) pointed to evidence of people in Trump’s orbit sharing campaign polling data with Russian operatives. She prodded Mueller to confirm that this information exchange was happening for mutual benefit of the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Lofgren summarized Mueller’s findings this way: “First, The Russians wanted Trump to win. Second, the Russians went on a sweeping cyber operation” that included online ads targeting voters in swing states for the clear purpose of aiding Trump.
Next up was Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), who prodded Mueller to state that he could not determine if Trump and those in his innermost circle committed specific crimes relating to Russian interference. But again, Mueller deflected when Ratcliffe attempted to force him to claim Trump has been “exonerated” because no charges were filed. (See the above conversation between Mueller and Nadler.)
Following that was another Texan, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who prodded Mueller to agree that, “There was sufficient factual and legal basis to investigate obstruction of justice.” And as Jackson Lee continued quoting from the report, she pushed Mueller to refute Ratcliffe’s obfuscation of what’s actually in his report.
6:30 AM: “In America, nobody is above the law.”
– Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee)
Then, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) asked why Mueller would investigate Trump when he knew he’d never prosecute Trump. Whenever Mueller tried to explain why this happened, Sensenbrenner thrust into Department of Justice code of conduct in a way to suggest Trump was somehow denied due process by Mueller not treating him as “innocent until proven guilty”.
Following up on that, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) pointed to Trump’s “End of my presidency. I’m fucked.” comment to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 to revisit Sessions’ recusal from the Trump-Russia investigation, which led to Mueller’s appointment as Special Counsel and that very comment. Cohen got Mueller to confirm that Trump attempted to force Sessions to “unrecuse himself” from the investigation, which could count as obstruction of justice. Trump angrily told Sessions, “You were supposed to protect me,” which further strengthens the claims that Trump has indeed been working to obstruct justice.
Next up, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) taunted Democrats over their ongoing debate on whether or not to impeach Trump. He then used his time to talk about Fusion GPS, the private investigation company behind the Steele Dossier. At one point, Mueller interjected to state that others in the Justice Department were handling matters more directly related to Fusion GPS and the Steele Dossier.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia) then recounted Trump’s conversations with then White House Legal Counsel Don McGahn in 2017 to “talk about having the Special Counsel removed,” when Trump attempted to compel McGahn to force then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller.
6:40 AM: “The President ordered you fired. The White House Counsel knew it was wrong, but the President did it anyway.”
– Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida)
Then, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) talked about James Comey, because sooner or later Comey was going to come up. Gohmert proceeded to pedal conspiracy theories of “anti-Trump sentiment in the FBI”, conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton probably wishes had more truth to them.
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) moved back to Johnson’s line of inquiry in pointing out reports from June 2017 claiming Trump was personally being investigated. That led Deutch to ask, “Director Mueller, the most important question I have for you is why: Why did the President want you fired?” Mueller’s response? “I can’t answer that question.”
Nevertheless, Deutch persisted: “The President ordered you fired. The White House Counsel knew it was wrong, but the President did it anyway.” Deutch has publicly stood with House Democratic leaders who have tried to tamp down calls for impeachment, but he’s apparently part of the group of House Judiciary Democrats who’ve privately called for House leaders to let them go harder on Trump (than what we’ve seen until today).
7:00 AM: Where’s the conspiracy, really?
After that, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Alabama) used her time to dive into the minutiae of the process, which ultimately led to her parroting the White House’s complaints about “leaks to the media”.
A pattern seemed to emerge when Rep. Karen Bass (D-California) followed suit in leading Mueller back to the matter of Trump’s attempts to force McGahn to force Rosenstein to fire Mueller. Bass asked, “Didn’t the president say, ‘Maybe I’ll have to make [McGahn] write the letter [directing Mueller be fired], or I’ll get rid of him?” Mueller directed her to the report, which was his way of affirming Bass’ take on this.
Following up on that, longtime House Freedom Caucus firebrand (and disgraced former Ohio State University wrestling coach) Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) used his time to pedal conspiracy theories surrounding Carter Page, the former Trump aide who had admitted to working with Kremlin officials before back-pedaling and creating what’s now a right-wing rallying cry about FISA court conspiracy theories.
At 7:05 AM (our time), Nadler ordered the committee into a “five-minute” recess.
7:20 AM: Can GPS help any of these people find their way?
After recess concluded, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-Louisiana) picked up where Rep. Karen Bass left off in asking Mueller to confirm, “The President tried to force McGahn to say what he knew wasn’t true.” Mueller replied, “That’s accurate.”
Then Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), another stalwart Trump ally who’s increasingly running into ethical and legal hot water himself, used his time to pedal more conspiracy theories surrounding Fusion GPS, which was under contract with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at some point during its Trump investigation but has never been found to pursue any illegal relationship with the DNC, Clinton, or any foreign government.
Next up, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York) returned to the McGahn line of argument that several of his fellow Democrats have been pursuing. He asked questions in a way to try to compel Mueller to admit Trump’s committed crimes. As per usual, Mueller deflected when Jeffries tried to make Mueller say that, though he didn’t dispute the facts Jeffries used to reach that conclusion.
7:30 AM: Obstruction, or not?
Following a pattern that’s clearly been established, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colorado) jumped into a word salad involving Comey, Justice Department protocol, and former Vice President Joe Biden. He then asked whether there was “sufficient evidence to convict Trump of obstruction of justice,” but Mueller again refused to follow Buck’s lead. He did, however, state again that Trump can be prosecuted after he leaves office.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) then asked about Trump bringing in former 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to direct Sessions to mislead the public on Mueller’s investigation and limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation in June 2017. He got Mueller to state that an unsuccessful attempt at interfering with a criminal investigation still constitutes criminal obstruction of justice, then used that to jump back to June 2017, when Trump instructed Lewandowski to tell Sessions, “He was fired,” if Sessions didn’t do as Trump said.
When Cicilline tried to get Mueller to answer whether he agrees with former federal prosecutors who’ve stated Trump would be prosecuted if he weren’t President, Nadler’s gavel dropped and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) proceeded with his Q&A time. Words were apparently said.
7:50 AM: Wait, did Mueller just say that?
Fresh off ending his 2020 presidential campaign, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) was back in the House to… Hand the microphone over to Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California). Like other Democrats, he attempted to make Mueller clarify that Trump committed crimes. And this time, he may have actually gotten Mueller to admit that he would have indicted Trump if he didn’t accept the Office of Legal Counsel memo that advises against the indictment of sitting presidents.
Staying with the California delegation, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) asked about Konstantin Kilimnik, whom Mueller has called a Russian spy. 2016 campaign chair Paul Manafort shared 75 pages worth of Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, but McClintock asked about the usual Republican line of argument around “leaks” and “due process”.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) asked about White House officials’ reassurances to then Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen, at one point telling him, “You are loved.” Raskin then pointed out how Trump’s and the White House’s attitude towards Cohen changed when he took a plea deal and began to speak out against Trump. Raskin used his time to point out Trump’s attempts at witness tampering, which constitutes obstruction of justice.
8:05 AM: “Dirty laundry”
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Arizona) pointed to Bill Barr’s repeated attempts at shoving certain words into Mueller’s mouth and essentially asked Mueller to back up Barr. As per usual, Mueller declined to accept Barr’s interpretation of his report.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) then dove into the Manafort affair and went along with Mueller’s account of Trump’s ongoing attempts to dissuade Manafort from cooperating with his office. She asked Muller about Trump saying, “He was very brave, because he did not flip.” Jayapal pointed out, “He intended to encourage Manafort not to coordinate. […] He promised a pardon if he did not cooperate,” and Mueller did not dispute her interpretation there.
Next up, Rep. Guy Rechenthaler (R-Pennsylvania) dove all the way back to Bill Clinton’s presidency to talk about “dirty laundry”. He tried to compare and contrast Ken Starr’s investigation of Clinton, which led to House Republicans voting to impeach Bill Clinton in 1999 over lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, with Mueller’s investigation of Trump. Funny enough, Lewinsky herself has pointed out certain key differences.
8:15 AM: Oh wait, he really said that.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Florida) turned the microphone over to Rep. Lou Correa (D-California), who prodded Mueller to recount the timeline of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Michael Flynn’s brief White House employment, Trump’s insistence that “the Russia thing is over”, and Trump asking then FBI Director James Comey, “I hope you can see your way to letting this go, letting Flynn go. He’s a good guy.”
Correa quoted Trump again: “I just fired the head of the FBI, a real nut. […] I faced great pressure over Russia.” That was Trump’s private conversation with Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak in May 2017.
Rep. Ben Cline (R-Virginia) attempted clean-up by chiding Mueller for “over-criminalizing conduct over private citizens’ actions,” then claiming former President Barack Obama obstructed justice for saying Hillary Clinton committed no crimes via email. Staying on that subject, Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pennsylvania) brought up Trump confidant Roger Stone and his role in Wikileaks’ release of Clinton’s emails.
8:35 AM: “Deep State”
Rep. Greg Steube (R-Florida) asked about rumors that Mueller wanted another stint as FBI Director. He also asked whether any American voters changed their votes as a result of Russian interference, and Mueller declined to play the role of political pundit there. Steube then jumped back to Carter Page, the Steele Dossier, and Fusion GPS to pedal Republicans’ “deep state” conspiracy theories.
Steube then asked whether the president can fire an Attorney General, a FBI Director, or a Special Counsel at any time and under any circumstances. He briefly got Mueller to stumble on his words after issuing a veiled threat regarding Barr’s new investigation of Mueller’s investigation.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) soon asked, “If I had lied to investigators, could I go to jail for up to five years?” Mueller replied, “Yes. Well, wait. It’s Congress.”
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-North Dakota) then asked Mueller, a registered Republican who’s served under prior Republican presidents, about those on his team with ties to Hillary Clinton. Here we go again with the long-ago debunked “deep state” conspiracy theories that are easily disproven by the FBI’s deep investigation into Clinton’s emails (that again, produced no evidence of criminal conduct there).
8:50 AM: “The report is damning, and I believe you found evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
– Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona)
After Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) began to summarize the morning’s series of events on the Democratic side, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) sought to summarize the morning’s series of events on the Republican side. Of course for the Republicans, that means the long-ago debunked “deep state” conspiracy theories involving Hillary Clinton and the emails stolen by Russian hackers.
After Nadler admitted the committee hearing was going into overtime and asked the remaining Democrats to be brief, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Georgia) moved along the Democratic side’s closing argument by pointing to the 37 indictments his team issued. McBath told Mueller, “Your work has been critical. […] And for that, I thank you.”
Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona) then pointed out Mueller’s service under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush (under whom he was FBI Director) to refute Johnson’s allegations that he “colluded” with Democrats. Stanton then declared, “The report is damning, and I believe you found evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.”
9:00 AM: “We have a duty to defend the constitution and safeguard the highest principles of our country. […] It now falls upon us to hold President Trump accountable.”
– Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas)
Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pennsylvania) then revisited Barr’s (gaslighting) letters. She then told Mueller, “I agree with [Mueller’s] March 27 letter [to Barr]. There was public confusion, and the Attorney General contributed to such confusion.”
Rep. Debbie Murcasel-Powell (D-Florida) then asked, “Simply trying to obstruct justice can be a crime. Right?” Mueller agreed. She then added, “You certainly made up my mind as to whether there was obstruction of justice and corrupt intent.” And for the record, Murcasel-Powell and Dean are two of the 88 Representatives on record in support of impeaching Trump.
So is Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas). “This hearing has been very helpful in determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment,” she declared. Escobar continued, “We have a duty to defend the constitution and safeguard the highest principles of our country. […] It now falls upon us to hold President Trump accountable.”
Indeed, it does. The three big takeaways from Part 1 of Mueller-palooza are that 1) Trump repeatedly obstructed justice, 2) Mueller would have at least felt more comfortable with indicting Trump if he wasn’t the sitting President, and 3) House Democrats have ample evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors” to proceed with impeachment. Hang tight, as there’s more coming with Part 2: Mueller at the House Intelligence Committee.