Washington – Rep. Jim Himes focused his questioning Wednesday of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the behavior of the Russian government and its agents in the 2016 election.
During the second of Mueller’s two appearances before House committees Wednesday, Himes, D-4th District, cited two things Mueller had said in his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee: that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election “in a sweeping and systematic manner,” and that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency.
Himes asked Mueller about a social media disinformation campaign “to spread false information on places like Twitter” and another on Facebook that reached 126 million people.
“Director, who did the Russian social media campaign ultimately intend to benefit? Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?” Himes asked.
“Donald Trump,” Mueller responded.
Then the former special counsel clarified his statement.
“Let me say Donald Trump, but there were instances where Hillary Clinton was subject to much the same behavior,” Mueller said.
Himes also asked about Russian hacking of emails from the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign and whether their release was “strategically timed to maximize the impact on the election.” He asked if the hacking and release of the emails were aimed at helping Trump and hurting Clinton.
As he often did during his testimony to the intelligence panel, and earlier in the day to the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller referred to the 448-page report on the findings of his investigation. He repeatedly declined to answer questions beyond the scope of the report and, when asked by some House members, declined to read aloud passages from it.
But a little later, Mueller forcefully said Russians were not done meddling into U.S. politics.
“They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” he said. He also said that “many more countries” were developing capabilities to interfere in U.S. elections.
Mueller was also forceful in criticizing Trump for praising WikiLeaks in the waning days of the 2016 campaign. WikiLeaks had released emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
When asked of the president’s behavior, Mueller said “problematic is an understatement, in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”
During his questioning, Himes asked the former special counsel if George Papadopoulos, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisors, had lied about his contacts with Russian agents in an effort to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
“That’s true,”’ Mueller said.
Mueller also told Intelligence Committee members that Trump’s written responses to his questions were “generally untrue,” and that he would have liked to interview the president. But he said issuing a subpoena to require Trump to sit down for an interview would have prolonged his probe.
In a quiet and occasionally halting manner, Mueller provided short, clipped answers to most of the questions thrown at him Wednesday. But he emphatically said his probe of Russian meddling in U.S. elections was “not a witch hunt” as Trump has often derided the investigation.
During earlier questioning by members of the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller said Trump “was not exculpated.”
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” asked Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y..
“No,” Mueller replied.
Mueller also pushed back against the president’s oft-repeated “no collusion, no obstruction” claims.
He told lawmakers his investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 campaign “did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term.”
The former special counsel also said the president could theoretically be charged with a crime after he left office and noted the report on his investigation cited 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice.
When pressed on the question of whether his report included all the necessary elements to charge obstruction of justice, he had this to say: “Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
At the beginning of his afternoon appearance, Mueller corrected one answer he gave to a related question during the morning’s questioning by Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California.
Republicans on both panels sought to discredit Mueller’s investigation and the 448-page final report on his findings. They asserted that Mueller’s investigators were motivated by their political leanings to go after the president – a premise Mueller forcefully denied.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years, I’ve not had occasion once to ask about somebody’s political affiliation,” Mueller said. “It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job seriously and quickly — and with integrity.”
Republican lawmakers also repeatedly asked Mueller if his investigation was based on a dossier put together by former British spy Christopher Steele on behalf of Democrats during the campaign and whether Mueller believed Steele had lied to the FBI.
Mueller quietly and repeatedly said the topic was outside his “purview.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, called the hearings “the last gasp of the Russian collusion conspiracy theory.”
Trump on Wednesday continued to insist the Mueller investigation was politically motivated.
“So Democrats and others can illegally fabricate a crime, try pinning it on a very innocent President, and when he fights back against this illegal and treasonous attack on our Country, they call it Obstruction?” Trump tweeted. “Wrong! Why didn’t Robert Mueller investigate the investigators?
The Trump campaign also issued a statement condemning Wednesday’s hearings and calling Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt.”
“This entire spectacle has always been about the Democrats trying to undo the legitimate result of the 2016 election and today they again failed miserably,” the campaign statement said. ” Robert Mueller confirmed what we already knew: No collusion, no obstruction, and the way President Trump has been treated is unprecedented.”
Trump made similar remarks on the White House lawn, calling the hearings a “disaster” for Democrats and repeatedly using his catch terms “hoax” and “witch hunt.”
One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, asked Mueller if his report recommended impeachment of the president.
“I’m not going to talk about that recommendation,” Mueller said. “I’m not going to talk about impeachment.”
After five hours of grilling, when Mueller left the committee hearing room — the same room where the impeachment hearings were held for presidents Richard Nixon in 1974, and Bill Clinton in 1998 — several spectators thanked the former special counsel for his service.