Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday about his report on Russian election interference and presidential obstruction of justice. Slate live-blogged the day’s events, a recap of which you can read below.
Update, 3:45 p.m.: These hearings have come to a close. It was a long day of political theater and it’s hard to imagine it having been an effective one for any Democrats hopeful that Mueller’s testimony might renew the push for impeachment. I’m also struggling to think of a single new fact that was learned. I will leave things with what seemed to me like incredibly smart thoughts from Russian political dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, because these words seem like as depressing and correct an analysis of Wednesday’s events as any.
Update, 3:25 p.m.: Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney initially was having perhaps the strongest round of questioning. He asked why Mueller opted not to subpoena President Donald Trump to ask him about the various obstructive acts that were investigated. Maloney got Mueller to admit that he felt he was running out of time. While Mueller agreed with Maloney’s assertion that he’s not the type of person who flinches, he essentially flinched. Watch the exchange here.
Update, 2:55 p.m.: This, in response to Rep. Will Hurd, was about as animated as Mueller has been today. (He’s not been animated at all and wasn’t even particularly animated here.)
Update, 2:30 p.m.: The hearing has taken a brief recess. Turner’s questioning seems to have been the highlight of that first round. People are also picking up on this portion, but I don’t think it is necessarily meaningful that Mueller declined to answer a question about whether his office gathered any evidence that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort ever met with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange in 2016.
“I’m not certain I agree with that assumption” is certainly an interesting response from Mueller, but it also doesn’t really mean anything. You know what would result in us finding out the answer to this question, though? If Democrats actually enforced the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena of William Barr requiring that he turn over all of the underlying evidence that Mueller gathered, which Barr has refused to comply with, citing an absurdly broad notion of executive privilege that seeks to cover the entirety of Mueller’s investigation. Again, if House Democrats actually care about the public knowing the truth here, they would attempt to enforce these subpoenas through the various legal mechanisms at hand.
Update, 1:55 p.m.: Rep. Mike Turner spent quite a bit of time trying to get Mueller to admit that his job was not to say whether he could or couldn’t exonerate the president of committing crimes. (Mueller said in his report that he could not exonerate the president of obstruction of justice, and if he could have then he would have.) As the New York Times’ Peter Baker reminds us, this hasn’t really been Trump’s messaging:
Update, 1:35 p.m.: Far too many people this morning glommed onto Rep. Ted Lieu’s questioning of Mueller, in which the former special counsel answered this question:
The way it was interpreted, including by very smart lawyers and legal analysts, was to be Mueller practically admitting that “but for the OLC opinion saying I couldn’t indict a sitting president, I would have indicted Trump.’”This interpretation was, frankly, insane.
Mueller said repeatedly in his report that he was not going to make a prosecutorial decision in regard to Trump and obstruction of justice. Mueller said that, while he could not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice and he would do so if he could have, he was opting not to offer a prosecutorial decision because it wouldn’t be fair to accuse the president of a crime without giving him the chance to defend himself in a trial. He also said repeatedly in the lead-up to this hearing that his testimony would not differ from his report in anyway.
Some seemed to imagine that Lieu had gotten Mueller to change the most critical part of his report, one that would have had a profound effect on how it was received and would fundamentally change what it meant, because he phrased his question in a clever way. Again, I think that would have been quite bonkers. And in fact, this is not what happened. Apparently in response to this gloss spreading on cable news and Twitter, Mueller opened his Intel testimony by correcting the record. “I want to add one correction to my testimony this morning,” he said. “I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu, who said, and I quote, ‘You didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.’ That is not the way to say it. As we say in the report, and as I said in the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
Update, 1:05 p.m.: The House Intelligence Committee hearing is underway. Chairman Adam Schiff and ranking member Devin Nunes gave opening statements. Schiff emphasized the importance of focusing on the Russian attack on the 2016 election. Republican Nunes said he wanted the “Russia hoax” to come to an end.
Update, 12:15 p.m.: Rep. Veronica Escobar closes the Judiciary hearing by trying to get Mueller to say “impeachment” is a thing that could happen. He doesn’t bite. And that’s the end of this show. The House Intelligence Committee was supposed to start around noon, but one would assume Mueller is going to get a lunch break. When that next hearing starts, we will start back up with this live blog.
Update, 12:05 p.m.: I would file this under “unsurprising.”
Update, 12:00 p.m.: Mueller confirms something else that he had already confirmed in his report: that the lies by members of Trump’s team impeded his investigation into collusion.
Update, 11:00 a.m.: People are focusing in on this moment in response to questioning from Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado:
This, like essentially everything that has come out of this hearing, is not new. The Buck moment is another rehash of what’s in the report. (Even Democrats have acknowledged the purpose of this hearing was not to reveal new information, but rather to highlight for the public known information about Trump’s misconduct.) In his response, Mueller framed the possibility of a future prosecution of Trump as a straightforward interpretation of the Office of Legal Counsel memo that professes to bar the Department of Justice from prosecuting a sitting president. As Mueller notes, that memo clearly states that prosecution would be allowed after the president has left office. In fact, as I wrote at the time of the release of the Mueller report, the report itself went even further. The portion in question comes in Footnote 1,091 on Page 178 (it’s a long report) and it states:
A possible remedy through impeachment for abuses of power would not substitute for potential criminal liability after a President leaves office. Impeachment would remove a President from office, but would not address the underlying culpability of the conduct or serve the usual purposes of the criminal law. Indeed, the Impeachment Judgment Clause recognizes that criminal law plays an independent role in addressing an official’s conduct, distinct from the political remedy of impeachment. See U.S. CONST. ART. l, § 3, cl. 7. Impeachment is also a drastic and rarely invoked remedy, and Congress is not restricted to relying only on impeachment, rather than making criminal law applicable to a former President, as OLC has recognized.
So the Mueller report notes that not only would a post-presidential prosecution of obstruction of justice for a corrupt president be allowed by the Constitution and the DOJ’s own guidance—he suggests there are circumstances when it would be needed to “address the underlying culpability of the conduct or [to] serve the usual purpose of the criminal law.” It seems doubtful that he’d ever respond whether he thought Trump’s likely obstruction of justice was one of those instances, but hundreds of prosecutors have signed a letter essentially saying just that.
Update, 10:25 a.m.: The committee just came back from a short break. In the most recent rounds of questions, we would say that the two most interesting moments probably came from Republicans. First, Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama pressed Mueller on the letter he and his team sent Attorney General William Barr criticizing Barr’s initial release summarizing the report’s principal conclusions and the misimpression its pro-Trump spin left the public with. Mueller was generally unresponsive, saying that the “letter stands for itself.” But Mueller’s response to Roby’s final question—whether anything Barr said in his letter claiming to summarize the principal conclusions of the Mueller report was inaccurate—was interesting. He said, with a smile, “I’m not going to get into that.” It would have been pretty easy, it seems, to answer that question “No” if Mueller really didn’t have any issues with how the thing was initially presented to the public. This answer made Barr look bad.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, meanwhile, tried to press Mueller to answer questions about why he refused to charge specific individuals for lying to law enforcement, with a particular focus on Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, whose conversations with Trump adviser George Papadopoulos formed the initial basis for launching the investigation into the Trump campaign in 2016. Mueller was adamant that he couldn’t answer such questions. “What’s interesting,” Jordan said, “is you can charge 13 Russians no one’s ever heard, of, no one’s ever seen, no one’s ever going to hear of them, no one’s ever going to see them. You can charge all kinds of people who are around the president with false statements. But the guy who launches everything, the guy who puts the whole story in motion, you can’t charge him. I think that’s amazing.” The 13 Russians in question were charged with a conspiracy against the United States to interfere in the 2016 election. It’s apparently “amazing” to Jordan that the United States would indict them for those alleged crimes.
Update, 9:36 a.m.: Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the No. 2 Democrat on this committee, has been one of the better questioners on the committee in the time that we’ve been observing it. During her five-minute round, she noted one of the main overlooked findings of the investigation that had been contradicted by the early intelligence assessments of Russia’s 2016 election interference, namely that the Russians were actively working toward a Trump victory (rather than, say, merely toward a Clinton loss, or general chaos).
Update, 9:15 a.m.: The first round of questions from Nadler and Collins mostly involved both the chairman and the ranking member asking Mueller specific things from his report and Mueller saying some version of “uh-huh.” The one moment that potentially struck people as dramatic was when Collins asked Mueller—who has said he found “insufficient evidence” to establish that the Trump team was involved in a conspiracy with the Russians to influence the election—if collusion and conspiracy are “interchangeable” in the “colloquial” sense. (The point apparently being “NO COLLUSION.”) Mueller responded “No.” Collins than cited Page 188 from Mueller’s report, which stated, “Even as defined in legal dictionaries, collusion is largely synonymous with conspiracy as that crime is set forth in the general federal conspiracy statute.” Collins asked if Mueller wanted to correct his testimony, and he said he deferred to what was written in the report. This moment will maybe be played as a “gotcha” moment, but it doesn’t seem that crazy to me. (Collins’ phrasing of the question was slightly different from what was written in the report.) For what it’s worth, Chip Brownlee in the hearing room reports that it is hard to hear in there (ha!), and Mueller does appear to be asking the committee members to repeat themselves a fair amount.
Update, 8:57 a.m.: Mueller’s opening statement repeats many of the things he said in his report and in his May 29 press statement. It also includes a nice long list of things he won’t say, which will apparently include a criticism of how Attorney General William Barr handled the release of the inquiry, criticism he and his office had previously offered before in a letter.
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.” These matters are the subject of ongoing review by the Department. Any questions on these topics should therefore be directed to the FBI or the Justice Department.
As I explained when we closed the Special Counsel’s Office in May, our report contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We conducted an extensive investigation over two years. In writing the report, we stated the results of our investigation with precision. We scrutinized every word.
I do not intend to summarize or describe the results of our work in a different way in the course of my testimony today. As I said on May 29: the report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text.
And as I stated in May, I also will not comment on the actions of the Attorney General or of Congress. I was appointed as a prosecutor, and I intend to adhere to that role and to the Department’s standards that govern it.
Mueller closed by emphasizing that what the Russians did was a big deal.
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.
Update, 8:45 a.m.: The hearing is underway. Just before proceedings began, one protester interrupted. According to Slate editorial intern Chip Brownlee, who is in the room, the protester said something about Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and encrypted apps.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, meanwhile, opened things with a very solemn and effusive statement about how great Robert Mueller is. Ranking minority member Doug Collins of Georgia gave a bit more of a fiery speech that essentially amounted to “no collusion, no obstruction.” “The president knew he was innocent,” is Collins’ biggest takeaway from the Mueller report. Collins also noted that he hopes the investigators be investigated, and closed by calling the investigations of presidential obstruction of justice by the Judiciary Committee a waste of time. He also says that they’ve accomplished nothing “except talk about the problems of our country.” Given the approach Democrats have taken to enforcing subpoenas and opening an impeachment inquiry, namely not doing those things, he’s not that wrong!
Mueller has been sworn in.
Original post, 8:22 a.m.: Former special counsel Robert Mueller is testifying before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday about his report on Russian election interference and presidential obstruction of justice. We’ll be updating this post with the latest from the hearing all morning.
If you’re looking for some pre-hearing reading and listening material, we’ve got a couple of options for you. Ben Mathis-Lilley walks through which areas of questioning would likely bear the most fruit for Democrats. Dahlia Lithwick explains how we’ve seen this show before and that it doesn’t end well. Mike Pesca talks through how Democrats should temper any and all expectations. And of course, you can always read (or, less likely, reread) the 448-page report itself. And if you don’t have time for that, there’s always the graphic novel version.
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