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8 things to watch for when Robert Mueller testifies about all the crimes he uncovered

All eyes are going to be on former special counsel Robert Mueller when he testifies in front of Congress Wednesday.

By Lisa Needham - July 23, 2019
Robert Mueller

On Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller will appear before the House Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees to discuss his report about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Trump first said he wouldn’t watch but then amended that to “maybe I’ll see a little bit of it.”

Why did he say he wouldn’t watch? “I’m not going to be watching Mueller because you can’t take all those bites out of the apple. We had no collusion, no obstruction. We had no nothing, we had a total no collusion finding. The Democrats were devastated by it, they went crazy, they’ve gone off the deep end, they’re not doing anything, they’re not doing health care.”

Everyone knows Trump will watch every minute and tweet about it. Here are some things to look for during the hearing and some key questions the Democrats could ask.

Don’t expect Mueller to deliver a new smoking gun

Robert Mueller is not going to take the stand and shock the world with some new revelation. He’s a person so dedicated to following rules that he didn’t charge Trump, in spite of several hundred pages of evidence showing he could. That doesn’t mean the hearing is a bust though.

One big potential roadblock: The Department of Justice

On Monday, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent Mueller a letter in response to Mueller’s request for guidance on legal concerns over his upcoming testimony, such as privilege.

Unsurprisingly, William Barr’s DOJ isn’t thrilled about Mueller testifying and wrote in its letter to Mueller that it thinks it is “unnecessary.” The letter also advises him not to discuss any of the redacted portions of the report. Most pointedly, Mueller was reminded of the DOJ’s “longstanding policy not to discuss the conduct of uncharged third parties.” The biggest uncharged third party here is none other than Trump himself.

The DOJ also told Mueller that anything about his underlying investigation is covered by executive privilege, so he can’t talk about it. The Trump administration has a comically overbroad view of executive privilege and invokes it any time someone might have to say something they want kept secret.

But the DOJ likely needn’t worry. Mueller has already said that he won’t go beyond the scope of the report. That means he probably won’t answer hypothetical questions, nor will he address the 12 ongoing investigations mentioned in the report. However, there’s plenty of damning material in the report itself.

The Trump team thwarted the investigation by destroying data

One thing that did get discussed in the report — which gives Democrats an opening to ask about it — is what records were destroyed and thus hindered Mueller’s investigation. The special counsel’s office “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.” This prevented Mueller from corroborating witness statements or questioning witnesses about discrepancies. Mueller concluded this discussion by noting that his office “cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report” (Page 10 of Volume 1 of the report).

Key questions here: Which individuals destroyed data or indicated they had no data because they used communication methods that were designed never to retain data, such as the messaging service WhatsApp? What statements was Mueller unable to corroborate because of this?

The 2016 election got hacked, and the 2020 election could get hacked as well

Mueller’s report talked a lot about Russian attempts to destabilize the 2016 election, and it gives Democrats a way to express concern about 2020.

The report details the efforts of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU), which was behind the Guccifer 2.0 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Russian coordination with Wikileaks. (Pages 36-48 of Volume 1 of the report.) That was explosive stuff, to be sure, but another concern is what will happen going forward.

Mueller outlines all the efforts the Russians took to hack into election systems. Victims included “U.S. state and local entities, such as state boards of election, secretaries of state, and county governments” (Page 50 of the report). They also tried to hack the vendors of voting machines. And of course, the report noted that the Trump administration “showed interest” in the material Wikileaks stole from the DNC (Page 51 of Volume 1 of the report).

Members of Congress are sounding the alarm about the possibility of the 2020 election being manipulated or hacked in a fashion that even exceeds what happened in 2016. For example, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said the government hasn’t done enough to enhance cybersecurity protocols. But Trump administration members have been warned not to even talk to Trump about it, and Republicans have opposed measures that would increase election integrity and security.

Key questions here: Did Mueller’s investigation lead him to believe these interference efforts would be ongoing and could affect the upcoming presidential election? Given that Trump said his campaign wouldn’t refrain from using stolen materials in 2020, are there concerns going forward that GRU will continue to target Democratic individuals and institutions to help Trump?

Mueller didn’t define ‘collusion,’ but there was plenty of cooperation with the Russians

Much of the collusion section of the report is taken up with a discussion of all the people — and all the times — the Trump campaign attempted to get stolen Democratic material or encouraged others to do so. There was George Papadopoulos, who talked to several people about whether Russia could get any Clinton emails (Page 93 of Volume 1 of the report). Then there was all the Russian wooing done by Donald Trump Jr., along with his participation in the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting (pages 111-118 of Volume 1 of the report). The report also talks about how multiple people, including former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had contact with former Russian Ambassador to the U.S.Sergey Kislyak (pages 127-128 of Volume 1 of the report). However, the report ultimately concluded that it couldn’t prove collusion, though it also acknowledged there is no real definition of collusion (Page 2 of Volume 1 of the report).

Key questions here: How many Russian contacts were there with the campaign, all told? Who knew about the June 6, 2019, meeting, and when? What types of additional activity would have constituted collusion? Did the refusal of Trump to sit for an interview hinder his investigation in any way?

The only reason Trump wasn’t charged with obstruction is that he is president

Mueller was hamstrung by an existing DOJ opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted. Indeed, that casts a shadow over all of the second volume of the report, which details Trump’s obstruction efforts (pages 1-2 of Volume 2 of the report). However, Mueller also famously said that if his office “had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Additionally, Mueller did note that while a president can’t be indicted while in office, he can certainly still be criminally investigated, and he has no immunity once he leaves office (Page 1 of Volume 2 of the report).

Though Mueller refused to decide whether Trump could be charged with committing obstruction, the report is rife with examples of Trump doing exactly that. For maximum impact, the Democrats could walk through each obstruction finding.

Key questions here:  Was Trump’s firing of James Comey, and all the subsequent covering up that it generated, obstruction? Were Trump’s efforts to derail the Russia investigation — in part by trying to get then-White House counsel Don McGahn to pressure Jeff Sessions into unrecusing himself — obstruction of justice? And the overarching questions: Would he have indicted Trump if Trump weren’t the president, and should Trump face charges when he leaves office?

As Mueller investigated, Trump tried to take him down

The report is clear that Trump really wanted Mueller to go away and was worried about the investigation from the very start. Upon hearing of Mueller’s appointment, Trump “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked'” (Page 78 of Volume 2 of the report). He didn’t stay slumped in that chair for long. He tried to get McGahn to fire Mueller (pages 85-88 of Volume 2 of the report). He also sent his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, a loyal and tenacious bulldog, to then-Attorney General Sessions to try to get him to limit the scope of the investigation (pages 90-93 of the report).

Key questions here: Was Mueller contacted by anyone at the DOJ or the attorney general’s office? Was he aware of these attempts to remove him while they were happening? Was he concerned about Trump’s numerous public proclamations about the invalidity of his investigation as “rigged” and a “witch hunt“? Mueller should be asked, again and again, about attempts to remove him or curtail his investigation.

The Republicans will try to make this a circus, but Mueller won’t let them

Expect the GOP to try to derail this at every turn. There will be fevered questions about the Steele dossier, Peter Strozok, Lisa Page, and the “deep state.” If things go really off the rails, Mueller may be faced with questions about his own loyalty and the political composition of his staff, which Trump has routinely disparaged as “angry Democrats.”

Here’s where Mueller’s blanket refusal to discuss anything outside the four corners of the report will come in handy: He’s likely not going to get into conspiracy discussions with the GOP, no matter how hard they try. Mueller’s made 88 trips to Congress in the last 30 years, so he knows how the game is played, and he’s not going to have trouble facing off against someone like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) or Rep. Matt. Gaetz (R-FL). But they can still try to run out the clock each time they have the floor.

In all, don’t expect fireworks, but it is possible for the Democrats to carefully build, brick by brick, a case against Trump simply by letting Mueller stick to the report.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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