The pattern as to what would unfold over the three and half hours of Robert Mueller’s first appearance answering questions about his investigation into whether Donald Trump was the Muscovite candidate for the White House, became clear early on.
The former special counsel was not going to give a loquacious account of his findings to fire up the cause of impeaching Trump, the information had to be prised out with patience by the Democrats from often monosyllabic answers. The Republicans were not going to dwell on the two-year inquiry’s conclusions damaging to their president, but focus on the beginning of “Russiagate”, much of which took place in London, including the dossier produced by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele.
The most damning testimony against Trump came within minutes of the House judiciary committee session beginning at Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building at Capitol Hill. Mueller dismissed Trump’s claims that he had been “totally exonerated” by the inquiry. “It is not what the report said, the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed” he said.
As well as issues of obstruction, the investigation, he stressed, had discovered a huge Russian plot to manipulate the election which brought Trump to power and that Kremlin believed that Trump would be more favourable to its interests than rival Hillary Clinton.
Mueller also went on to say that although Justice Department guidelines stated that sitting presidents could not be indicted, that immunity ends when they leave office. This confirmation came from an early question by Ken Buck, a Republican; a swift, and very important, own goal.
The Republican congressmen, in response, went on attacks on multiple fronts – from questioning Mueller’s integrity, his supposed lack of legal knowledge into the main thrust of their case, the origins of the investigation. They portrayed Trump as a victim of persecution, a latter day Dreyfus, with many of them wanting to zoom in on the origins of the investigation. They threw around with abandon names like Mifsud, Papadopoulous, Downer, Simpson – names which those of us who have followed this story for a long time may have known, but would have meant little to the general public.
The construct of their case was that it was a triple, or possibly quadruple, sting by western intelligence agencies and also factions of anti-Trump, so by extension anti-Putin, Russian intelligence officers. These Moscow operatives, according to a particularly florid Republican member of the panel, Jim Jordan, a strong congressional ally of Trump, may have deliberately planted on Steele the material in his report to sabotage Trump’s election prospects.
There is a strategy behind this. Sean Hannity of Fox News, a Trump consigliere, had, according to reports, been tutoring the Republican congressmen to take this approach and try and pin the blame on the “deep state” of entrenched bureaucrats that Trump believes is ruining his presidency. William Barr, the Trump-appointed attorney general who has been accused of trying to misrepresent the Mueller report and give the president a clean bill of health, has launched a FBI investigation into the Russia investigation at the behest of Trump and right-wing Republicans.
Questioned on these issues by the Republicans, Mueller pointed out that he could not answer as there was a separate FBI investigation under way. The campaign to show there a grand conspiracy will continue, with Donald Trump Jr tweeting: “In other words ‘I will not answer questions as to how Democrats tried to overthrow the duly elected President of the United States in the greatest hoax ever perpetrated’. The whole thing started with the BS dossier and he won’t address it? What a sham.”
Faced with Mueller’s refusal to read from his report, the Democrats guided the former special counsel through what it had said. There was plenty to go on – Trump’s efforts to have Mueller fired and ordering White House counsel Don McGahn to do so; Trump’s attempts to pressurise former attorney general Jeff Sessions; Trump’s orders to his staff to falsify records; Trump’s refusal to be questioned face to face by Mueller’s team despite being told that this was vital to the inquiry.
Mueller, who had served as a marine in Vietnam before embarking on a distinguished law career, was sometimes hesitant in his answers, but unruffled facing the more hostile questioning, only becoming combative briefly in defending his staff against charges of partisanship from the Republicans.
Towards the end, Ted Lieu, a Democrat, got Mueller to reiterate that the only reason that Trump was not indicted was because he is a sitting president. As the hearing ended a number of senior Democrats – Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke – were calling for impeachment proceedings to begin. Although in front of the House intelligence committee later, Mueller corrected himself and said that the sitting president policy prevented him from making any determination on whether the president should be charged.
But there is a degree of regret among Trump’s many critics that Mueller had not followed up some lines of inquiry on collusion with the Russians, had not subpoenaed Trump to give evidence under oath and had been more clear in his report on legal and constitutional avenues open to pursue the president’s alleged obstruction of justice.
The hearing heard, once again, Trump’s despairing cry when told by Jeff Sessions that a special counsel has been appointed: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f*****.” The president, for the time being at least, has survived that fate.
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