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Opinion The two big Mueller exchanges that capture the Russia scandal

The Republicans were hostile. The Democrats were friendly. Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III gave them the same response on obstruction. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the end, when you get past all the punditry and spin about Robert S. Mueller III’s appearance before Congress, there are two exchanges that capture what this whole scandal is really about — and they both tell a damning story about President Trump’s conduct.

The first one occurred when the former special counsel appeared before the Intelligence Committee in the afternoon, and was questioned by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairman. Schiff noted that Mueller’s report found that Russia interfered in our election in “sweeping and systematic fashion.”

Here’s what happened next:

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.

This confirms the basic outlines of what this scandal has been about all along. The president and his advisers eagerly expected to gain from a massive foreign attack against our political system — one undertaken to elect Trump in 2016. Trump and his advisers repeatedly sought to coordinate with those efforts, in the full knowledge of who was behind them — the Russian government. Trump secretly pursued a lucrative real estate deal, with Kremlin involvement, while voters were choosing the Republican nominee. Trump and his advisers repeatedly lied to cover all of this up.

That was all documented — along with much, much more — in the special counsel’s report. But it was incredibly damning all the same, because the report itself was already incredibly damning, and Mueller stated all these basic, unvarnished facts from it on live television.

Indeed, at one point, Mueller flatly stated that Trump’s public encouragement of the interference effort gave a “boost to what is and should be illegal behavior.”

In 2019, The Post's editorial board argued the president tried to manipulate the justice system, wrongdoing that Congress must not let go. (Video: The Washington Post)

The other exchange came during the morning session, when Mueller appeared before the Judiciary Committee. Its chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), straightforwardly asked Mueller to summarize his findings. Nadler began by asking Mueller about the central claim the president has made about Mueller’s work:

Nadler: Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction, and that it completely and totally exonerated him. But that is not what your report said, is it?
Mueller: Correct. That is not what the report said.

After going over the fact that Mueller was bound by Justice Department policy forbidding the indictment of a sitting president — which led Mueller to avoid making public conclusions about the president’s culpability — this exchange, concerning the multiple obstructive acts committed by Trump, took place:

Nadler: Now, in fact, your report expressly states that it does not exonerate the president.
Mueller: It does.
Nadler: And your investigation actually found, quote, “multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.” Is that correct?
Mueller: Correct.
Nadler: Now, Director Mueller, can you explain in plain terms what that finding means so the American people can understand it?
Mueller: Well, the finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.
Nadler: In fact, you were talking about incidents, quote, “in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” unquote, to exert undo influence over your investigations, is that right?
Mueller: That’s correct.

Mueller flatly disputed two of the biggest lies Trump has for months told about the special counsel’s findings. No obstruction? False. Total exoneration? False.

As Mueller confirmed, 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.

Mueller did not quite confirm explicitly that he viewed these acts as criminal. But he did confirm unequivocally that he was precluded by Justice Department guidelines from bringing charges for them. And the report actually establishes multiple cases in which Mueller determined that the threshold of corrupt intent was, in fact, met.

Got a question about the Mueller testimony? Submit a question for Harry Litman’s Twitter chat.

The argument that Trump supporters make about this is either that any such obstructive acts are entirely legitimate by definition, because a president can shut down an investigation into himself and his associates for any reason, as head of the executive branch (the case his lawyers have made). Or it’s that Trump’s obstructive acts were justified, or at least understandable, because Trump thought he was being unfairly targeted by the investigation. As Attorney General William P. Barr has said, “the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency."

But Trump didn’t try to impede the investigation solely to protect himself from an investigation he allegedly thought was unfair (we doubt the president is even capable of evaluating anything that tries to hold him accountable by any meaningful fairness-versus-unfairness metric to begin with). He also sought to impede a full reckoning with this “sweeping” attack on our political system, irrespective of whether there was any criminal coordination with it. This point often gets lost, but Mueller testified to it vividly.

It is doubtful whether all this will be enough to push Democrats into an impeachment inquiry, or to push public opinion into supporting one. But there’s no more remaining doubt about what Trump and his associates did. At the end of the day, Mueller’s testimony laid all of it bare.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s new ‘Article II’ comments illustrate stakes at Mueller hearings

Harry Litman: Mueller’s greatest failing is Trump’s greatest triumph

Stephen Stromberg: What Robert Mueller and Pickle Rick have in common

Henry Olsen: Mueller’s testimony crystallized public opinion against impeachment

The Post’s View: The administration’s last-minute attempt to bully Mueller is offensive