When Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees last week, the biggest take-away was that the former special counsel did not know the name Fusion GPS—the firm the Clinton campaign hired to produce the Steele dossier. The breadth of Mueller’s ignorance, hedging, and silence in response to questions posed to him, however, was truly expansive.
While much of the criticism leveled at Mueller following his testimony focused on his ignorance of key facts and his confusion over the details contained in the special counsel’s report, the following seven lines of inquiry show Mueller knew exactly what he was doing.
1. I Don’t Know What the Regulations Say, Except When I Do
With Democrats hammering on Part 2 of the special counsel report, which addressed obstruction of justice, Republicans attempted to show that Mueller violated governing regulations by failing make a “charging or declination decision,” as required by the special counsel regulations.
“Let me begin by reading the special counsel regulations by which you were appointed,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. started: “It reads, quote, ‘At the conclusion of the special counsel’s work he or she shall provide the attorney general with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the special counsel.’ Is that correct?”
Mueller replied, “Yes,” allowing Sensenbrenner to hammer the point: “When a regulation uses the word ‘shall provide’ does it mean that the individual is, in fact, obligated to provide what’s being demanded by the regulation or statute, meaning you don’t have any wiggle room, right?”
But Mueller, knowing full well that he had slimed President Trump in violation of the special counsel regulations, feigned ignorance, claiming he “would have to look more closely at the statute.” “I just read it to you,” an exasperated Sensenbrenner countered, before noting that special counsel report did not render a prosecutorial decision.
However, later Mueller had no problems answering a question about the special counsel regulations when they weren’t even quoted to him. “And pursuant to the special counsel regulations,” Rep. Martha Roby began, “who is the only party that must receive the charging decision resulting from the special counsel’s investigation?” The “attorney general,” Mueller easily and correctly replied, showing that on the terms of the special counsel regulations, he was no fool.
2. I’m Not Getting Into Any Details That Make Me Look Bad
Roby also questioned Mueller about Attorney General William Barr’s request that, when turning in the final special counsel report, Mueller highlight any grand jury materials included. Barr had explained in his earlier congressional testimony that he had requested Mueller submit the final report with the grand jury materials identified to allow for a quick redaction and release.
But, as Barr testified earlier this year, “Unfortunately it did not come in that form…so there was necessarily going to be a gap between the receipt of the report and getting the full report out publicly.” Barr explained that delay prompted him to release the report’s bottom-line findings, which in turn triggered Mueller’s “snitty letter” to the attorney general. More on that later.
Roby wanted to know why Mueller had ignored his boss’ directive. “On March 24, Attorney General Barr informed the committee that he had received the special counsel’s report and it was not until April 18 that the attorney general released the report to Congress and the public,” Roby started. “When you submitted your report to the attorney general, did you deliver a redacted version of the report so that he would be able to release it to Congress and the public without delay?” Roby asked.
“I’m not going to engage in discussion about what happened after the production of our report,” Mueller replied. Roby persisted: “Had the attorney general asked you to provide a redacted version of the report?” Now Mueller answered, but with a dodge: “We worked on redacted versions together.”
So apparently Mueller was willing to discuss what happened after he produced the report. Well, only if the answer wouldn’t subject him to criticism, that is, since when Roby asked whether Barr requested “a version where the grand jury material was separated,” Mueller said, “I’m not going to get into details.”
There was no legitimate basis for Mueller to refuse to answer that question. Barr had already testified before Congress that he had asked the special counsel to identify the grand jury materials in the report and that Mueller had failed to do so.
3. Lawyer-Like Answers When He Wanted
Mueller also displayed his legal agility when asked, “Did you personally review all of the underlying evidence gathered in your investigation?” “To the extent that it came through the special counsel’s office, yes,” Mueller told the committee.
Why that qualification? Because Mueller knew the special counsel’s office had not received all of the underlying evidence related to the investigation. So much for a thorough investigation!
Other times, Mueller displayed his dexterity by allowing Democrats to characterize the special counsel report and then agree that their portrayal was “generally correct.” For instance, when asked whether “the president is asking his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to create a record that McGahn believed to be untrue while you were in the midst of investigating the president for obstruction of justice,” the special counsel did the lawyerly squish of “generally correct.”
4. Who Was the Puppeteer?
Mueller also refused to answer any factual questions that made his team look bad. When quizzed on who wrote the “snitty letter” to the attorney general “essentially complaining about the media coverage of your report,” Mueller replied, “I can’t get into who wrote it.” Mueller also refused to explain why he wrote a formal letter to Barr instead of calling the attorney general to express the same concerns, as Barr wondered in a CBS News interview.
But his congressional inquisitor knew the answer—it was to change the narrative about the special counsel report, because that March 27 letter was soon leaked to the press. We at least know that Mueller didn’t authorize the letter’s release, because when asked if he had, he said, “I have no knowledge” of that. When pushed, though, Mueller quickly reverted to non-answer answers, and when asked why, after nearly two years without a leak, “this letter leaked,” the special counsel countered, “I can’t get into it.”
While we don’t know the author of the “snitty” letter or the individual responsible for leaking it, we do know that Mueller wasn’t about to let his top “pit bull” Andrew Weissmann be dissed. Rather, when quizzed on Weissmann’s questionable history, Mueller defended his top prosecutor. Weissmann is “one of the most talented attorneys we’ve had over a period of time,” Mueller responded, when the committee pointed out that Weissmann led the prosecution of Arthur Anderson in a criminal case so bogus the Supreme Court reversed it 9-0.
5. Sergeant Schultz Goes to Washington
While Mueller hedged or sat in silence to avoid giving damaging testimony, when confronted with the mistakes or omissions contained in the special counsel report—or misconduct by team members—Mueller heard nothing, saw nothing, and knew nothing. As just noted, he had no knowledge of the leak of “his” March 27 letter to Barr. Mueller also knew nothing about the special counsel report’s misrepresentations concerning conversations between Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen and Giorgi Rtskhiladze.
The Mueller report had branded Rtskhiladze “a Russian businessman,” but the letter Rtskhiladze’s lawyer sent to Barr to complain about the special counsel’s misrepresentations of his client explained that Rtskhiladze was born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and has been a permanent U.S. resident for 23 years and a citizen since 2017.
Rtskhiladze’s attorney also complained about the special counsel’s selective editing of text messages sent to Cohen. Mueller was “not familiar with that particular episode you’re talking about,” though.
6. It’s My Testimony and I’ll Talk If I Want To
For all his show about sticking within the four corners of the report, Mueller had no problem pontificating when he wanted to. For instance, when asked whether the lesson from the 2016 election would be that in future campaigns, presidential candidates would see no duty to report to authorities that a hostile foreign power is trying to influence the election, Mueller replied, “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.” That testimony served no basis but to smear Trump.
Another time, when asked what Jeff Sessions could have done to restrict Mueller’s investigation had the former attorney general “unrecused” himself from the probe, Mueller said he “wasn’t going to speculate,” but then added that “obviously, if he took over as attorney general he would have greater latitude in his actions that would enable him to do things that otherwise he could not.”
Then there was Mueller’s testimony-non-testimony related to the Carter Page Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders. Mueller was fine telling the committee that he was not in the approval chain, but didn’t want to discuss anything else.
Mueller was also completely okay with telling the committee that he only participated in a few of the approximately 500 interviews his team conducted. Similarly, Mueller wouldn’t say how many members of the special counsel team he had fired, but when asked whether he terminated Peter Strzok over an appearance of a major conflict of interest, Mueller answered: “No, he was transferred as a result of instances involving texts.”
Conversely, when asked whether special counsel lawyer Weissmann disclosed the email he had sent to former deputy attorney general Sally Yates expressing his pride and awe at her disobeying a direct order from President Trump, Mueller said “I’m not going to talk about that.”
“Is that not a conflict of interest?” Rep. Kelly Armstrong pushed. Again, “I’m not going to talk about that,” was Mueller’s response. But then Mueller told the committee that he was aware that special counsel team member Jeanne Ree had represented Hillary Clinton during the investigation into Hillary’s email scandal.
Then there was Mueller’s response to Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’s legal analysis for obstruction of justice and concluding tirade that “this is the United States of America. No one is above the law. No one. The president must be held accountable one way or the other.” Mueller was comfortable noting that while, “I don’t subscribe necessarily to your—the way you analyzed that, I’m not saying it’s out of the ballpark.”
Other times, though, Mueller refused even a dribble of information, hiding behind his buzz phrases: “That is out of my purview”; “This is one of those areas which I decline to discuss”; “I can’t get into that”; and “It’s outside my jurisdiction.”
Selective Lack of Discussion Continues
Here are some other areas Mueller selectively didn’t want to discuss.
Mueller wouldn’t touch anything related to Christopher Steele and the Steele dossier—not even to tell the committee when he learned Steele’s allegations were unverified or if his team interviewed Steele. Nor would Mueller talk about Steele’s October 2016 meeting with the State Department’s Kathleen Kavalec. And he wanted nothing to do with any questions about Glenn Simpson, the front man for Fusion GPS.
Of course, Mueller also claimed to know nothing about Fusion GPS even though they had hired Steele to get dirt on Trump, and the Steele dossier contained loads of accusations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Mueller also didn’t want to discuss the Russia lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at the center of the Trump Tower meeting, or Veselnitskaya’s dinner with Simpson the night before and the night after she met with Donald Trump Jr. and others under the auspices of sharing dirt on Hillary.
The special counsel also refused to discuss Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who informed George Papadopoulos that the Russians had dirt on Hillary—the tip that supposedly prompted the investigation into Trump campaign. The special counsel report said Mifsud lied to investigators three times, but Mueller wouldn’t explain why his team didn’t indict Mifsud for making false statements, as they had with Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos.
Mueller also refused to “get into” whether Mifsud had lied to the special counsel, whether Mueller had personally interviewed Mifsud, and whether Mifsud was a “Western Intelligence of Russian intelligence” asset. In fact, Mueller got on such a roll in refusing to answer questions about Mifsud that the special counsel forgot what he had included in his report. Who told Papadopoulos the Russians had dirt on Hillary? Rep. Jim Jordan asked. “I can’t get into that,” Mueller began, before Jordan interrupted:
Yes, you can. You wrote about it. You gave us the answer on page 192 of the report. You tell us who told him. Joseph Mifsud is the guy who told Papadopoulos. He lives in London and teaches at two universities. This is the guy who told Papadopoulos… [Mifsud] who puts the country through this whole saga, starts it off, for three years we’ve lived this now. He lies, and you guys don’t charge him. I’m curious as to why?
“Well, I can’t get into that,” Mueller claimed, shutting down the discussion.
Mueller also was not “going to go further in terms of discussing” the editing in the special counsel’s report that presented a telephone message from Trump’s former lawyer, John Dowd, to Flynn’s attorney in the worst possible light about Trump. The report made it appear that Dowd had improperly asked for confidential information, but the portion edited out of the transcript made clear that Trump’s attorney had done nothing of the sort.
Mueller was also “loathed” to answer Rep. Devin Nunes’s questions about why his report suggested that Ukrainian businessman and Paul Manafort associate Konstantin Kilimnik was a Russian spy, while ignoring “hundreds of pages of government documents—which special counsel Robert Mueller possessed since 2018—describing Kilimnik as a ‘sensitive’ intelligence source for the U.S. State Department who informed on Ukrainian and Russian matters.”
While Nunes noted, “It was important for the committee to know if Kilimnik has ties to our own State Department,” Mueller stayed mum, allowing the report’s portrayal of Kilimnik as a Russian agent connected to the one-time Trump campaign chair Manafort to go unanswered.
Nor would Mueller get into whether, when appointed special counsel, he anticipated investigating Trump’s firing of James Comey. He wouldn’t discuss when he realized there was no “there, there” in the Russia collusion investigation. He wouldn’t discuss whether there were “significant changes in tone or substance of the report made after the announcement that the report would be made available to Congress and the public.” I wonder why!
Then there was Mueller’s legal theory for obstruction of justice. “Not everyone in the justice department agreed with your legal opinion,” a committee member pointed out. “I’m not going to be involved in a discussion on that at this juncture,” Mueller countered.
“In fact, the attorney general himself disagrees with your interpretation of the law, correct?” Again, Mueller demurred, saying he’d leave that up to Barr to say. Mueller did admit, though, that “prosecutors sometimes improperly adhere to the law.”
7. Equal Justice Under the Law For Everyone But Trump
Mueller also hedged when Republican committee members questioned him on the inverted “guilty until proven innocent standard” applied in Part 2 of the special counsel’s report. That portion of the report summarized the possibility of charging Trump for obstruction of justice and presented an unheard of perspective of the prosecutorial role—one that would require Mueller to “conclusively determine that no criminal conduct [had] occurred” and set up the special counsel as the judge and jury charged with deciding whether to exonerate the president.
Of course, that was not Mueller’s job, as Attorney General Barr explained during his congressional testimony earlier this year. “The report says that they could not be sure they could clearly say that [Trump] did not violate the law,” Barr explained. But “as you know, that’s not the standard, we use in the criminal justice system,” the attorney general stressed. Rather, “it’s presumed that someone is innocent, and the government has to prove that they clearly violated the law. We’re not in the business of exoneration, not in the business of proving they didn’t violate the law—I found that whole passage very bizarre,” Barr concluded.
Rep. John Ratcliffe attempted to question Mueller on this “bizarre” passage in the report by first reminding Mueller that he had just testified that the special counsel team operated under and followed Department of Justice guidelines. Then Ratcliffe pounced: “Can you give me an example other than Donald Trump where the Justice Department determined that an investigated person was not exonerated because their innocence was not conclusively determined?”
“I cannot,” Mueller admitted, before attempting to justify his nonsense: “But this is a unique situation.” Mueller made that point a second time when confronted with the statute again: “Isn’t it true that on page one of volume two, you state when you’re quoting the statute, the obligation is to either prosecute or not prosecute?” “Generally, that is the case,” Mueller acknowledged, “although most cases are not done in the context of the president.”
Mueller’s right. Most cases are not done in the context of the president. That’s because never before in our country’s history has the losing side in a presidential election attempted a soft coup executed by a resistance burrowed in the DOJ, FBI, CIA, DIA, and, as is now clear, the special counsel’s office.