On July 24th, Special Counsel Robert Mueller made his long-anticipated appearance before the Democratically-controlled House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. Here are ten takeaways:
1. Mueller was not a great witness. Whatever your political persuasion, if you actually watched a segment of the hearings, you probably felt that Mueller came across as enervated, evasive, and — particularly in his morning testimony before the Judiciary Committee — doddering. That’s not to say that Democrats didn’t score points with Mueller’s testimony, but rather that he was disappointing.
2. Mueller cared more about Russian interference in the 2016 election than he did Trump’s obstruction of justice. For whatever reason, Mueller seemed more animated when he appeared, in the afternoon, before the House Intelligence Committee. He was particularly emphatic when he spoke about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mueller’s repeated, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” and emphasized the Trump Campaign welcomed that help: Trump publicly called on the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails; Trump also pursued a business deal in Moscow while running for president; and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, had responded “I love it,” when asked if he was interested in dirt on Clinton provided as part of a Russian government effort to help his father.
One of the telling moments of the long hearing came when Intelligence Committee chair, Adam Schiff, asked Mueller, “The Trump campaign officials built their strategy, their messaging strategy, around those stolen [Wikileaks] documents?” Mueller responded, “Generally, that’s true.” “And then they lied to cover it up?” Mueller answered, “Generally, that’s true.” Schiff got Mueller to confirm numerous ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Mueller concluded by warning about Russian interference in the 2020 election: “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign.”
3. Congressional Republicans didn’t seem to care. In general, the Republican members of the committees didn’t seem to care about the Russian 2016-election interference or Trump’s obstruction of justice. Led by Republican Doug Collins, they either attacked Mueller, defended Trump, or lied about the House Democrats behavior. (By the way: on July 25th the Senate Republicans. led by Mitch McConnell, blocked election-security legislation (https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/25/politics/republican-senators-block-election-security-legislation/index.html ).)
4. Trump was not exonerated. At the beginning of the morning’s Judiciary Committee Meeting, Mueller confirmed that his report did not exonerate Donald Trump. Further, Mueller indicated that when Trump leaves office he could be indicted for obstruction of justice.
During his Judiciary Committee testimony, Mueller gave a strong indication he believes Trump committed obstruction. When Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings asked Mueller if the lies told to him by “Trump campaign officials and administration officials impeded your investigation,” Mueller answered, “I would generally agree with that.”
5. The Mueller hearing will slow down the Democratic push to initiate impeachment proceedings. In a press conference, hours after Mueller’s testimony ended, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated that Democrats were still going forward building “the strongest possible” case for impeachment. Pelosi painted Mueller’s testimony in positive tones, indicating that it was a step forward but there need to be more hearings. Nonetheless, this hearing was not the big win that impeachment advocates hoped for; it’s unlikely to result in a huge swing in voter sentiment — a recent Washington Post poll found that 59 percent of respondents do not want formal impeachment proceedings.
6. Trump’s financial ties to Russia need explication. For whatever reason, the Mueller report didn’t have much information about money flow between Trump and Russian oligarchs. (Or “counter-intelligence” in general.) This omission was briefly discussed during the House Intelligence Committee hearing when Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-8) questioned Mueller:
“KRISHNAMOORTHI: Other than Trump Tower Moscow, your report does not address or detail the president’s financial ties or dealings with Russia, correct? MUELLER: Correct. 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. KRISHNAMOORTHI: And of course your office did not obtain the president’s tax returns which could otherwise show foreign financial sources, correct? MUELLER: I’m not going to speak to that. KRISHNAMOORTHI: In July 2017 the president said his personal finances were off limits, or outside the purview of your investigation and he drew a “red line,” around his personal finances. Were the president’s personal finances outside the purview of your investigation? MUELLER: I’m not going to get in to that.”
The House should investigate these financial ties and the related counter-intelligence data.
7. The Trump campaign’s ties to Russian election interference need further investigation. Near the end of the executive summary for volume I of the Mueller Report is this telling paragraph:
“Further, the Office [of the Special Counsel] learned that some of the individuals we interviewed or whose conduct we investigated — including some associated with the Trump Campaign — deleted relevant communications or communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption or that do not provide for long-term retention of data or communications records.” [Emphasis added]
The House should identify these individuals, explain their relationship to the Trump Campaign, and explicate the related counter-intelligence.
8. There are additional witnesses that need to testify in public. After Robert Mueller, there are a number of witnesses that need to testify before the House committees. The most important is Don McGahn, former White House Counsel.
9. Democrats need to change their message. Some Democrats are so determined to impeach Trump they have lost sight of the objective of winning the 2020 presidential election. Judging from the July 24th Mueller hearing, the best election message is not “Trump obstructed justice” but rather “Russia is interfering in our election process and Trump won’t do anything about it.” The theme should be Election Integrity.
10. Democrats need to change their messenger. In the lengthy hearings, Democrats were strongest when House Intelligence Committee Chair, Adam Schiff (CA-28) questioned Mueller — including this telling exchange.
“SCHIFF: Russia committed federal crimes in order to help Donald Trump? MUELLER: When you’re talking about computer crimes in the charge… SCHIFF: Yes. MUELLER: … in our case, absolutely.”
If Democrats change their message to focus on election integrity, Adam Schiff — one of the few Dems who is not a presidential candidate — should be the one to carry this.