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Robert Mueller Testimony Disappoints Democrats Who Bet on Special Counsel to Help Sink Trump

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Special counsel Robert Mueller gave his much-anticipated testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, where he spoke for the first time about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Over the 7-hour hearing, Mueller stressed to the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees that despite Donald Trump’s claims, he had not exonerated the president of obstruction of justice. Mueller’s report was handed in 124 days ago, but only a redacted version was made available to the public. Ahead of Mueller’s testimony, the Justice Department warned Mueller in a letter to “remain within the boundaries” of the public version of the report. The department also said that Mueller could not “discuss the conduct of uncharged third parties,” which includes President Trump, his family and his close associates. Democratic lawmakers may have come away disappointed that Mueller didn’t provide any critical testimony that would bolster their case for impeachment. For more, we speak with Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept. He’s author of the new book, “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Democrats are vowing to continue their probes into President Trump, following former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday, but efforts to impeach the president appear to be fading. Mueller spent seven hours testifying before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the former FBI director offered little new information about his two-year investigation and refused to answer scores of questions from both Democrats and Republicans. He answered many other questions with just single words.

AMY GOODMAN: During the hearing, Robert Mueller rejected Trump’s claim the probe was a witch hunt, warned Russia is still actively trying to interfere in U.S. elections, and refused to exonerate President Trump of obstruction of justice. During his opening statement, Mueller laid out some key findings of his report.

ROBERT MUELLER: First, our investigation found that the Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion. Second, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities. We did not address collusion, which is not a legal term; rather, we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. And it was not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler began the questioning of Robert Mueller at Wednesday’s hearing.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him. But that is not what your report said, is it?

ROBERT MUELLER: Correct, that is not what the report said.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: Now, reading from page 2 of volume 2 of your report, that’s on the screen, you wrote, quote, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts, that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment,” close-quote. Now, does that say there was no obstruction?


REP. JERROLD NADLER: And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?


REP. JERROLD NADLER: Now, in fact, your report expressly states that it does not exonerate the president.


REP. JERROLD NADLER: And your investigation actually found, quote, “multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.” Is that correct?


AMY GOODMAN: Robert Mueller, responding to a question from House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ryan Grim, the D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept, author of the new book, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.

Ryan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Your reaction to what took place yesterday in Washington, D.C., the Democrats putting all their eggs in the Mueller basket? Was “Mueller time” everything it was hyped up to be?

RYAN GRIM: Well, it was strange theater, because it was undercut the entire time by this really aggressive insistence by House Democratic leadership, and specifically by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that the party not pursue impeachment proceedings. And so, the entire time you’re kind of watching this unfold, you know in the back of your mind that, well, the party leadership doesn’t want to impeach the president. So what exactly is going on here? Kind of what is the point, almost, of what we’re being told here? Why are we going back through the Mueller report, you know, if it’s not leading toward some type of impeachment proceedings?

Because if you read the second volume of the Mueller report, his efforts to obstruct the investigation, and his lack of respect for the rule of law that underlied that effort, are extraordinary. You know, this is somebody who has a dangerous disregard for the rule of law. And that’s quite patent in the Mueller report, and it comes through in Mueller’s testimony. Yet, at the same time, Democrats don’t want to move forward with impeachment proceedings. So it leaves a viewer quite confused about what’s actually trying to unfold here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, what do you think was the Democratic strategy and the Republican strategy in the kind of questioning they put forward? And your response to the fact that he, Mueller, evaded or answered very briefly almost 200 questions?

RYAN GRIM: So, my sense of the broader strategy—and I think I even said this on this program several months ago—that Pelosi kind of wants to run out the clock on this two-year cycle. So, you know, they could have moved for Trump’s tax returns as soon as they won power in the House of Representatives, for instance. They delayed doing that until just now.

And the congressional clock has a way of speeding up as it gets closer to the summer. And so, you know, we’re very close now to the August recess. And to people who live and work in Capitol Hill, the first August recess, in some ways, represents kind of the end of the legislative session, because when they come back for September, they’ll just have a couple of weeks, then they’ve got Thanksgiving, then they’ve got Christmas, and then, all of a sudden, people are going to the caucuses in Iowa. And so, the entire next year is taken up by a presidential election.

So, it seemed like the broad strategy was to kind of just slow walk this into the presidential campaign, because Democrats felt like they were kind of ahead, you know, that Trump was on his heels, and that if they pushed too far, if they overreached, there would be a backlash against them. So, better to just sit and do nothing and kind of let the next election come to them. But that hasn’t unfolded, I think, as well as Democrats had hoped it would.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to California Democratic Congressmember Ted Lieu questioning former special counsel Robert Mueller.

REP. TED LIEU: So, to recap what we’ve heard, we have heard today that the president ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire you. The president ordered Don McGahn to then cover that up and create a false paper trail. And now we’ve heard the president ordered Corey Lewandowski to tell Jeff Sessions to limit your investigation so that he—you—stop investigating the president.

I believe a reasonable person looking at these facts could conclude that all three elements of the crime of obstruction of justice have been met. And I’d like to ask you: The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?

ROBERT MUELLER: That is correct.

AMY GOODMAN: So, a few hours later, in the second of the day’s hearings, Mueller sought to correct the record.

ROBERT MUELLER: I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu, who said, and I quote, “You didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.” That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the significance of this, Ryan Grim.

RYAN GRIM: Right. And I think it was Slate that described this back-and-forth as kind of a metaphor for the entire Mueller proceedings, where you have a huge explosive moment, where Mueller essentially says, “Yes, I agree that he met the elements of the crime of obstruction of justice, and I would have charged him but for the OLC opinion that says that you cannot charge a sitting president.” You know, that’s an explosive allegation coming from Mueller, saying, “No, we found evidence that we could have indicted him, but we didn’t, because you can’t indict a president.”

And so, for an hour or so, Democrats are kind of celebrating that announcement from him. Then he comes before the next committee and says, “Well, let me clarify that.” And this happened over and over, over the last year and a half. “Let me clarify that. We actually didn’t come to a determination over whether or not we could charge him,” even before they get to the OLC opinion. It seemed like what he was saying was that even—

AMY GOODMAN: OLC being Office of Legal Counsel.

RYAN GRIM: Right. And it seemed like what he was saying is, “Even if we had gotten to the place where we decided we could have charged him, then we wouldn’t have, but we didn’t get to that place.” There was contemporaneous reporting that there were prosecutors inside Mueller’s team who disagreed on this question. There were some that thought the elements were absolutely there, and there were others who said that they weren’t quite there and that there could be kind of reasonable alternative explanations for Trump’s behavior.

I think a viewer can make their own judgment on this, because—that’s the other thing that’s so interesting about this, is that you have members of Congress and you have Mueller not only talking about a report that is public, but talking about behavior that significantly was carried out in public or was reported on in real time. You know, The New York Times reported that Trump ordered McGahn to fire Mueller. This was known before the report came out, as was a lot of this. And, you know, it’s also kind of indisputable that he asked McGahn to cover up the fact that he tried to fire Mueller. You know, the other elements are fairly easily met. Did he have intent to subvert the investigation? Did he know there was an investigation underway? Yes and yes.

So, all the elements—I’m not a lawyer. All the elements seem pretty obviously to be there. But there were some people inside the Mueller team who didn’t believe it was there. And so, Mueller then had to come out and clarify that, “Well, actually, we didn’t reach a full determination that we could have indicted him for this.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to the hearing. This is Republican Ken Buck of Colorado questioning Mueller.

REP. KEN BUCK: But the—could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?


REP. KEN BUCK: You believe that he committed—you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?


REP. KEN BUCK: Ethically, under the ethical standards?

ROBERT MUELLER: Well, I’m not certain, because I haven’t looked at the ethical standards. But the OLC opinion says that the prosecutor, while he cannot bring a charge against a sitting president, nonetheless he can continue the investigation to see if there are any other persons who might be drawn into the conspiracy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Ryan Grim, your response to that, charging Trump after he leaves office, for obstruction of justice?

RYAN GRIM: And this is another Rorschach test for the Mueller investigation. What Mueller appears to be answering is: Does the OLC opinion allow a prosecutor to charge a president—charge the president after he leaves office? And Mueller says yes. And then Mueller specifically says later he’s referring to the findings of the Office of Legal Counsel opinion. And that’s just a statement of fact. If a president commits a crime, and prosecutors have evidence of that crime, then the prosecutor can charge the president after he leaves office. There were people that were hoping that what he meant was that we had the elements of the crime, and we’re just waiting until he leaves office, and then we can charge him.

And at one point, Buck kind of says—refers to Trump, but then he cuts himself off and refers back, in general, to a vague president. And so it, again, leaves people—leaves it open to interpretation of where you think he’s heading. But if Mueller had said otherwise, that they didn’t conclude that they could charge him, before they even got to the OLC opinion, then it seems clear he’s talking in general terms. And of course, you know, once a president leaves office, they can be charged. That’s why Ford pardoned Nixon, so that he wouldn’t be charged after he left office. So, you know, it’s either a bombshell or it’s just an obvious reading of the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Trump giving his response to the Mueller hearing.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So, we had a very good day today—the Republican Party, our country. There was no defense of what Robert Mueller was trying to defend, in all fairness to Robert Mueller, whether his performance was a bad one or a good one. I think everybody understands that. I think everybody understands what’s going on. There was no defense to this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt, that’s been going on for a long time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Trump was on his way to a campaign rally in West Virginia. Could you respond, Ryan, to what he said? He also said, in the same statement, that the hearing proved that the Democratic Party is essentially in ruins and that nothing was added to the report itself from the hearing, the seven-hour hearing.

RYAN GRIM: I can’t think of anything that was added that we didn’t already know. And Democrats may have been hoping—Democrats were hoping that Mueller would say that he believed that Trump should be impeached. And he wouldn’t—he wouldn’t touch that question. He wouldn’t even say—when he was asked, “When you said earlier that congressional action or there should be other venues for this investigation to be carried out further, what were you referring to?” he wouldn’t even get into that. So, they couldn’t get him to speculate further about impeachment, and there weren’t a whole lot of new facts that came out. He merely confirmed kind of what was in the report.

And so, I believe, for Trump, he feels like every piece of this that he puts behind him is a win for him. You know, this was the thing that he thought was going to end his presidency. It dogged him for almost two years, or more than two years now. And, you know, if it hasn’t killed him, he believes that it has made him stronger.

AMY GOODMAN: And he said, of course, that Mueller was faltering, that he was, you know, tripping, not remembering a lot of the report, because it wasn’t based on something over the last two years, he said.

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