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Mueller Testifies At House Panel Hearing


Lawmakers questioning special counsel Robert Mueller have largely observed a warning he gave before his testimony began today. Mueller said he could not go beyond his report on Russian election interference and alleged obstruction of justice, so lawmakers have been reading that report to Mueller, piece by piece. The former special counsel began testimony before the first of two congressional committees. And in his opening statement, he strove to emphasize his findings in his own words.


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.

INSKEEP: Some of Mueller's findings there. NPR's Tim Mak covers Congress and has been following this hearing. He's in our studios. Good morning, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So a lot of dramatic readings from lawmakers here, and I don't mean that sarcastically at all. Sometimes it actually is quite dramatic as they pick out parts of the report that they think support their case.

MAK: Right. Well, lawmakers have always said that the public can't - doesn't have the time to read through 448 pages of the Mueller report. So they want to kind of pick and choose various elements of it that support the narrative and the message that they're trying to put out. And this has been an explosive first little bit of this hearing, right? This is the culmination of years of investigations, reporting and really interesting things that have come out.

INSKEEP: And there was news within a minute or two of the questioning beginning, as chairman Jerrold Nadler asked some questions of Mueller - yes-no questions.

MAK: That's right. Judiciary Democrats are - right now they're focusing on Volume II, which outlines incidents of alleged obstruction of justice that the president engaged in. One of the first exchanges that Mueller had was with the chairman of the committee, Jerry Nadler.


MUELLER: Well, the finding indicates that the president was not - that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.

JERRY NADLER: In fact, you were talking about incidents, quote, "in which the president sought to use his official power outside of the usual channels," unquote, to exert undue influence over your investigations. Is that right?

MUELLER: That's correct.

MAK: Well, so Democrats are trying to draw lines between these elements of the report and pushed back against this idea that the president has continued to repeat, over and over again, which is that he's fully exonerated, and there was no obstruction.

INSKEEP: And this was the yes-or-no part. Nadler noted that the president has repeatedly said he was totally exonerated and then asked Mueller, did your report totally exonerate him? The answer was...

MAK: The answer was no. It was clear in the report. It was clear in the statement that Mueller gave in May. And it's clear today in the hearing as he's being questioned by lawmakers.

INSKEEP: So Democrats are focusing on the specific instances in which the president, for example, tried to have Robert Mueller fired, and Mueller's own investigation detailed the ways that the president tried to have the special counsel fired, as they build a case for obstruction of justice and point out that Mueller did not indict the president because of an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that he could not indict a sitting president. But Republicans have a very different story they're telling here.

MAK: Right. Republicans have been much more confrontational with Robert Mueller. They're expressing their anger that Mueller don't simply say whether he would prosecute the president or decline to prosecute the president or just cite the, as you mentioned, the OLC memo - the Justice Department regulations that generally say, you can't indict a sitting president. They're upset that Mueller, then, went on to not make a specific prosecution decision, laid out all this evidence and then didn't come to a conclusion. Here's Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe.


JOHN RATCLIFFE: Which DOJ policy or principle set forths (ph) a legal standard that an investigated person is not exonerated if their innocence from criminal conduct is not conclusively determined? Where does that language come from, director? Where is the DOJ policy that says that?

MAK: It's worth noting that Ratcliffe, like some other Republicans who have been at the hearing today, he didn't specifically allow Mueller to answer the question but spent a lot of his time just expressing his frustration and irritation that he and other Republicans feel about how Mueller has conducted his investigation over the last couple of years.

INSKEEP: There've been a number of instances where it's clear that Robert Mueller doesn't mind if he is not allowed to respond to certain questions or statements or allegations made against him. I mean, some of his testimony has been very much like his time as special counsel, when his office virtually never commented on anything.

MAK: Yeah, his reputation has been that he's been very tight-lipped. He's been professional. And he said in his opening statement that one of his original goals when he started as special counsel is there will be no leaks. He said that he doesn't want to go outside the four corners of his written report, and so far, he's sticking to that.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of a moment with Representative Louie Gohmert, who asked a number of questions and then gave what I think is fairly characterized as a short speech. His last minute or two in which he said that President Trump interfered with the investigation only to have justice done, and that the investigation itself was an injustice. Gohmert runs out of time. The chairman then says, director Mueller, you can answer this question. Go right ahead. And all he said was - with what I perceived to be a slight smile - is, I'll take that question, meaning I'll just - I'll take it. Whatever. I'm not going to answer - yep.

MAK: I'll take it for the record. I'll take it for the record. Maybe I'll address it in the future. But...

INSKEEP: Thank you for sharing was that - essentially, what he was saying.

MAK: Basically. I mean, Republicans have spent a substantial amount of their time lecturing Robert Mueller as opposed to questioning Robert Mueller.

INSKEEP: Now, I guess it's not a surprise that Democrats would push the narrative that Mueller laid out; it's not a surprise that Republicans would question that narrative in the way that they have. But have you been surprised by anything that's happened so far?

MAK: Well, Mueller has said he wants to focus on staying within the four corners of his report. And generally speaking, there have been no surprises if you've read the report, and a lot of people haven't. But you're going to see a lot of headlines that say, Mueller said that the report does not exonerate the president, because you see the president tweets on a regular basis, says on television and in news media on a regular basis, that he's been totally and utterly exonerated. Mueller is pushing back on that, saying that's not what the report says, and that's not what my investigation detailed.

So it's interesting. But Democrats are, like you mentioned, trying to kind of pull out some elements. Here's one notable exchange that starts with Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren. She's talking about Paul Manafort and what he was alleged to have done during the campaign.


ZOE LOFGREN: Did your investigation find that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from one of the candidates winning?


LOFGREN: And which candidate would that be?

MUELLER: Well, it would be Trump.

INSKEEP: His reluctance and the pained look on his face there was even more pronounced than in some other times in the hearing. He didn't want to - it is the truth. That's what his report said. But he knew the politics of that question - didn't really want to answer it, I thought.

MAK: Well, it's interesting because the last couple of hours, or the last approximately two hours, Mueller has been kind of rushed through this lightning round. And his responses have been kind of slow. He's been hard of hearing at times. He's had a hard time following the questions. Lawmakers are really conscious of how little time they have in front of Mueller, and they're pushing the pace. And Mueller is a very deliberate person. He wants the citation. He wants the page number. He's asking for people to repeat themselves. And he's being very deliberate.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.