Over the course of nearly six hours, former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before two House committees. Here’s a guide to some of the claims made by lawmakers that were factually shaky or misleading.
“The special counsel’s job — nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence, or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him. It’s not in any of the documents. It’s not in your appointment order. It’s not in the special counsel regulations. It’s not in the OLC opinions. It’s not in the Justice Manual. And it’s not in the Principles of Federal Prosecution. Nowhere do those words appear together because, respectfully, respectfully, director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him. Because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence.”
— Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.)
Ratcliffe essentially accused Mueller of overstepping his bounds. For various reasons, Mueller did not file charges against Trump. Yet the report lays out substantial evidence of potential obstruction of justice by the president.
Mueller said in his report and in public comments that he was neither charging nor clearing Trump. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the report says.
Ratcliffe in his line of questioning suggested that Mueller went rogue with that declaration and that the special counsel should have refrained from commenting on Trump's guilt or innocence once he reached the decision not to bring charges.
Mueller in response said he was in a “unique situation.” The Justice Department has a long-standing policy that prevents the indictment of a sitting president, on the one hand, and Mueller’s team found substantial evidence of obstruction, on the other.
It should be noted, also, that Mueller's statements about Trump were contained in a confidential report to Attorney General William P. Barr. The special counsel regulations required Mueller to explain his prosecution or declination decisions to Barr. The attorney general, not Mueller, made the decision to release the report to the public — at the urging of President Trump.
“After an extended, unhampered investigation, today marks an end to Mr. Mueller’s involvement in an investigation that closed in April.”
— Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), ranking Republican member on the House Judiciary Committee
“President Trump cooperated fully with the investigation.”
— Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.)
This Republican talking point crosses the line from spin to fiction. An entire volume of Mueller's report covers multiple episodes of potential obstruction of justice.
Trump tried to fire the special counsel. The president ordered former White House counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller removed, but McGahn declined to carry out those instructions and threatened to quit, according to the Mueller report.
McGahn refused to correct a New York Times report about the attempt to fire Mueller, despite Trump's insistence that he do so. McGahn also refused Trump's request that he create an internal record falsely stating that the president never ordered Mueller's ouster.
Trump also tried to curtail the investigation, although that, too, was unsuccessful. The Mueller report says Trump asked Corey Lewandowski, his onetime campaign manager, to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the investigation to future election interference. Lewandowski did not convey the message to Sessions, who by that point had recused himself from the Russia investigation.
To have the president bearing down like this is no small matter for a prosecutor, but let's set aside these unsuccessful attempts to fire or restrain Mueller. Let's also set aside Trump's drumbeat of public attacks on Mueller and his investigation over two years, many of which were false or misleading.
Mueller's report says he was impeded in other ways.
Trump declined to sit for an interview with Mueller’s team despite multiple requests. The president’s written answers to questions were deemed insufficient, according to the report. Mueller indicated in response to Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) at a House Intelligence Committee hearing that Trump’s written responses were untruthful in at least some cases.
Several Trump advisers or campaign officials gave false or incomplete testimony, including Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos, according to the report and subsequent criminal charges. “Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference,” the Mueller report says.
Some witnesses asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions, according to the Mueller report. Another “practical limit” was the fact that “numerous witnesses and subjects lived abroad, and documents were held outside the United States."
“Further, the Office learned that some of the individuals we interviewed or whose conduct we investigated — including some associated with the Trump Campaign — deleted relevant communications or communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption or that do not provide for long-term retention of data or communications records,” the Mueller report says. “In such cases, the Office was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts.”
“So most prosecutors want to make sure there was no appearance of impropriety, but in your case, you hired a bunch of people that did not like the president.”
— Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Tex.)
“That team of Democrat investigators you hired donated more than $60,000 to the Hillary Clinton campaign and other Democratic candidates.”
A regular theme of Republican questioning was that Mueller stocked his team with Democratic partisans. The claims engendered rare passion from Mueller, who defended his team and noted that 14 of the 19 lawyers were on detail as career prosecutors from the Justice Department.
“We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job. I have been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years I have not had occasion, once, to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done,” Mueller said. “What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job seriously and quickly and with integrity.”
In fact, federal regulations prohibit the Justice Department from considering the political affiliation or political contributions of career appointees, including those appointed to the Special Counsel’s Office. So Mueller was legally prohibited from considering the political affiliations of the people he has hired.
While Johnson noted $60,000 in donations to “Clinton and other Democrats,” by our count, contributions amounting to only about $10,900 were made directly to Clinton during her presidential runs. About half of that amount came just from Jeannie Rhee, who joined the team from Mueller’s law firm, Wilmer Hale; she donated a total of $5,400 to Clinton’s campaign in 2015 and 2016. At WilmerHale, Rhee was a partner on the defense team representing the Clinton Foundation in a lawsuit over Clinton’s use of her private email server.
All told, five of the 16 known members contributed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. An additional six members had made political donations to Democrats over the years.
But Mueller is a Republican. The special counsel investigation was overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, a Trump appointee and also a Republican.
“Mr. Mueller, did you indeed interview for the FBI director job one day before you were appointed as special counsel?”
— Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.)
President Trump has made a similar claim from the start of Mueller’s appointment in 2017. But the Mueller report quotes Trump aides as privately telling Trump it was silly — and Mueller insisted in the hearing he was not interviewed for the FBI job, which he has already held for 12 years. Instead, he said he came to the White House to discuss the role of the FBI director.
“It was about the job and not about me applying for the job,” Mueller told Steube. His statement was made under oath.
Former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon told investigators the purpose of the meeting was not a job interview but to have Mueller “offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI,” according to the special counsel’s report, and “although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again, he did not come in looking for the job.”
The Washington Post has reported that when the issue came up of whether Mueller might be interested in once again becoming FBI director, he said he could not take the job unless a law was changed. Mueller has already served a full ten-year term as FBI director and Congress in July 2011 passed legislation allowing Mueller to serve an additional two years.
According to the report, the president’s advisers — including then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, then-White House counsel Donald McGahn and Bannon — “pushed back on Trump’s assertion of conflicts, telling the President they did not count as true conflicts.” Bannon told investigators that he “recalled telling the President that the purported conflicts were ‘ridiculous’ and that none of them was real or could come close to justifying precluding Mueller from serving as Special Counsel.”
“Your report famously links Russian Internet troll farms with the Russian government. Yet, at a hearing on May 28th in the Concord Management IRA prosecution that you initiated, the judge excoriated both you and Mr. Barr for producing no evidence to support this claim. Why did you suggest Russia was responsible for the troll farms, when, in court, you’ve been unable to produce any evidence to support it?”
— Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.)
McClintock attacked Mueller with an interesting argument that mirrors one of the defenses offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his line of questioning, McClintock pushed back on a widely accepted finding from the U.S. intelligence community and the Justice Department: that Russia's government ordered up a social-media influence campaign to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
Before Mueller’s grand jury indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers working directly for Putin’s government, it indicted several Russian individuals working for a “troll farm” called the Internet Research Agency. Two Russian companies — called Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting — provided the Internet Research Agency with millions of dollars to buy digital ads and to pump pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messaging into the U.S. ecosystem in 2016, Mueller’s indictment alleges.
Among those indicted was Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, one of the richest men in Russia. Prigozhin “controlled” the two Concord companies that funded the troll farm and directed its work, Mueller alleged. “He is a caterer who has been nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’ because of his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” The Washington Post reported. The New York Times reported that Prigozhin has received contracts from the Russian government worth $3.1 billion over the past five years, citing research by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a group set up by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The U.S. Treasury Department in 2016 imposed sanctions on Prigozhin and Concord over Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military actions in Ukraine, and then imposed more sanctions in 2018 based on “malicious cyber-enabled activities.” “Prigozhin has extensive business dealings with the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, and a company with significant ties to him holds a contract to build a military base near the Russian Federation border with Ukraine,” the Treasury Department said in 2016 when it announced Prigozhin’s Ukraine-related sanctions. “Russia has been building additional military bases near the Ukrainian border and has used these bases as staging points for deploying soldiers into Ukraine.”
In a 2018 news conference with Trump in Helsinki, Putin said Concord did not “represent” or “constitute” the Russian state. But the indictment leaves open the possibility that Russian government officials contributed to the Internet Research Agency’s efforts; it says the named defendants worked “together with others known and unknown to the Grand Jury.”
“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations — such as cyber activity — with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls,’” according to the January 2017 assessment by the U.S. intelligence community.
The IRA indictment, however, does not state that the Russian government was behind the troll farm. U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, who is handling the Concord case, ruled July 1 that out-of-court comments from Mueller and Barr linking the Russian government to the IRA’s efforts would prejudice the jury at an eventual trial.
But the judge did not say that the allegation was false or that Russia’s government had no hand in the troll farm’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“There will be a lot of discussion I predict today and great frustration throughout the country about the fact that you wouldn’t answer any questions here about the origins of this whole charade, which was the infamous Christopher Steele dossier, now proven to be totally bogus, even though it is listed and specifically referenced in your report.”
As has been well-documented, the memos written by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, on behalf of a firm working for Democrats and the Clinton campaign, did not spark the investigation into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian entities. Even the memo written by the then-Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee in 2018 — and released by the White House — acknowledged: “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok.”
Crossfire Hurricane was the name of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation, which was opened on July 31, 2016, after the Australian government reported that George Papadopoulos, then a foreign-policy aide to Trump, told Alexander Downer, the top Australian diplomat in Britain at the time, during a May meeting that the Russian government had “damaging” material on Clinton and was prepared to release it late in the election campaign.
Downer sent a cable back to the Australian capital about his meeting with Papadopoulos. He had sought the meeting to gain some insight into Trump’s foreign policy views but decided that Papadopoulos was “surprisingly young and inexperienced” to amount to anything in a Trump administration. Buried in the cable was a reference to Papadopoulos saying the Russians had damaging material on Clinton and were prepared to use it.
After WikiLeaks started releasing Democratic National Committee emails during the Democratic National Convention, held July 25-28, Downer suddenly remembered “with a shudder” his meeting with Papadopoulos, according to Greg Miller’s “The Apprentice.” He immediately requested a meeting with the top U.S. diplomat in Britain at the time, who in turn alerted the FBI.
The Steele “dossier,” which contained salacious allegations, certainly generated substantial media attention after it was made public in 2017. The FBI also cited it in a footnote seeking a court order allowing surveillance of a former Trump adviser. Since then, many elements of Steele’s reporting for the “dossier” have not been confirmed and have been called into question by the Mueller report.
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