Despite Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s slow, halting cadence, and apparent difficulty hearing or understanding some questions put to him by members of the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, the former FBI director delivered a clear message – Russia engaged in a sweeping campaign to me the 2016 U.S. election and those efforts will intensify in 2020 to the detriment of the country if Congress and others don’t act aggressively to stop them.
“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,” Mueller contended. “As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”
Hours later, Senate Republicans blocked a pair of election security-related bills, including one that would mandate political campaigns to report any entreaties by foreign entities and another, the Securing America’s Federal Elections (SAFE) Act, that would require voting systems to provide a paper ballot for every vote cast.
“When it comes to our cybersecurity footprint and the future of America's democracy, we're at risk and it's critical that our 2020 incumbents take this seriously,” Tom Kellerman, chief cybersecurity officer at Carbon Black, said prior to Mueller’s testimony, explaining that he believes “Russian spies and cyber militia have been able to attack the two Achilles heels of the U.S.,” – dependence on public opinion and dependence on technology.”
Mueller reiterated to Congress that Russian interference is not a one-off and that the nation-state continues its assault on U.S. elections.
And when asked about foreign operatives offering help to political campaigns, the former special counsel said “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.”
In his much-anticipated testimony Mueller noted the Trump campaign’s many contacts with Russian operatives and citizens - such as former Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort’s clandestine sharing of sensitive polling data with Russian political consultant Konstantin Kilimnik and Donald Trump, Jr.’s infamous June 2016 meeting with Russian operatives in Trump Tower - but repeated the findings did not rise to the legal definition of conspiracy. He also clarified that his probe, which found numerous incidents of interference by Trump, did not exonerate the president of obstruction, in part because a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion rendered after former Special Prosecutor Ken Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, contends a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Mueller, referring to the OLC, told Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., his team “did not make that calculation” that there was sufficient evidence to bring obstruction of justice charges against Trump or others. Later Buck asked if a president could be charged after leaving office and Mueller answered, “Yes.”
The former special counsel said he found former White House attorney Don McGahn, who told Mueller’s investigators of multiple attempts by the president to fire Mueller or otherwise interfere with the probe, a credible witness. And he noted that the president’s criticism of the special counsel’s office ratcheted up after Trump found out that he, too, was under investigation.
He also called that the president’s praise of WikiLeaks, which leaked emails stolen by Russia from Democratic entities in the waning months of the 2016 election, a problem.
"Well, problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope, or some boost, to what is and should be illegal activity," Mueller said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., drew an affirmative from the former FBI director that the special counsel wanted to meet with the president during the nearly two years of his investigation. Swalwell, noting that Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin “in person six times, called him 10 times and exchanged letters four letters with him, pointed out the president didn’t meet with Mueller during that time period. “That is correct,” said Mueller.
Questioning during the committee hearings largely fell along party lines with the Democrats aiming to get key passages of the Mueller report on the record and the former special counsel to clarify sometimes damning assertions around the actions of the Trump campaign and the president himself while Republicans sought to bring the integrity of the investigation itself into question and get familiar assertions – the probe started with a bogus surveillance request that was influenced by the controversial Steele dossier. Democrats repeated the mantra that no one is above the law while GOP members accused the special counsel of treating Trump unfairly by declining to charge or exonerate him.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one the Trump’s most ardent supporters, noted the president like all Americans deserves the presumption of innocence.
Mueller made it clear in his opening statement to the Judiciary that he would stick to boundaries of his report and would not answer questions in a number of categories, including those concerning the Steele dossier and other sensitive matters, referring instead to other ongoing investigations in those areas or citing deliberations within the Justice Department.