Russians will interfere again, maybe others too, Mueller warns
Mueller said it was unusual for a prosecutor to testify before Congress, said he would not comment on counterintelligence questions
Former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III told lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia, and possibly other countries, are looking to interfere in upcoming U.S. elections.
During his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee on the outcome of his investigation into Russia and links to the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, Mueller urged Congress to require U.S. intelligence agencies to work together to stop such efforts.
Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd, who is a former CIA officer, asked whether Russians and others are likely to disrupt U.S. elections again, and Mueller said that it wasn’t a “single attempt, they are doing it as we sit here and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
In a series of exchanges with Democrats on the panel, Mueller appeared to go further than his responses earlier in the day when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee.
Mueller was pressed by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., to discuss Trump’s repeated comments and tweets during the campaign that he loved that Wikileaks was publishing material that had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee as well as from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Mueller responded that calling such cheering “problematic is an understatement.”
When Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked whether the Trump’s campaign officials lies’ to Mueller’s investigators indicated a consciousness of guilt, Mueller laconically said, “yes.”
As recounted in his final report, Mueller told Swalwell that the practice by Trump campaign officials, including Rick Gates — who was campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s deputy — to routinely delete messages posed challenges to the investigation. Campaign officials also used encrypted apps that hampered the probe, Mueller said.
Democrats on the committee also seized the chance in the hearing to get from Mueller reaffirmations of the crimes committed by former close associates of President Donald Trump.
Under questioning by panel Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., Mueller noted that several Trump campaign officials lied to prosecutors during the probe. Mueller also denied that the investigation constituted a “witch hunt” as President Donald Trump has repeatedly alleged.
Mueller reiterated that former Trump staffer and later the first National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as well as Manafort, lied about their connections and conversations with Russian officials. Both pleaded guilty and Manafort is currently in prison while Flynn has yet to be sentenced.
Mueller also reiterated to Schiff that the campaign officials lied in order to ensure that their comments didn’t diverge from Trump’s comments about his links with Russia.
Schiff said while Mueller’s investigation did not conclude that any crime had been committed, the pattern of lies about business and financial ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia amounted to “disloyalty to country” and that amounted to something worse than a crime.
“Disloyalty violates the very obligation of citizenship,” Schiff said.
House Democrats held back-to-back hearings starting with the Judiciary Committee in the morning, which focused on Mueller’s report dealing with obstruction of justice. The Intelligence Committee’s hearing was intended to focus on the Russian disinformation campaign aimed at American voters as well as multiple contacts between Trump campaign staffers and Russian individuals.
Mueller began his comments in the afternoon hearing with the caveat that his appearance and testimony was unusual for a prosecutor, and said that he would not comment on any potential counterintelligence investigations by the FBI. Nevertheless, as someone who had witnessed several challenges to the U.S., Mueller said the Russian “efforts to interfere were very serious.”
In May when Mueller stepped down as special counsel, he made a statement at the Justice Department where he said, “I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Mueller said the Russian campaign was intended to help the Trump campaign.
Mueller also clarified his response to a question earlier in the day by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who asked the former special counsel whether his office didn’t charge Trump because of a Justice Department policy that sitting presidents could not be indicted.
While Mueller initially said that was accurate, later he said the phrasing of the question was inaccurate and that the special counsel investigation did not make any determination on whether the president committed any crime.
Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, led by ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., once again painted the entire exercise of probing Russian interference as an effort ginned up by Democrats.
Nunes said if there was any collusion at all it was between Democrats and Moscow, because it was the Democratic National Committee that hired the consulting firm Fusion GPS, which in turn hired retired U.K. intelligence officer Christopher Steele to probe Trump’s ties to Russia.
People waiting in line to the hearings had mixed reaction to the morning and afternoon’s events.
A protester who was in favor of impeachment, Alethea Shapiro, said “I was expecting some more concrete answers. I’m hoping with more concrete answers it will persuade more of the centrist Democrats to get on board with impeachment hearings, but I feel like we still have a lot of time left and we still have another hearing left, and I have confidence.”
Another hearing attendee, standing in line, said he was there for historic reasons. “I was a big government nerd and this is history in the making,” said Travis Austin, a rising freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Another attendee, wearing a Make America Great Again hat, said, “I just came to see if Mueller would spread any new information out on the obstruction charges and if he could give the Democrats what they want and say something that Trump obstructed,” said Neil Arnott, a South Dakota resident. “And I don’t think I saw it. … He seemed conflicted, he seemed not to understand what was in his own report.”
Dayna Cartwright, who was visiting her son who lives in Washington, said she wanted to get into the hearing, as a Republican, to hear from Mueller directly.
“I got here at about 6:15 this morning and I was hoping to be able to get in. … For me, I remember Watergate of course, but I was a little kid…I wanted to give myself the opportunity if I could have heard it in his own words, from his own mouth, what he had to say about it rather than what we’re being told about it,” she said. “And, I wanted to see what he had to say about it so I could keep an open mind.”
Cameron Peters contributed to this report.