Mueller Moments You Might Have Missed

Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not want to make a splash on Wednesday. He didn’t want to be testifying on Capitol Hill at all. His reluctance to be in the spotlight was apparent as he delivered most of his answers with as few words as possible and zero dramatic flair. This worked to obscure when he actually said something of significance, voiced a critical opinion of the president, or made news. Rather than bring his report to life, as Democrats had (perhaps foolishly) hoped he would, Mueller “chose to suck out all the oxygen he could,” the Financial Times’ Ed Luce observed. So, you might not have caught all of these more substantive, significant, and revealing moments on Wednesday, but they were there, tucked away in between the many times he said: “I would direct you to the report.” 

Mueller thinks Trump’s boosting of Wikileaks is a big problem

Mueller was loathe to criticize the president directly, and refused to state explicitly, in person and in his report, whether there was sufficient evidence to charge Trump with the crime of obstruction of justice. (Instead, in the report, Mueller’s team laid out in precise detail all of the evidence they had gathered about the president’s attempts to thwart the investigation.) But, if you listened closely, Mueller made clear that he believes Trump’s actions during the 2016 presidential campaign were way out of line.  

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) read some of the statements Trump made about Wikileaks in 2016, including, “This just came out… WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks,” which Trump said October 10, 2016. After reading them, he asked Mueller, “Do any of those quotes disturb you, Mr. Director?”

To which Mueller responded, “Well, problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of some, I don’t know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.” 

Mueller suggests a campaign’s boosting of Wikileaks’ stolen material is sufficient basis to initiate an investigation

The main line of attack from Republicans against the Russia investigation is that it was started in bad faith. Thus, their preoccupation with the Steele Dossier, the application to surveil Carter Page, and the circumstances surrounding George Papadopoulos’ meetings in London. As they question each of these, they often ignore the facts that would obviously spark the interest of any U.S. counterintelligence official. This line of attack has now led to Attorney General William Barr’s “investigation of the investigators,” an ongoing inquiry by the Justice Department looking at the circumstances surrounding the FBI’s initiation of the Russian investigation. But on Wednesday, Mueller offered a new rebuff to Republicans’ argument that there was nothing to investigate in the first place. 

He told lawmakers that the Trump campaign’s communications with Wikileaks and its boosting of the information it stole would be reason enough for an investigation. Here is his exchange with Quigley: 

QUIGLEY: Volume 1, page 59. Donald Trump Jr. had direct electronic communications with WikiLeaks during the campaign period. On October 3, 2016, WikiLeaks sent another direct message to Trump Jr. asking you guys to help disseminate a link alleging candidate Clinton had advocated a drone to attack Julian Assange. Trump Jr. responded that, quote, “he had already done so.” Same question. Is behavior at the very least disturbing? Your reaction?

MUELLER: Disturbing and also subject to investigation.

Immediately after that exchange, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) followed up:

SCHIFF: I’m not sure I can make good use of 27 seconds but, Director, I think you made it clear that you think it unethical, to put it politely, to tout a foreign service like WikiLeaks publishing stolen political documents of presidential campaign?

MUELLER: Certainly calls for investigation. 

This was not the first time that Mueller made a veiled reference to the solid grounds for opening the investigation. In his May 29 press conference, he used his very few words to say, “The indictments allege, and the other activities in our report describe, efforts to interfere in our political system. They needed to be investigated and understood.”

Mueller says the FBI is still conducting counterintelligence investigations on Trump’s inner circle 

We know that the Mueller investigation led to a number of other ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions. Some of those we know about (like the charges brought against Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen by the Southern District of New York), while others are still secret. But on Wednesday Mueller revealed that there are also a number of FBI counterintelligence investigations that continue to this today that spun out of the Russia investigation. See this exchange between Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and Mueller: 

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Since it was outside the purview of your investigation your report did not address how Flynn’s false statements could pose a national security risk because the Russians knew the falsity of those statements, right?

MUELLER: I cannot get in to that, mainly because there are many elements of the FBI that are looking at different aspects of that issue.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Currently?

MUELLER: Currently.

Mueller didn’t look at Trump’s potential money laundering

There is a disconnect between what the public thinks Mueller looked at as part of his investigation and the true scope of his inquiry. For example, there was a widespread assumption that Mueller would have accessed Trump’s tax returns, but the report does not mention them. Relatedly, there was an assumption that Mueller and his team would investigate whether Trump was compromised by his company’s possible reliance on financing from Russian oligarchs. But Mueller did not address this in his report, as he confirmed Wednesday. 

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Similarly since it was outside your purview your report does not address the question of whether Russian oligarchs engaged in money laundering through any of the president’s businesses, correct?

MUELLER: Correct.

Mueller apparently leaves the door open that Manafort met with Assange

In November, The Guardian reported that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had met with Wikileaks’ Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London a handful of times between 2013 and 2016. But that report was never confirmed by any other news outlet, and Assange and Manafort denied they ever met. While Mueller did not come anywhere close to confirming that such a meeting took place, he certainly did not put the rumor to bed either. Note that Mueller did help to dismiss other rumors (like the reports on Alfa Bank and on sexual kompromat). Here, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) asks him about it: 

WENSTRUP: Multiple democrat members have asserted that Paul Manafort met with Julian Assange in 2016 before WikiLeaks released DNC emails implying Manafort colluded with Assange. Because your report does not mention finding evidence that Manafort met with Assange, I would assume that means you found no evidence of this meeting. Is that assumption correct?

MUELLER: I’m not certain I agree with that assumption.

WENSTRUP: But you make no mention of it in your report. Would you agree with that?

MUELLER: Yes, I would agree with that.

Collusion-friendly Trump campaign

Schiff had Mueller confirm his report’s most damning details in a rapid-fire question and answer session at the beginning of his committee’s hearing. While it’s hardly news that the Trump campaign welcomed Russian help during the 2016 election, it was still an important moment to have Mueller confirm it in person, and how the different pieces fit together.

SCHIFF: In fact, the campaign welcomed the Russian help, did they not?

MUELLER: I think we have – we report in our – in the report indications that that occurred, yes.

SCHIFF: The Trump campaign officials built their strategy – their messaging strategy around those stolen documents?

MUELLER: Generally that’s true.

SCHIFF: And then they lied to cover it up.

MUELLER: Generally, that’s true.

Mueller: You tell the FBI if a foreign government is offering assistance

This used to be bipartisan common sense: If a foreign government offers your political campaign assistance to defeat your opponent, you inform the FBI. But, we know the Trump campaign did not do that in 2016. Instead, they welcomed Russia’s offer of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump Jr. set up the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. As 2020 approaches, has President Trump learned his lesson, committing himself to calling the FBI if similar attempts are made this time around? No, not at all. Earlier this year, he said he thinks he would take that kind of foreign assistance, only to somewhat walk back the comment later. 

What’s Mueller’s view? No surprise: You call the FBI. 

SEWELL: Sir, is it not the responsibility of political campaigns to inform the FBI if they receive information from a foreign government?

MUELLER: I would think that that is something they would and should do.

***

HIMES: We have an election coming up in 2020, Director. If a campaign receives an offer of dirt from a foreign individual or a government, generally speaking, should that campaign report those contacts?

MUELLER: Should be – it can be, depending on the circumstances a crime.

Mueller asked to expand his mandate

In a little noticed exchange, Mueller said that during the course of his investigation he had asked to expand his mandate. How was that request handled? And what did Mueller want to investigate outside of his original scope? We don’t know, but hopefully in time we’ll learn more about this exchange between Mueller and Congressman Wenstrup. It is worth remembering that Attorney General Bill Barr told Congress in March that there had not been a time when the attorney general or acting attorney general concluded that a proposed action by Mueller “was so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.” And Mueller testified on Wednesday that he was allowed to complete his investigation unencumbered, so presumably his request to expand his mandate was granted. What’s especially significant here is that all of the products of Mueller’s investigation, at least as reflected in the unredacted parts of his report, appear to fit within his original mandate. What then was the added part or parts? 

WENSTRUP: Well, let me ask you did you ever make a request to expand your office’s mandate at all?

MUELLER: Generally, yes.

WENSTRUP: And was that ever denied?

MUELLER: I’m not going to speak to that. It goes to internal deliberation.

Mueller suggests Trump has not been truthful

Again, Mueller was not interested in trashing the president, even though his report provides ample reason to be highly critical of the president’s conduct. But Mueller did acknowledge that he did not believe the president was always truthful in his written answers. Here is his exchange with Rep. Val Demings (D-Fl.):

DEMINGS: Director Mueller, isn’t it fair to say that the president’s written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete because he didn’t answer many of your questions, but where he did his answers show that he wasn’t always being truthful.

MUELLER: There — I would say generally.

Note that the Mueller Report did not call the president’s responses untruthful.

Wrong to Say ‘No Evidence of Conspiracy’ Based on Lack of Charges

Volume I of the Mueller Report focuses on the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s enthusiastic responses to Russian outreach. In the end, Mueller and his team decided not to charge Trump or any member of his campaign with participating in a criminal conspiracy. He reiterated this during the hearings:

“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

But just because there was not sufficient evidence to charge a crime does not mean there was no evidence of such a conspiracy between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign, a point zeroed in on during questioning from Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.)

WELCH: In fact, you had to then make a charging decision after your investigation where unless it was enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt you wouldn’t make a charge, correct?

MUELLER: Generally that’s the case.

WELCH: But making that decision does not mean your investigation failed to turn up evidence of conspiracy.

MUELLER: Absolutely correct.

Rep. Welch then walked Mueller through a series of facts in the report with the clear suggestion that the recited events provide evidence of conspiracy.

A stunning tale of obstruction

You may have even missed the most important revelation of the day — it too was delivered by Mueller alternatively saying, “Correct” and “Accurate.” While Mueller was unwilling and unable to say, “We found sufficient evidence to charge the president with obstruction of justice, but we couldn’t because he’s the president and you can’t indict a sitting president,” Democrats did manage to get Mueller to confirm his report’s most damning details about Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation. See this thread for several of these instances.

Photo: ALEX BRANDON/AFP/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).