“For two years, Democrats have waited on Robert Mueller to deliver a death blow to the Trump presidency,” The New York Times observed on July 20. “On Wednesday, in back-to-back hearings with the former special counsel, that wish could face its final make-or-break moment.” The very fact that Democrats had to subpoena Mueller in order to create this final moment should in fact be the final reminder of what a mistake it was for Democrats to have waited on him. If Mueller had incriminating information yet to share, or had been stymied from doing his work, or if Attorney General William Barr had somehow misrepresented his findings, then it stands to reason that Mueller would be welcoming the opportunity to appear before Congress, not resisting it. The reality is that Mueller’s investigation did not indict anyone on the Trump campaign for collusion with Russia, or even for anything related to the 2016 election. Mueller’s report found no evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, and even undermined the case for it.
That said, there are unresolved matters that Mueller’s testimony could help clarify. Mueller claimed to have established that the Russian government conducted “a sweeping and systematic” interference campaign in order to elect Trump, yet the contents of his report don’t support that allegation. The Mueller report repeatedly excludes countervailing information in order to suggest, misleadingly, that the Trump campaign had suspect “links” and “ties” to people connected with Russia. And Mueller and other intelligence officials involved in the Russia probe made questionable investigative decisions that are worthy of scrutiny. To address these issues, here are some questions that Mueller could be asked.
I should note that missing from my list is anything related to obstruction. This topic will surely dominate Democrats’ line of questioning, but I view it as secondary and more appropriate for a law school seminar. The core issue of the Mueller investigation is alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s potential coordination with it. The obstruction issue only began to dominate after it was clear that Mueller had found no such conspiracy. Although the report does show examples of Trump’s stated intent to impede the Mueller investigation, the probe itself was unhindered.
There is also the fact that Mueller himself declined to make a call on obstruction, and even presented arguments that could be used to refute it. The obstruction section of the report notes that Trump was not “involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” Although not dispositive, Mueller says that “the absence of that evidence affects the analysis of the President’s intent and requires consideration of other possible motives for his conduct.” In a joint statement with Barr, Mueller also made clear that “he was not saying that, but for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice.” Accordingly, I see no reason why congressional Democrats are so confident that Mueller found otherwise.
1. Why did you suggest that juvenile clickbait from a Russian troll farm was part of a “sweeping and systematic” Russian government interference effort?
The Mueller report begins by declaring that “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” A few paragraphs later, Mueller tells us that Russian interference occurred “principally through two operations.” The first of these operations was “a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” carried out by a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The inference here is that the IRA was a part of the Russian government’s “sweeping and systematic” interference campaign. Yet Mueller’s team has been forced to admit in court that this was a false insinuation. Earlier this month, a federal judge rebuked Mueller and the Justice Department for having “improperly suggested a link” between IRA and the Kremlin. US District Judge Dabney Friedrich noted that Mueller’s February 2018 indictment of the IRA “does not link the [IRA] to the Russian government” and alleges “only private conduct by private actors.” Jonathan Kravis, a senior prosecutor on the Mueller team, acknowledged that this is the case. “[T]he report itself does not state anywhere that the Russian government was behind the Internet Research Agency activity,” Kravis told the court.