Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wasted no time during his House Judiciary Committee testimony Wednesday in undercutting President Trump’s ongoing insistence that Mueller’s probe cleared him of all wrongdoing.
In fact, it was only about an hour after Trump’s most recent claim that there was “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION” that Mueller slowly read into the record an opening statement that made obvious how wrong Trump was.
“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller said. But: “We did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term. Rather, we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.”
That’s an important distinction, between a colloquial term, collusion, and what Mueller’s team sought to determine, which was whether there was enough evidence to prove criminal conspiracy. Mueller is pointed: There was no determination on “collusion” — and there may have been at least some evidence pointing to possible conspiracy.
This isn’t new. It’s what the report itself said and what Mueller said during the news conference earlier this year in which he announced that he was leaving his position as special counsel.
At the hearing, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) pressed Mueller on the extent to which “collusion” and “conspiracy” are interchangeable as terms, asking Mueller if the two aren’t colloquially equivalent. Mueller said they weren’t, prompting Collins to follow up by noting that the report equates the two. The difference, of course, is that the report is drawing a legal equivalence to evaluate possible criminal overlap between Trump’s team and Russia. That’s not what Trump is doing when he uses the term.
In his opening statement, Mueller also addressed the question of obstruction: Did Trump try to interfere with the probe?
“We investigated a series of actions by the president towards the investigation,” he said. “Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the president committed a crime. That was our decision then and it remains our decision today.”
He was pressed on this in the first question offered by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“Director Mueller,” Nadler asked, “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?”
“Correct,” Mueller replied. “That is not what the report said.”
Nadler quoted from a section of the report in which Mueller’s team wrote that it would have exonerated Trump on the question of obstruction if it could. But, the report says, it couldn’t.
“So the report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?” Nadler asked.
“That is correct,” Mueller replied.
“And what about total exoneration? Did you totally exonerate the president?” Nadler continued.
“No,” Mueller said.
“Does your report state there is sufficient factual and legal basis for further investigation of potential obstruction of justice by the president?” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) later asked.
“Yes,” Mueller replied.
Trump has also repeatedly rejected the idea that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was meant to aid his own candidacy. (He also regularly rejects the idea that any Russian interference takes place, but that’s well-established by now.) Under questioning from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Mueller contradicted Trump’s claims.
“Did your investigation find that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from one of the candidates winning?” Lofgren asked.
It did, Mueller replied. Lofgren followed up: Which one?
“Well,” Mueller said, “it would be Trump.”
When Mueller appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday afternoon, committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) walked through a number of the claims Trump has made in the past about Mueller and his probe.
Few were more direct than this one: “Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?” Schiff asked.
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller replied.
Schiff walked through several other claims that the president has made. Schiff noted that Mueller’s report identified outreach attempts from Russia to Trump’s campaign.
“The campaign welcomed the Russian help did they not?” Schiff asked.
“I think we report in the report indications that that occurred, yes,” Mueller said.
"When the president said the Russian interference was a hoax, that was false, wasn't it?" Schiff asked later.
“True,” Mueller replied.
Another central argument from Trump is that Mueller was hopelessly conflicted. The president made reference to part of that allegation Wednesday morning, reiterating a past claim that Mueller might have had it out for him because Trump didn’t give him a job as FBI director.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) asked Mueller if he hadn’t met with Trump the day before being appointed special counsel.
“Not as a candidate,” Mueller replied. In other words, Mueller appears to be saying he met with Trump to discuss the then-vacant FBI director position, a position that Mueller had once held — but not because he was a candidate for the job. (Gohmert didn’t follow up on the point.)
This makes sense. As The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett has reported, Mueller is barred by law from holding the FBI director position again. Barrett’s sources did say that White House staffers raised the possibility of changing that law, but that doesn’t comport with Trump’s presentation of Mueller as having gotten “turned down” in seeking the position.
Later, speaking with Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), Mueller clarified further.
“I was not applying for the job,” he said. “I was asked to give my input on what it would take to do the job, which triggered the interview you’re talking about.” He later added that “it was about the job, but not about me applying for the job.”
During his news conference in May, Mueller said that he didn’t intend to offer public testimony and would let the report speak for itself. The report does in fact note that Trump’s claims about a purported conflict of interest don’t hold up.
“As for Mueller’s interview for FBI Director, Bannon recalled that the White House had invited Mueller to speak to the President to offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI,” it reads in Volume II. “Bannon said that, although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again, he did not come in looking for the job.”
The report is also clear on Trump’s other claims of exoneration in precisely the way that Mueller explained before the committee. What’s unusual about Mueller’s House Judiciary Committee testimony is how directly and immediately Mueller’s words contradict the president’s. Which, it seems, is what the administration was hoping to avoid.