The mainstream media prepared for last week’s appearance of former special counsel Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill as if it were the policy equivalent of the summer Olympics or the Super Bowl.
Virtually all cable and broadcast news outlets prepared to cover Mueller’s testimony before two congressional committees from start to finish. Indeed, they began their coverage a little before the first hearing was set to begin at 8:30 AM.
It soon became clear that Mueller was going to be the reluctant witness he promised to be, and journalists didn’t hide their disappointment. Politico deemed the hearings a “flop.” “On optics, this was a disaster,” tweeted Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press.
Nevertheless, the hearings had value. They were, first of all, a day-long tutorial on the Mueller report, which most Americans have not read. And even for the roughly 3 percent who have digested the entire report, the hearings offered up intriguing glimpses into the special counsel’s motives and character.
On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn't charge Pres. Trump because of the OLC guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster. #MuellerHearings
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) July 24, 2019
Activists fighting to strengthen election protections and those endorsing the president’s impeachment also found them useful, one more step in a process of educating and then mobilizing the US public. The timing, they added, will help efforts to encourage citizens to meet with House and Senate members during August, when Congress is in recess. Some groups, including the NAACP and Common Cause, have already endorsed impeachment proceedings; many more progressive groups support laws to better secure elections from foreign interference.
And just two days after the hearings, House Judiciary Committee Democrats asked the court for access to the Mueller report’s redacted grand jury materials, signaling that an impeachment investigation has already begun.
In truth, the hearings really didn’t depend on Mueller. The former FBI director and longtime public servant served less as a witness and more as a foil for members of Congress.
Democrats used their time — five minutes per committee member — to read aloud portions of the report. They would have preferred that the special counsel read the portions they cited, but he refused.
Republicans used the hearings to lob all sorts of charges against the investigators who wrote the report, but did not directly challenge the veracity of the report itself.
The greatest insight the hearings may have provided is how Mueller sees the world, and what standards he values.
Mueller’s fullest vision of his work came in his brief opening statement. He undertook the special counsel role, he said, “because I believed it was of paramount interest to the nation to determine whether a foreign adversary had interfered in the presidential election.”
His “critical objective” was to “work quietly, thoroughly, and with integrity so that the public would have full confidence in the outcome.” He was equally clear about the seriousness of the crimes he was set to investigate.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” he stated. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.”
Likewise, he said, the quest to investigate efforts “to obstruct the investigation and to lie to investigators was of critical importance. Obstruction of justice strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and to hold wrongdoers accountable.”
Investigators lacked sufficient “evidence” to charge anyone in the Trump campaign with a “conspiracy” to work with Russia to influence the election, he said. “Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a decision as to whether the president committed a crime,” he said, referring to DOJ guidelines stating that a sitting president may not be indicted.
He added that he would not go beyond the report’s conclusions, and, in accordance with DOJ restrictions, he would not comment on the origin of the Russia investigation — which preceded his appointment (Attorney General William Barr has opened an inquiry into how the Russia investigation was launched; so has the DOJ Inspector General.)
Mueller reiterated his pride in the final product. “In writing the report,” he said, “we stated the results of our investigation with precision. We scrutinized every word.
“The report is my testimony,” he added. “I will stay within that text.”
But that opening statement was the longest comment Mueller would make.
Nevertheless, the hearings gave the veteran prosecutor a chance to explain some of the decisions he had made along the way.
Why Did Mueller Conclude the Investigation When He Did?
It was in the public interest for the investigation to be complete, but “not to last a day longer than was necessary,” Mueller said. His concern for speed appeared linked to his desire to be absolutely fair to those under investigation.
That concern emerged when he answered an accusation from Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT). Over the course of the investigation, Stewart charged, “innocent people have been accused of very serious crimes, including treason, accusations made even here today.” Stewart spoke of “lives disrupted, and in some cases, destroyed, for false accusations.”
Mueller did not respond to Stewart’s charge, but shared Stewart’s views about the investigation’s human toll. “In a lengthy, thorough investigation some persons will be under a cloud that should not be under a cloud,” he said. He added that “one of the reasons for … the speed of an investigation” is to lessen the burden on “those persons who are disrupted.”
Why Did He Refuse to Subpoena Trump?
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) referred to Appendix C of the report, detailing the president’s written responses to investigators’ questions.
“By my count, there were more than 30 times when the president said he didn’t recall, he didn’t remember, no independent recollection, no current recollection.” The report characterized the responses as “incomplete, imprecise, inadequate, insufficient,” Maloney said.
Mueller agreed that those words were a “fair summary” of the quality of the written responses.
Maloney pressed the special counsel: “Why didn’t you subpoena the president?”
Mueller made clear the decision not to subpoena was his own; he had not been ordered to refrain from issuing one. His real concern appeared to be time.
Negotiations with the Trump legal team had already gone on for more than a year, Mueller responded. He feared that if he was subpoenaed, Trump would fight it in court, and cause even more delays.
In the end, Mueller settled for written responses and agreed to limit those questions to the Russia investigation. “It was certainly not as useful as the interview would be,” Mueller said.
“We had to make a balanced decision in terms of how much evidence we had, compared to the length of time it would take,” he said.
Maloney asked if the president had ever taken the Fifth amendment, which protects witnesses from incriminating themselves.
“I’m not going to talk to that,” Mueller replied.
Did His Team Leak?
Stewart said he was holding “a binder of 25 examples of leaks” he attributed to Mueller’s team. All of them, he said, harmed the president. Not one helped the White House.
Mueller defended his staff, and said he did not believe that they had been the source of leaks. “From the outset, we’ve undertaken to make certain that we minimize the possibility of leaks, and I think we were successful over the two years that we were in operation.”
He would not comment on any alleged leaks to CNN about the Roger Stone indictment. He said he did know about the leak of his March 27 letter to Attorney General William Barr. In that letter he complained that Barr’s summary to Congress “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” and caused “public confusion” about the report’s contents. But he said he did not believe that anyone in his office had been responsible.
Questioned earlier about the letter to Barr, Mueller would not even identify the staffer who had written the letter. “I can’t get into who wrote it. The internal deliberations… what I will say is the letter stands for itself.”
Mueller also stressed that he had never asked any of his employees about their political affiliation.
“What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity,” he said. He observed that 14 of the 19 lawyers on his team were transferred from other departments of the DOJ. “Only five came from outside” the department, he said.
Concerns About Foreign Interference in Future Elections
The only Republican on either committee who seemed worried about election interference was William Hurd (R-TX), a former CIA officer. He referred to the Russian Internet Research Agency and its use of social media to influence US voters and to even organize rallies. Hurd asked if Mueller was concerned about this.
“Many more countries are developing the capability to replicate what the Russians had done,” Mueller warned.
He added: “It wasn’t a single attempt. They are doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
If Congress is going to pass legislation, a priority should be a bill that “will encourage us working together,” Mueller said. “By us, I mean the FBI, CIA, NSA and the rest. It should be pursued aggressively early.”
“The first line of defense really is the ability of the various agencies who have some piece of this to not only share information, but share expertise, share targets and we use the full resources that we have to address this problem.”
Could a President Be Indicted After Leaving Office?
Mueller did agree that a president may be indicted after leaving office.
But he did not engage with Rep. Mike Quigley’s (D-IL) observation that the statute of limitations for obstruction of justice is five years. Quigley implied, though did not state explicitly, that Trump could get a “get out of jail free” pass if reelected. “What if a president serves beyond the statute of limitations?”
“I don’t know the answer to that one,” Mueller said.
Quigley pressed: “Would it not indicate that a president who serves a second term … is therefore … above the law?”
Mueller refused to consider it. “I’m not certain I would agree with the conclusion. I’m not certain that I can see the possibility that you suggest,” he said.
Is It All Over for the Mueller Report?
Without a lot of media attention, progressive groups have been gradually teaching the public about the Mueller report. Last May, Public Citizen, Common Cause, and People for the American Way were among the organizations that formed the Mueller Book Club. The club has been organizing readings of the 448-page report all over the country. Over May and June, the club offered weekly livestreamed discussions with experts examining different aspects of the report.
The book club livestreamed a discussion after the hearings, taking heart that public exposure to the report had been ramped up by the coverage. Several book club partners are doing more to engage their members.
Common Cause, a good-government group with one million members and supporters in 30 states, has a website to help constituents track whether their members of Congress have read the report. The book club got some help from Hollywood. Rob Reiner has directed a video explaining the report, made glitzier by Hollywood celebrities such as Laurence Fishburne, Christine Lahti, and Robert De Niro. The video, which debuted June 20, focused on Russian interference in the election. Reiner has directed another one, featuring a few of the one thousand prosecutors who said they would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice if he were not president.
“If we don’t start putting on the pressure in the next month, we’ll never get this done,” Reiner told activists at the virtual meeting. Reiner hoped that the hearings might help galvanize progressives to pressure House Democrats to lean on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to move forward with impeachment hearings.
Whether or not the president is actually impeached, Reiner said, beginning proceedings would “expedite” access to witnesses and documents.
Not all book-club partner organizations have endorsed impeachment, but there is strong support for using the report to mobilize citizens to lobby both representatives and senators to pass reforms to ensure that what they consider abuse of power and foreign election interference never happen again.
Susannah Goodman, Common Cause director of election security, said that these reforms should include more resources for “cash-strapped” county clerks across the nation, charged with conducting elections. The House approved $600 million for election administration, Goodman said. The Senate should not only approve more funds, but increase the House appropriation.
In addition to increasing funds for election security, the House-passed Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, also mandates paper ballots and strengthens the security of election-related software and databases, she added. (Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked the Senate from voting on the SAFE Act.)
Goodman said one takeaway from the Mueller hearings was to “talk to people.” She has cousins who are Trump supporters, she noted. But there is a way to find common ground. “We all believe our votes should matter,” she said. No one wants their votes “disappeared by some foreign entity.”
She concluded: “This can unite us.”
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