Problematic is an understatement: Robert Mueller testifies before Congress
On Wednesday former special counsel Robert Muller testified publicly before two separate congressional panels Judiciary Committee will come to order the hearings marked the first time Muller answered questions. It's about his investigation of president trump and Russian interference in the Twentieth Sixteen Election Muller's Bet the first half of the day in front of the House Judiciary Committee say one more thing over the course of my career. I've seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government's effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious as I said on May twenty ninth this deserves the attention of every American much of the afternoon in front of the House Intelligence Committee as we explained in our report and the special counsel regulations effectively gave me the role of the United States attorney as a result. We structured our investigation allegation around evidence for possible use in prosecution of federal crimes. We did not reach what you would call. Counterintelligence Conclusions Democratic lawmakers largely focused on episodes outlined in Muller's report as potential obstruction of justice by President Trump Republicans tried to focus on the reasons and circumstances under which Muller's investigation began muller meanwhile headed into Wednesday's hearings saying that he preferred not to say more about his work in public so with these competing interests did the American public actually learn anything new about Muller's more than two year long investigation. Let's find out this is can can he do that. A podcast that explores the powers and limitations of the American presidency. I'm Alison Michael's Matt's Petoskey. The posts Justice Department apartment reporter covered the hearings life Matt. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for having me so let's talk about the strategies heading into this from the perspective of the Democrats and Republicans when it went into to Wednesday's testimony Democrats have been preparing for this for some time what were their objective so I think they knew that Muller did not want to speak beyond the report so one of their objectives was just to get him to say things in the report unflattering things for trump particularly the question of obstruction out loud just get him to say those things so that was one thing they were going to do. They were also going to try to pry new information from him like their holy. Grail was for to get him to say yes. The evidence was substantial to charge president trump with obstruction of justice. It always seemed unlikely that was going to happen though there were a couple slip-ups where it sort of came close one of which muller had to correct later so that and then just getting muller to to read things out loud. That's what they went into it thinking they would sort of accomplish accomplish it also seemed just from my watching it that the Democrats had decided to thank Muller for his service before they even launched into their questions almost in every case yeah they did. They wanted to build him up. He's such an important figure and they had put puts so much of their hope. For some kind of I mean some people want impeachment. Some people don't put anything bad for trump. They put so many hopes with this guy so one of their aims of course is to build up this guy. He's a longtime registered registered republican a war hero an F._B._i.. Director who served for twelve years even though you'll know more illness for ten because there's nobody else better around his ten years we're up so he's very well respected guy part of what I think they set out to do was to build him up and that would give so much more credibility when he talked about president trump. What about the Republicans what what was their approach low? Republicans seem to try to attack him. They have all these concerns about his investigation about the the origins of it about the role that this opposition research document that everybody has come to know as the dossier played in kind of spinning the thing forward they had questions about bias among some members of his team to members of his team <hes> very famously. Exchanged a bunch of anti-trump text messages. One of them was removed when that was found out the other had already left but so they wanted to focus on that muller just wasn't willing to go there kind of for both sides. He wasn't willing for Democrats to just read passages aloud he would just say I referred my reporter reporter. That's correct. That's in the report <hes> for Republicans to win. They'll ask dossier question dossier question dossier question. It's just I'm not going to get into that. That's outside. My purview just repeated deflections on the two things that both sides wanted to ask them how yeah so you have the Democrats that's with their agenda that Republicans with their agenda Seemingly Muller with his adamant that he will not go beyond what the report says evenly this out in his opening remarks as I said on May twenty ninth the report is my testimony and I will stay within the text. Why what do we know about Muller's reasoning for limiting his public words that is worth so muller essentially has come to the conclusion that they spent a lot a lot of time carefully deciding what words to put in that four hundred and forty eight page report report and he doesn't want to go a step beyond that nor does he really want to walk anything back? That's what he wants to be kind of the record of his investigation for history. He said something to that effect at the hearing so he didn't WanNa step in any any way on that he just didn't want to go beyond that report. He views himself as a classic prosecutor. A prosecutor normally doesn't ever come to Congress period the either indict someone or they say nothing. More is a little bit weird because he's a special counsel investing the President before he has come to Congress before not since he's been special counsel. He came when he was F._B._I.. Director he has spoken publicly about this before just one time when he had a press conference in you took no questions as the first time he's taking questions but he viewed his role as I've said what I said and that's that and that kind of goes to his kind of prosecutor mentality okay so that's sort of where we stood heading into Wednesday where we know all the parties stood. Let's talk about what actually happened on Wednesday. Did we see Muller diverged from his stated intention to not go beyond the content of the report mostly no he tried very very hard to not go beyond the report he stuck to the script he wouldn't even read passages out. Loud Democrats repeatedly would try different ways to get him to read passages out loud or describing his own words passages. They'd read something and say. Is that what you report says say correct at one point. Someone asked him I forget who can you tell me what you meant by that and he won't he won't he wouldn't go beyond that he's like well. The report speaks for itself <hes> so he really did try to stick to the report. How much of that is Robert Muller and how much of that is how a prosecutor should behave when they're being questioned by Congress? I think a lot of that is Robert Muller because you see law enforcement officials all up and down the spectrum. I mean think about Jim mm Komi talking about the Hillary Clinton email investigation. He's much more conversational offering kind of his personal perspective really getting into details that that aren't just sort of out there already but Robert Muller is like hardcore guy. He doesn't want to go beyond that report and that's just his personality. There's some prosecutors who would probably be a little more comfortable these pudding in their own words like what they said but Robert Muller really wasn't even wanting to do that and I think that's a personality thing now. The Justice Assist Department did provide some guidelines over what he couldn't say they did. Rubber Muller Asks for those and in some ways. I think that gave him a lot of cover. I mean in a lot of instances. He just had to say. I'm not answering that but in some instances he was able to say well. That's covered uh-huh delivered process which the Justice Department said you can't talk about that. I think he kind of liked that. I have this top cover from the Justice Department. They told me I can't do this so I can refer to that. Let's move on to sort of the top line. Takeaways Muller confirmed that his investigation did not completely sweetly in totally exonerate trump as the president has repeatedly claimed specifically during his first response to Representative Nadler. He said the finding indicates that the president was not <hes> the president was not sculpting exculpated for the accident he allegedly committed. Are there new implications of Mahler saying that sentence out loud well. That's what he has said in his report. That certainly is a soundbite that Democrats will be able to use. It's not wholly new but it is a nice sound bite for Democrats to us you know as they campaign against trump it now. They're also asked if the president under Justice Department policy could potentially be prosecuted for obstruction injustice after he leaves Office Under D._O._J.. Under Department of Justice policy the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice crimes after he leaves office is correct through with that new information that the guidance meant the president could could potentially be charged after leaving office no but that is interesting to hear Muller say out loud. We knew that the alcee guidance only governs a sitting president and there are ways that a sitting president could be charged pretty quickly the one way that comes to mind immediately as Congress and peaches him he's removed and then he's prosecuted in other ways he would just leave office. This is a very unique case and they didn't go down this road but the Attorney General Bill Barr who essentially Muller's boss in this in this instance came in over top of them were muller or wooden decide Bill Bar said I do decide there is not a prosecutable case of obstruction and that makes it so in this particular instance would be sort of unheard of for prosecutors later after trump <hes> left office. Let's say he lost in twenty twenty. He Leaves Office for a new president and a new Justice Department. Come in and say and the previous Justice Department was wrong. We're going to prosecute the previous president that would be really really strange but muller accurately notes that is possible when you're not a sitting president anymore you you can get charged and it's interesting to hear note that even though we sort of already knew that right so along those same lines. Did we learn anything new about this one major question that sort of looms over the entire report which is whether Muller would have charged trump if not for the Justice Department policy for a sitting President Yeah we didn't we thought he had revealed that in response to this Ted lieu question where he's asked that like you so you're saying that the oil C- opinion stopped you from indicting trump and molly says yes but then he goes back and clarifies no no no. That's not what I'm saying and I don't think that's a question we can learn the answer to because what I heard Muller say today was they just never did the things they would need to do to make that decision like they never had the debate. Do we have the evidence is it in the interests of justice to charge the president at some point and it's not clear when they decided we can't decide we're not going to decide we can still investigate but we're not going to decide even amongst ourselves whether the evidence is there so they didn't so Taylor can answer the question so we didn't learn anything about that today. Even though for a moment we we thought we did so Republicans have repeatedly questioned the origins of the Russia probe for a long time very publicly did Muller provide any new information about the origins of his investigation. He really did not on that question. He very assiduously avoided. It just wouldn't go there outside his purview. There was a lot of questions about the dossier and its role in in the origins about other peripheral kind of characters. Where's he just wouldn't go anywhere close to that which is a little disappointing because even I have questions about the origins of the pro just as a you know you've covered the story for a long time? How did this all start? Let's get very clear answers to that. Just wasn't going there and the probe started but way before he came on board. It started kind of the summer before he comes on board in May of twenty seventeen ms at the reason he gave for not wanting to weigh in well sort of he the reason he gave is this broad Justice Department prohibition from talking about internal deliberations perations on some of them. He did say that it predated his time <hes> but that's not to say he couldn't have spoken to this like Shirley. He subsumed that investigation he knows about it but he said it was covered by deliberative process some of it relates to ongoing cases so he just didn't go there for a variety of reasons so during the House Intel hearing there was a notable moment when muller pushed back against trump longstanding criticism of his work as a as a witch hunt term. We've heard trump US many times. He's tweeted many times under under questioning from representative Adam Schiff chairman of the House Intelligence Committee investigation is not a witch hunt is it is not a witch hunt. Is that the first time we've publicly heard Muller Dispute Trump's claim about the report. It's the first time we've heard him dispute. You claim so directly and particularly on the issue of witch hunt. If you look interior to the report there seemed to be some fairly direct disputes of trump's trump says no collusion the report says hey we didn't even assess collusion. We were looking at a criminal conspiracy but I mean again to hear Muller so forcefully and so directly take this catchphrase that the president has coin and say no it was not a witch hunt. That was a remarkable equal moment certainly the first time we heard Muller do something you know just like that so in an exchange during the House Intelligence Committee hearing with this time with Congressman Quigley this wikileaks is like a treasure trove Donald Trump October the thirty first two thousand sixteen boy. I love reading those wikileaks Donald Trump November fourth twenty sixteen when he those quotes DISTURB YOU MR director. I'm not sure I would say well. It's probably problematic is an understatement. It seems like a strong opinion for Muller especially after watching him withhold all day long have halting responses is it significant I think extremely anyway I thought that and the witch hunt moment and some of his general comments on Russian interference and concern about Russian interference where the most notable of the entire hearing that problematic statement is notable in its own right if he had just sort of stopped there Erin said you know problematic is an understatement but then he goes on is an understatement in terms of whether to play displays in terms of giving some hope or some boost to afoot is and should be illegal activity wikileaks is in Muller's view. I guess a criminal actor in this is like someone propping them up so while that might not be criminal in its own right I mean you're allowed to have free speech. You can praise a criminal I guess us <hes> Muller sees that very distasteful and I think that's going to be a sound bite. The Democrats are going to be able to play over and over <hes> because it is really like coming after president trump for things he said yeah which is very unusual for for Robert Muller so one other newsy see moment late in the Intel hearing came when Muller said that he could have served a subpoena to compel trump to interview in person but he knew that the president would fight it and it would prolong the probe overall. Is that an admission in a way that the tactics of trump's legal teams sort number one if you will against muller at least in terms of the fight over an in person interview I don't think he would frame it as an admission but I definitely see it that way the way he describes it as they embark on negotiations with trump soon after muller takes over the investigation Asian and getting an interview is a big thing for them and he also concedes like we had the authority. This wasn't a case of the Justice Department saying Whoa Whoa Whoa subpoenaing the president is step too far. He said we could have done and he's asked specifically did Rosenstein or Matt. Whitaker is an attorney any general during this time period jeff sessions. Did they ever stop you know no no we could have done it but the rest of his description is essentially them getting outfoxed trump delays delays delays there in negotiations and then at some point it becomes clear that trump isn't gonna sit down now. You're already many months or years down the road <hes> if you subpoena him they know trump will fight and that could push the investigation for even more potentially months or years and now they have this tough call. Do they fight out this battle for potentially more months or years or do they just settle with the evidence they have on the president's what you're hoping to accomplish in an interview with trump seeing what's on his mind because intent is an element of obstruction case they they have a lot of that evidence already because trump tweet so much she talked so much <hes> there's so many witnesses that can describe the optics of how this all how all of these obstructive episodes go down so he decides look. We've got a lot of evidence already. This is going to drag out for potentially months or years trying to balance those two things we decide. We're not going to issue a subpoena and that's notable and it does seem like a bit of a surrender and he even mentioned in the hearings that there's nothing quite. Like an in person interview when it comes to an investigation yeah he said that you know obviously so trump ends up submitting written answers to questions and he's he has already said in his report that those answers are inadequate and he says pointedly of course an interview view would be preferable okay so we've gone through a bunch of major moments. Is there anything else that stood out to you <hes> well. You know another thing that stood out to me that I think Republicans are seizing on is Muller's demeanor her in some of his stumbles so in the first hearing the House Judiciary Committee hearing. There's this really notable moment when he's just asked up one of these bio questions about his being appointed as the top prosecutor up in the northeast <hes> and he's asked you know which president appointed you and he can't remember which president appointed him <hes> he says it was Bush was actually Reagan <hes>. It's it's kind of a remarkable moment like wow what what is going on. Here and Republicans are using some stumbles like that to say. The guy wasn't plugged into the investigation at all. This was just a bunch of angry Democrats. That's you know one of the terms that they have used throughout the case to attack his team so I think some of his stumbles are GonNa get played by Republicans over and over to say this. This guy was disengaged from from the investigation. We're already seeing that kind of reaction on the conservative side so that was a notable thing to me too and at this point does our reporting give any credence to that was he uninvolved and we don't having reporting to support that he was was uninvolved but truth be told his operation was a pretty tightly run ship. It's not like we have super great windows into everything that happened. Their Day to day. He conceded today that he was involved in only a few interviews but that of course would be totally normal. You know our editors here aren't involved in reporters interviews and he is like the editor in chief over there so <hes> we don't have reporting that is a target for us <hes> <hes> and certainly it's a thing that Republicans are going to bring up so maybe now his team will reveal a little bit more about his day to day role to tamp down some of this criticism okay. I'm as this was happening and since it's concluded. Have we seen any reaction from from president trump we saw a pre reaction we saw during reaction and after the fact reaction where he said something like truth is a force of nature so <hes> trump who said maybe I'll watch it. Maybe I won't clearly seem to be plugged in and he seemed to have a whole apparatus. His lawyers are responding all day criticizing Muller criticizing his team as by as trump was doing the same thing before the hearings started trump was attacking muller deputy who appeared with him. I mean Republicans have just brought the house out to criticize muller to spin this thing favorably towards them. <hes> and I'm sure <hes> it will continue so as we look at this as a whole and we think about where the Republicans and Democrats started. Let's start with the Republicans. Did they sort of meet their expectations. Did they achieve their goals. I would say yes and no no in the sense that they did not get any new information on the origins of the probe. They did not get kind of anymore dirt that they they can throw on the probe they raised a lot of their points but muller just deflected but yes in the sense that they avoided the damage from from Muller reading out loud obstruction passages ages. They you know Democrats in some ways really failed there. It was not kind of the bombshell that they maybe would have hoped for so in that way. Republicans did accomplish their goal though I don't know that it was really any of their doing it was mostly Bob Molars doing and Bob Moller's not wanting to be a pawn in this political game and in terms of the Democrats. Did they gain anything to help them make a case towards impeachment or make a decision not to move forward with impeachment hearings. I would think the Democrats who are most pro impeachment might be a little disappointed because they didn't really get any new facts that they can hang their hat on and while they got some soundbites they didn't even get a whole bevy of muller digging into the obstruction episodes that are in the report so I don't think the. The needle on impeachment. I definitely don't think it moved towards pro in any respect. Did it move the other way. Possibly this was such a critical witness so for the Democrats. You really really wanted to go extremely well and I don't think you can say it did for them. <hes> that isn't to say it's any of their personal failure but muller just didn't want to be used by them and that way and he sort of made sure that he wasn't and so they kind of are where they are. Does it help them make a case that they're fulfilling their oversight duties Hispanic bringing Muller specifically into to testify certainly could and I think now that he's out of the way now that they have this big witness that the public was clamoring to have testify out of the way maybe they can intensify their fights on some of the actual witnesses in his case like Don mcgann and like Anti Donaldson the administration has stifled them from doing that so far but maybe they can press those battles in courts and maybe they see you know. Muller is a prosecutor right. He and his team of investigators interviewed actual witnesses actual witnesses can describe these things in firsthand terms that are maybe a lot more moving so I would I would expect Democrats will turn their focus to them. They have already and they've been stymied but now that they have muller out of the way <hes> they got to figure out what they got to figure out what's next all right Matt my final question to you. Is there anything we learned today. That helps us understand. The larger significance of this report Muller hopes this document has historical significance that it survives history and one of the the big things that he hoped it drove home is that foreign adversaries in particularly Russia are out to meddle in our elections and we really need to do something about that and even said something like that has been a really underplayed aspect of the report so I think Bob Muller hopes people will read his report with a new eye on that that set aside trump in the politics of this Russia tried to mess around with who is our president and that is important and I think Bob Mueller hopes that we as Americans Republicans Democrats could all focus on that on a foreign country trying to mess around with who is our president in the short term is very hard to focus on that because trump is the president attend <hes> you know there was a very practical <hes> consequence of the election though Muller assiduously avoided saying <hes> because of the efforts trump is now president but I think it's hard in the moment to think about how we will view this in five five years or ten years but I think if Muller had to make that call then we would view it in in terms of foreign nation tried to meddle in our presidential election and that's wrong and he hopes that this would kind of refocus the whole country on that all right well well well. We start a new round of elections in about eight months so well. We'll have to see what happens Matt. Thank you so much especially after the day you've had <hes> we really appreciate your time. Thank you <music>. This has been another episode of can he do that. For more takeaways and analysis from day of Muller hearings visit Washington Post. I DOT COM. Thanks so much for listening. Can he do that is a team effort here. The Post it's produced by the dedicated Carol Alderman with design help from cat rebel Brooks Logo Art from Moran Bogue Leo v Music by Ted Multi Hi it's Lillian Cunningham Damn host of the Washington Post's presidential and constitutional podcasts. 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