Robert Mueller testifies
Today's committee hearing erupted into laughter after former Special Counsel Robert Mueller joked about Congress's truthfulness.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia had asked Mueller what would happen if a lawmaker lied to his team during the investigation.
"What if I had made a false statement to an investigator on your team? Could I go to jail for up to five years?" she asked.
"Yes," Mueller said, before adding, "Although, it's Congress, so."
The hearing room laughed at Mueller's side remark.
Garcia continued on a more serious note: "Well, that's the point, though, isn't it? That No one is above the law. Not you. Not the Congress. And certainly not the President."
President Trump has said repeatedly that Robert Mueller interviewed for the FBI director job just before he was appointed as special counsel in May 2017.
Mueller provided more context about that conversation, from his point of view, under tough questioning from GOP Rep. Greg Steube.
Mueller said he was asked by the President for input about on the post, but said he was not interviewing for the job itself.
Here's the exchange:
Mueller: My understanding, I was not applying for the job. I was asked to give my input about what it would take to do the job, which, triggered the interview you are talking about.
Steube: So you don't recall on May 16, 2017 that you interviewed with the President, regarding the FBI Director job?
Mueller: I interviewed with the President and it was about the job but not about me applying for the job.
Steube: So your statement here today is that you didn't interview to apply for the FBI director job?
Mueller: That's correct.
Robert Mueller told lawmakers that from the beginning of the investigation they were guided by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel’s guidance that a sitting president could not be indicted. He added that prosecutors could indict a president once he is no longer in office.
Mueller told committee chairman Jerry Nadler the OLC opinion was a fact at the very start.
“We, at the outset determined that … when it came to the President’s culpability, we needed to, we needed to go forward only after taking into account the OLC opinion that indicated that a President, sitting President, cannot be indicted,” Mueller testified.
Asked whether a prosecutor could indict a president once he leaves office, Mueller said, “The OLC opinion says that the prosecutor, while he cannot bring a charge against a sitting president, nonetheless he can continue the investigation to see if there are other persons drawn into the conspiracy.”
Rep. Ted Lieu was one of at least two Democrats who sought to get Mueller to agree that Trump had obstructed justice when he ordered former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire the special counsel.
“I'd like to ask you the reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?” Lieu asked.
“That is correct,” Mueller responded.
He then quickly amended his response, “The only thing I want to add is I'm going through the elements with you. That does not mean I subscribe to what you're trying to prove through those elements.”
Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican, later prodded Mueller by suggesting the special counsel office decided not to prosecute Trump.
“In this case, you made a decision not to prosecute, correct?”
Mueller said it wasn’t a decision to not prosecute but reiterated that they were guided by the OLC opinion.
“No, we made a decision not to decide whether to prosecute.”
Here are some other takeaways from his testimony:
- Mueller's performance: He was resolute in staying with his strategy of remaining within the bounds of the report even when his investigation was being criticized by some Republicans.
- His most frequent answers: As of 11:12 a.m. ET, Robert Mueller deferred, declined to answer or pointed members of congress to his report at least 75 times throughout his testimony.
- One of Mueller's key responses: His most significant answer so far was his answer to Rep. Ted Lieu about whether he would indict the President if not for the Office of Legal Counsel memo. But Mueller cautioned not to overread his answer, telling Lieu, “The only thing I want to add is I'm going through the elements with you. That does not mean I subscribe to what you're trying to prove through those elements.” He also said clearly that the President was not exonerated.
- A key exchange: Another interesting back-and-forth was with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, where he said it was not the role of special counsel to assess impeachable conduct. “Our mandate does not go to the other ways of addressing conduct.”
Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican on the Judiciary Committee, asked former Special Counsel Robert Mueller about his decision not to indict President Trump.
Lesko said Mueller recently said he didn't "indict the President is because of the OLC opinion." (Note: OLC stands for "Office of Legal Counsel." More on that opinion in a second.)
But, she said, Mueller made different comments earlier this year:
"That is not what you said in the report, and it’s not what you told Attorney General Barr. And in fact, in a joint statement that you released with DOJ on May 29 after your press conference, your office issued a joint statement with the Department of Justice that said: The Attorney General has previously stated that the special counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying, that but for the OLC opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice," she said.
Lesko asked Mueller if he stands by his earlier May 29 statement.
"I would have to look at it more closely before I said I agree," Mueller said.
What you need to know about the OLC opinion: Internal Justice Department policies say that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The policy comes from the OLC, and it dates back to the Nixon administration. It is binding on all Justice Department employees, including Mueller and his team of prosecutors.
In his report, Mueller directly explained how this had a major impact on his internal deliberations.
In effect, Mueller framed his entire obstruction investigation around the notion that he couldn't bring any charges against Trump, even if he found ironclad evidence against him, because of the OLC opinion.
Asked about if he agreed with the Attorney General William Barr's characterization of his report, Robert Mueller did not directly address the accuracy of Barr's summary
Mueller, however, said he sent a letter "raising issues" on March 27. He added that the "letter speaks for itself."
Mueller's letter pressed Barr to release the introductions and executive summaries in the Mueller report.
Mueller pushed back against California Republican Tom McClintock, who said his team may not have “faithfully, accurately, impartially, and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report.”
"The fundamental problem is, as I said, we've got to take your word, your team, faithfully, accurately, impartially, and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report, and we're finding more and more instances where this just isn't the case. And it's starting to look like, you know, having desperately tried and failed to make a legal case against the president, you made a political case instead. You put it in a paper sack, lit it on fire, dropped it on our porch, rang the doorbell, and ran," McClintock said.
“I don't think you reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us,” Mueller said.
As of 11:12 a.m. ET, Robert Mueller has deferred, declined to answer or pointed members of Congress to his report at least 75 times throughout his testimony.
Multiple members were seen listening to today's hearing on speakerphone as they walked into a caucus meeting this morning.
CNN caught up with some of them and to get their thoughts about the hearing.
Here's what they said:
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: She said she feels optimistic about today's hearing after watching some of it this morning. “I did see the beginning,” she told CNN, adding, “I’m very optimistic that the public will be aware of the facts and the truth as a result of the (voice trails off).”
- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: He briefly outlined what he needs to hear from Mueller: “I hope he tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
- Rep. Jan Schakowsky: She attended the caucus meeting and told reporters that Democrats didn’t talk about Mueller at all in their meeting. She said they talked about infrastructure and how great of a negotiator Speaker Pelosi was on the budget deal.
- Rep. Al Green: He brought a printed and highlighted version of the Mueller report — and read portions of it to the cameras.
- Rep. Maxine Waters: She said she is “certainly hopeful that the judiciary committee will be able to unveil some of the information that went into the report, that is not absolutely known or understood so that the American public can really get a better understanding of how serious this is.”
- Rep. Lauren Underwood: She told a reporter, “Do I want to be sitting in the room and watching it? Yes.” Underwood said she thought it was “so important that this information comes to light.”