At Robert Mueller’s hearing before the Judiciary Committee Wednesday morning, House Republicans confirmed that they cannot handle the truth.
The former special counsel’s oft-cited (but little-read) report demonstrates that Donald Trump lied to the American public about the state of his financial interests in Russia while campaigning for the presidency, that his campaign had extensive (and ethically questionable) contacts with Russian operatives throughout the 2016 campaign, that Trump feared Mueller’s investigation into those contacts would be “the end” of his presidency, and that Trump proceeded to undermine that investigation by, among other things, discouraging witnesses from cooperating and attempting to fire the special counsel. It is impossible to accurately represent these findings without affirming that Donald Trump has abused the American public’s trust and (at least) attempted to abuse the powers of his office.
Opinion polling, however, demonstrates that Donald Trump remains extremely popular among Republican voters. And the vast majority of GOP House members are guaranteed to keep their cushy congressional gigs so long as they don’t lose a Republican primary to a “more pro-Trump than thou” challenger. Therefore, GOP lawmakers have no interest in accurately representing Mueller’s findings.
Instead, in questioning the former special counsel Wednesday morning, Republicans cast their president as the victim of an illegitimate, partisan witch hunt — which nevertheless totally exonerated him of all wrongdoing. Specifically, GOP lawmakers asserted that the Mueller investigation had concluded that neither Trump nor anyone in his campaign “colluded, collaborated or conspired with the Russians”; that this finding was inevitable, since the entire investigation was triggered by a fraudulent dossier; that Trump knew he was entirely innocent and therefore could have legitimately ended Mueller’s probe if he’d wished; that Trump nevertheless graciously refrained from impeding the investigation; and that Mueller ultimately betrayed Trump’s good-faith cooperation by releasing an “extra prosecutorial” analysis of the president’s potential acts of obstruction, in defiance of Justice Department regulations and the core principles of the American legal system.
All of which were lies. Here’s a quick debunking of the five false premises in the GOP’s counternarrative:
1) The Mueller report “concludes no one in the president’s campaign colluded, collaborated or conspired with the Russians.”
The Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Doug Collins, made this claim in his opening statement on Wednesday, and all subsequent Republican questioning treated Collins’s assertion as plain fact:
We were told this investigation began as an inquiry into whether Russia meddled in our 2016 election. Mr. Mueller, you concluded they did. Russians accessed Democrat servers and disseminated sensitive information by tricking campaign insiders into revealing protected information.
The investigation also reviewed whether Donald Trump, the president, sought Russian assistance as a candidate to win the presidency. Mr. Mueller concluded he did not. His family or advisers did not. In fact, the report concludes no one in the president’s campaign colluded, collaborated or conspired with the Russians.
There are multiple problems with this statement. One is that Mueller’s report explicitly makes no determination on “collusion,” as “Collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.” More importantly, the report does not “conclude” that there was no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian government. Rather, Mueller’s investigation “did not establish” sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge of such a conspiracy. This wording is significant. In many places in his report, Mueller writes that his team “did not find evidence” to support a given allegation or suspicion. But he does not use that phrase to describe his office’s findings on the Trump campaign’s alleged collaboration with Russia’s criminal hacking operation — because his office did find some evidence to support that claim, just not sufficiently dispositive evidence to support prosecution. As Mueller writes, “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.”
The distinction between “the Mueller report concludes Trump’s team did not collude, collaborate or conspire with the Russians” and “the Mueller report did not establish sufficient evidence to prosecute Trump for criminally conspiring with the Russians” may seem semantic. But it isn’t. Had Mueller conclusively proved that neither Trump nor his associates coordinated with Russian officials in any way, then the president would be exonerated in both legal and ethical terms; not only would Trump be innocent of criminal wrongdoing, but also of noncriminal complicity in an attack on America’s election. Further, such a finding would eliminate the possibility that Trump’s myriad attempts to undermine the investigation influenced its legal conclusions. By contrast, if (as is the case) Mueller merely found insufficient evidence to support a criminal charge, then it is conceivable that Trump’s witness tampering and refusal to answer vital questions were part of why that evidence remained insufficient; which is to say, it’s conceivable that the absence of conspiracy charges is a testament to the efficacy of Trump’s obstruction.
Thus, Mueller’s actual (inconclusive, legal) finding on a Trump-Russia conspiracy does not support the claim that his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia was baseless, or that the president’s obstruction was harmless. Which is why Republicans insist on wildly misrepresenting Mueller’s finding.
2) The Mueller investigation originated with Christopher Steele’s dossier.
Republican lawmakers repeatedly insinuated Wednesday that the FBI’s investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign was triggered by an infamous dossier assembled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele, while he was in the employ of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This is a critical piece of the GOP counternarrative, as it establishes that Mueller’s probe never had a legitimate basis. And yet, just last year, one of the House GOP’s own (infamously partisan) investigations confirmed that Trump-campaign adviser George Papadopoulos triggered the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation by drunkenly informing an Australian diplomat that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
3) Since Trump knew that he was innocent, his attempts to hinder the special counsel’s investigation could not have been motivated by a corrupt intent.
The government cannot convict you of obstructing justice merely by proving that you interfered with an investigation — the state must also prove that you did so with a corrupt intent.
Texas congressman Louie Gohmert argued Wednesday that Trump’s intentions in interfering with Mueller’s investigation could not have been corrupt, since the president knew he was innocent:
[I]f somebody knows they did not conspire with anybody from Russia to affect the election, and they see the big Justice Department with people that hate that person coming after them, and then a special counsel appointed who hires dozen or more people that hate that person, and he knows he’s innocent, he’s not corruptly acting in order to see that justice is done. What he’s doing is not obstructing justice, he is pursuing justice, and the fact that you ran it out two years, means you perpetrated injustice.
We’ve already examined one major problem with this argument: Mueller did not, in fact, prove Trump innocent of conspiring with Russia. But this is almost beside the point. A person doesn’t need to be legally threatened by an investigation in order to corruptly obstruct it. If Trump feared that an investigation would produce politically or personally damaging information — and impeded it on that basis — then he would be guilty of obstruction. And there is every reason to believe that Trump did harbor such fears; upon learning of Mueller’s appointment, the president reportedly exclaimed, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.” Mueller’s report confirmed that Donald Trump was actively seeking the Russian government’s approval of a Trump Tower Moscow project while running for president in 2015 and 2016. At that time, Trump vehemently denied having any business interests in Russia. This constitutes a gross violation of the public’s trust. It is not illegal. But in a saner world, it would be politically fatal.
What’s more, Trump could have corruptly undermined the investigation out of a desire to protect his friends from legal jeopardy. After all, the Mueller investigation did result in the indictment of the president’s former campaign manager and national-security adviser, among several other Trump associates.
4) President Trump fully cooperated with the investigation.
Even as they defended Trump’s right to interfere with Mueller’s investigation, Republicans argued that the president had generously cooperated with the special counsel’s probe, out of a sense of certainty that the facts would exonerate him. Louisiana congressman Mike Johnson asserted that the president had “cooperated fully” with Mueller’s investigation. Representative Collins suggested that Trump had not “hindered” the investigation in any way.
These claims are blatantly false. As Mueller confirmed Wednesday, Trump refused to sit down for an interview with the special counsel or answer any questions related to obstruction of justice. The president also publicly encouraged witnesses not to “flip” and promised pardons to associates who stayed loyal, including Paul Manafort, who ultimately refused to provide honest answers to Mueller’s team on a variety of critical matters.
5) The Mueller report’s second volume should not exist because prosecutors should not provide “extra prosecutorial analysis” if they don’t have the evidence to bring charges.
Texas Republican John Ratcliffe established this line of argument early in Wednesday’s hearing. In short, the congressman argued that Mueller should not have penned a report that details the various ways Trump may have obstructed justice — and asserts that his office could not exonerate Trump of that crime — as doing so violated the principle of presumed innocence: It is not a prosecutor’s job to opine on a defendant’s innocence, only to establish whether sufficient evidence exists to bring criminal charges.
The special counsel’s job didn’t say you were to determine Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him. It’s not in documents, it’s not in the Office of Legal Counsel opinion, any justice manual…Respectfully it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Trump’s innocence…because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence—everyone is entitled to it, including a sitting president, and because of a presumption of innocence, a prosecutor never, ever needs to determine it. … You wrote 180 pages about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided.
The main problem with Ratcliffe’s complaint is that Mueller’s decision to detail the evidence for charges he did not ultimately bring — and to clarify that his office could not say that this evidence was insufficient to support an indictment — was compliant with the regulations governing his inquiry, according to those who drafted those regulations. Separately, since the Office of Legal Counsel has established that a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime under any circumstances, to forbid Mueller from discussing evidence of presidential wrongdoing that didn’t result in an indictment would be to forbid him from discussing presidential wrongdoing period, which would render all federal investigations of the president pointless. Finally, as Mueller later confirmed, it remains possible that his findings could form the basis of an indictment against Trump after the president exits office.