The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Russian interference? While grilling Mueller, Republicans repeatedly downplay it.

Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on July 24. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The Russia investigation has been one long, highly politicized slog. But even as Republicans have cast doubt on the idea that President Trump obstructed justice or colluded with Russia, there was one thing most everyone generally agreed upon: Russian interference in the 2016 election was bad, and a recurrence must be stopped.

You wouldn’t know it from having watched Republicans on Wednesday.

At two hearings featuring former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s testimony, House Republicans generally mentioned Russian interference only while absolving Trump of blame or while attempting to poke holes in Mueller’s report. And often, they cast doubt on the importance of the interference and downplayed Mueller’s findings and indictments related to it.

The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), started by saying, “We were told this investigation began as an inquiry into whether Russia meddled in our 2016 election,” suggesting doubt about that original purpose. He went on to ask Mueller whether other countries were investigated, echoing Trump’s repeated suggestions that Russia’s interference might not be exceptional.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggested it was relatively pointless to indict “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.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) homed in on a theory that the Steele dossier was full of lies fed either by a deliberate Russian “disinformation campaign” or by Christopher Steele himself. Mueller had already said he couldn’t talk about the dossier, given that it’s part of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Russia probe’s origins.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) argued that Mueller had implied an unfounded connection between the Russian troll farm behind the 2016 interference and the Russian government. (A judge has agreed with this. What McClintock failed to mention? The judge also faulted Attorney General William P. Barr for linking the two.)

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) probed Mueller on whether Russia’s interference had affected any votes, suggesting there was no proof it had. Steube did this even though it’s completely unknowable what the impact was, as has been noted ad nauseam.

It wasn’t until the second hearing — the one more focused on intelligence matters — that a House Republican even acknowledged the gravity of the situation.

“Well, first of all, director, I very much agree with your determination that Russia’s efforts were sweeping and systematic,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (Tex.) began. “I think it should concern every American. That’s why I want to know just how sweeping and systematic those efforts were.”

Then Ratcliffe immediately proceeded to pick up on Gaetz’s conspiracy theory, which Mueller had already declined to discuss. Rep. Eric A. “Rick” Crawford (R-Ark.) followed that by trying again, asking whether “there could have been disinformation that was going from the Kremlin into the Clinton campaign and then being fed into the FBI?” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked whether Mueller had identified Steele’s sources. All three times, Mueller, who again had made clear that he wouldn’t talk about this, demurred.

At long last came Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a former CIA agent who represents a swing district. Hurd was the second-to-last Republican questioner of the day, but he became the first to earnestly probe the severity of Russia’s interference without invoking some kind of pro-Trump and/or anti-Mueller framing.

“As a former CIA officer, I want to focus on something I think both sides of the political aisle can agree on: that is, how do we prevent Russian intelligence and other adversaries from doing this again?” Hurd said, after two dozen of his colleagues declined to broach the topic.

This exchange followed:

HURD: After overseeing counterintelligence operations for 12 years as FBI director, and then investigating what the Russians have done in the 2016 election, you’ve seen tactics, techniques and results of Russian intelligence operations. Our committee made a recommendation that the FBI should improve its victim notification process when a person, entity or campaign has fallen victim to active measures attack (ph). Could you agree with this — with this?
MUELLER: It sounds like a worthwhile endeavor. I will tell you, though, that the ability of our intelligence agencies to work together in this arena is perhaps more important than that. And adopting whatever -- and I’m not that familiar with legislation, but whatever legislation will encourage us working together — by us, I mean the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the rest — it should be pursued aggressively, early.
HURD: In your investigation, did you think this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence to suggest they’ll try to do this again?
MUELLER: It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.

And with that last response, Hurd earned one of the headlines of the hearings.

None of this is to say that Republicans were the only ones playing politics on Wednesday. But their questioning was more single-mindedly focused on the domestic partisan debate. They were aiming to protect Trump by picking apart not just Mueller’s findings on Trump but also his findings on Russian interference.

The latter used to be something only Trump and a handful of his strongest allies — Gaetz and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), among them — would do. On Wednesday, it permeated almost the entire GOP side of the dais.