Robert Mueller's congressional testimony – the takeaways

/ CBS News

Special Report: Mueller testimony concludes

Over the six hours of Robert Mueller's long-sought appearance before two congressional panels Wednesday, little in the way of new information came to light, and it remains unclear what action House Democrats will take in their consideration of whether the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors sufficient to impeach him.

As CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett pointed out, the questions to be considered include whether it's a kind of new normal to accept dirt about your opponent from hostile foreign powers. What are Americans willing to accept as a standard of behavior from the president? Is lack of criminality the only standard to be applied?

As expected, Mueller didn't really stray from the confines of the report and refused to answer questions he deemed to be outside the findings of his long probe into Russian meddling in the last U.S. presidential election and obstruction of justice. Some Republicans quibbled with the boundaries he drew, arguing to no avail that their questions were encompassed by Mueller's probe.

The Mueller Report More

More in The Mueller Report

Overall, the hearing delivered two competing agendas. One was from Democrats, who wished to draw attention to incidents in the report that they feel argue for an obstruction of justice case against the president. The other was from Republicans, who pushed Mueller on the origins of the Russia investigation, and attempted to damage the credibility of Mueller's team of investigators, claiming that they were compromised because they were Democrats sympathetic to Hillary Clinton.

Here's what we learned from Mueller's testimony:

One-word answers

The former special counsel gave one-word responses — "yes," "no," "true," "correct" — a total of 176 times over the span of both hearings, frequently referring to the 448-page report released in April.

And that doesn't include the other slightly wordier ways in which Mueller declined to answer lawmakers' questions. On a number of occastions, he said, "I'm not going to discuss that." "I can't answer that." "I'm not certain I would adopt that characterization." "That's out of my purview."

Mueller undercuts Trump's claims about his probe

Was Trump totally exonerated? "No" says Mueller

In response to a line of questioning from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Mueller confirmed his report did not exonerate the president and did not make a determination that the president did not obstruct justice. Here's part of their exchange:

Nadler: "So the report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice — is that correct?"

Mueller: "That is correct."

Nadler: "And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?"

Mueller: "No."

This point was made in the special counsel's report, and Mueller himself reiterated it in his only remarks on the matter before Wednesday's hearings. "If we had confidence that the president did not clearly commit a crime, we would have said so," he said in late May.

Mueller explained in his report that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted was a factor in his decision. Attorney General William Barr ultimately decided not to file charges on obstruction.

What Republicans focused on

Republicans largely focused their questions on the origins of the investigation and criticism of the special counsel in order to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the probe. A number brought up the Steele dossier, a document containing unverified scandalous claims about Mr. Trump's business and personal life, published before his inauguration.

They also attacked Mueller's team, complaining that many were Democrats, some of whom had given money to Hillary Clinton's campaign. They frequently mentioned former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, whose texts betrayed disdain for candidate Trump and his supporters.

The also called into question Mueller's determination not to clear the president on obstruction.

Mueller defends integrity of his team of investigators

Trump could still be indicted after he leaves office

Mueller confirmed the president can be indicted on criminal charges after leaving office, citing Justice Department guidelines, even though those guidelines say he is immune from prosecution while he is president.

"We cannot indict a sitting president, so one of the tools a prosecutor could use isn't there," Mueller said under questioning by Republican Rep. Rep. Ken Buck, on determining whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice. Because of the Justice Department's view on this, Mueller declined to make a determination about whether the president committed obstruction.

Mueller was asked by Nadler, "Under Department of Justice policy, the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice crimes after he leaves office — is this correct?"

"True," Mueller replied.

Why Mueller didn't charge Trump with obstruction

The special counsel had noted this in his report, too, writing, "The OLC opinion also recognizes that a President does not have immunity after he leaves office," and Mueller's report cites the opinion as well.

"Recognizing an immunity from prosecution for a sitting President would not preclude such prosecution once the President's term is over or he is otherwise removed from office by resignation or impeachment," the opinion reads.

Mueller responds to Trump's claim he interviewed for FBI director job

He wasn't interviewed for another stint as FBI director by the president, Mueller said more than once. Before Mueller's testimony began, the president repeated an accusation that Mueller had applied for and interviewed with him for the position of FBI director just before he was appointed special counsel.

Mr. Trump also said he "turned down" Mueller for the job and further claimed Vice President Mike Pence and others witnessed the interview.

"It has been reported that Robert Mueller is saying that he did not apply and interview for the job of FBI Director (and get turned down) the day before he was wrongfully appointed Special Counsel," the president tweeted Wednesday morning. "Hope he doesn't say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the…interview, including the Vice President of the United States!"

But during the hearing, Mueller denied that he had had a conversation with the president about becoming FBI director. He talked to Mr. Trump, he said, but "not as a candidate."

Rep. Greg Steube, Republican of Florida. also asked Mueller, "Did you interview for the FBI director job one day before you were appointed special counsel?" Mueller responded, "My understanding was I was not applying for the job, I was asked to give my input on what it would take to do the job."

On Trump's praise of WikiLeaks: "Problematic is an understatement"

Mueller calls Trump's support of WikiLeaks "problematic"

During Mueller's testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley read aloud quotes of Mr. Trump praising WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign — after the group published emails stolen by Russia to damage Hillary Clinton.

When asked if he found those comments disturbing, Mueller replied, "Problematic is an understatement." He added the comments could have offered "some boost to what is and should be illegal activity" and said that potential collaboration with WikiLeaks "certainly calls for investigation."

Why Mueller didn't interview Trump

When Mueller submitted his 448-page report, he did so without having interviewed the president. During the second hearing, before the House Intelligence Committee, he was asked about that decision. Rep. Sean Maloney, a Democrat, pointed to the report and asked why Mueller felt that the "significant body of evidence" obtained about the president's actions provided "sufficient evidence" for investigators to "make certain assessments without the President's testimony"?

Mueller's team had negotiated with the president's lawyers over over a year, but the special counsel chose not to subpoena Mr. Trump "because of the necessity of expediting the investigation." It was a tacit acknowledgment that a subpoena would have drawn out the investigation further, since the president's legal team would have fought it in the courts.

Mueller on why he did not subpoena Trump

The special counsel wrote in his report that "while we believed that we had the authority and legal justification to issue a grand jury subpoena to obtain the President's testimony, we chose not to do so." It was a decision made out of concern about the time it would take to secure an interview with Mr. Trump. "We made that decision in view of the substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation," Mueller wrote.

The desire for the interview, Mueller said Wednesday, had to be "balanced against, how long are you willing to litigate in the courts against the president?"

Grace Segers, Kathryn Watson, Stefan Becket, Emily Tillett, Rob Legare, Erin Kelly and Laraib Hashmi contributed to this report.

First published on July 24, 2019 / 7:42 PM

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