For the most part, former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III seemed to resign himself to being used as political prop for lawmakers on both sides of the Mueller hearings. This was Congress’s show, and Mueller’s function was to answer questions when members asked — and even then, he had committed himself to speaking within the narrow confines of what his report said about President Trump, Russian interference and obstruction of justice.
But there were moments in the first of two hearings Wednesday where Mueller publicly disagreed with lawmakers trying to characterize his intentions about the report. Given how little Mueller spoke, these moments stand out. Here they are:
On the origins of the Russia investigation
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tried to accuse Mueller of ignoring the origins of the FBI Trump-Russia probe in favor of prosecuting Trump allies. He accused Mueller of not investigating a diplomat who tipped off the FBI that a Trump campaign aide said Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton — the conversation that piqued the FBI’s interest.
Jordan’s line of attack has been refuted by the FBI’s current, Trump-appointed director, who has said his agents did nothing wrong in launching the probe in 2016 with the information he had.
JORDAN: “You can charge 13 Russians no one’s ever heard of or no one’s ever seen, 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.”
MUELLER: “I’m not certain I agree with your characterization.”
It was a simple but eyebrow-raising sentence from Mueller that suggested that he, too, believes the FBI’s reason for opening an investigation into then-candidate Trump’s campaign were legitimate.
On whether the president committed obstruction of justice
Democrats’ job in this hearing was to lay out the legal definitions of obstruction of justice, as spelled out by Mueller himself in the report, and match those up with actions Trump took.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) focused on how Trump is accused of essentially telling then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller. Jeffries used the words in Mueller’s report to say Trump had corrupt intent to interfere in the investigation. It seemingly made Mueller nervous that Democrats were using his words to accuse the president of a crime, something he has said he didn’t have the authority to do.
JEFFRIES: “The investigation found substantial evidence that McGahn was ordered to have the special counsel terminated.”
JEFFRIES: “This is the United States of America. No one is above the law. No one.”
MUELLER: “Let me say if I might, I don’t subscribe necessarily to the way you analyze it. I’m not saying it’s out of the ballpark, but I’m not supportive of the analytical charge.”
On whether the whole Mueller investigation was a sham
MCCLINTOCK: “The fundamental problem, as I said, is we’ve got to take your word, your team, faithfully, accurately, impartially and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report, and we are finding out more and more instances where this isn’t the case, and it’s starting to look like, having desperately tried and failed to make a legal case against the president, you made a political case instead, you put it in a paper sack, lit it on fire, dropped it on the door and rang the doorbell.”
MUELLER: “I don’t think you’ll read a report that is as thorough, as fair and as consistent as the report we have in front of us.”
On whether Mueller dodged making a legal determination about whether Trump obstructed justice
Mueller said in his report he could not make a determination on whether the president committed a crime and obstructed justice, though Mueller also said he couldn’t exonerate Trump. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) pointed out how this left Trump’s actions outlined in the report up for interpretation — and tried to accuse Mueller of irresponsibly impugning Trump.
Mueller pushed back, saying he wasn’t writing this report for the public; he was writing it for the attorney general.
BUCK: “Your job is to provide the attorney general with a confidential report. … you made the distinction in [Russian] interference, but when it came to obstruction, you threw stuff at the wall.”
MUELLER: “I wouldn’t agree … at all. What we did is provide the attorney general our understanding of the case, the cases that were brought, declined, and that one case where the president cannot be charged with a crime.”
On whether Mueller agreed with how Attorney General William P. Barr characterized the report
We now know Mueller took issue with Barr’s overly friendly-to-Trump characterization of the special counsel’s report to the public. Mueller wrote a private letter to Barr, which The Washington Post later obtained, saying he thought the attorney general’s public summary concluding that Trump did nothing wrong didn’t do the report justice.
Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) tried to frame Mueller and Barr as more on the same page, to which Mueller objected.
LESKO: “Did Attorney General Barr say anything inaccurate in his news conference or in the March letter summarizing his principal conclusions of your report?
MUELLER: “What you are not mentioning was a letter we sent on March 27 to Mr. Barr that raised some issues, and that letter speaks for itself.”
This exchange was as close as Mueller got to criticizing the attorney general in public.
On whether Mueller left out evidence
In keeping with Republicans’ line of attack that Mueller was politically motivated, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) tried to argue that Mueller wrote a report criticizing the president knowing that Trump, because he’s a sitting president and can’t be indicted, would never get his day in a court of law to defend himself.
RESCHENTHALER: “You compiled 450 pages of very worrisome information of your target, the president of the United States. You did this knowing you wouldn’t recommend charges and the report would be made public.”
MUELLER: “Not true.”
There were plenty of misleading arguments lawmakers made about how the Mueller report came together. This was the only time Mueller called them out for it.
On defending his team
Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) wanted to know more about Mueller’s staffing decisions, particularly two former FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who traded anti-Trump texts as Strzok worked on the investigation. (Mueller moved Strzok off, he testified, right after he found out about the texts.) Republicans, led by Trump, have also tried to frame some on Mueller’s team as biased because they had donated to Democratic candidates in the past.
In response, Mueller had a forceful defense of his team of investigators and his decisions to craft his team. “I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years I’ve not had occasion once to ask about somebody’s political affiliation,” Mueller said. “It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job seriously and quickly and with integrity.”