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Lawmakers Question Mueller Over His Report On Russian Election Interference In 2016


Well, he was seated. And from there, Robert Mueller spent more than five hours testifying - about 3 1/2 hours before the House Judiciary Committee and then more than two hours before the House Intelligence Committee. We are going to take those hearings one by one and walk through the high and low moments. And to do that, I am joined by two of NPR's finest - NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Welcome to you both.


CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

KELLY: So let's start where the morning started, with the Judiciary Committee hearing. The chairman - this was Democrat Jerry Nadler - kicked off the questioning, and he did it with a series of very simple yes-or-no questions. He laid out the Democrats' line of attack.


JERRY NADLER: The president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him. But that is not what your report said, is it?

ROBERT MUELLER: Correct. That is not what the report said.

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?


KELLY: Susan Davis, this was an attempt by Democrats, from the very beginning of the proceedings today, to shoot down the narrative that President Trump and the White House have put out, saying, no collusion, no obstruction.

DAVIS: It was also the intent of this entire hearing. I mean, Democrats really downplayed going into it that they expected new revelations. Mueller made very clear going into it he did not expect to deter at all from the report. But their point was, for the many Americans and perhaps members of Congress who have not read the report - it was to bring it to life. And those are two of the clear points that Democrats have been trying to bring to the forefront to the American public of the conclusions of the report - that it was not an exoneration of President Trump's behavior - and the long list of actions that could be seen of obstruction of justice, that could be seen as criminal offenses if he were not the president of the United States.

KELLY: I'm going to play another example of where this line of questioning about obstruction of justice - possible obstruction of justice - rolled out as the morning proceeded. This is Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin.


JAMIE RASKIN: Director Mueller, let's go to a fourth episode of obstruction of justice in the form of witness tampering, which is urging witnesses not to cooperate with law enforcement, either by persuading them or intimidating them. Witness tampering is a felony punishable by 20 years in prison. You found evidence that the president engaged in efforts - and I quote - "to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation." Is that right?

MUELLER: That's correct. And you have the citation that...

RASKIN: I'm - page 7 on volume 2.

KELLY: All right. Carrie Johnson, that's just one of the many, many, many times Democrats tried to lure Mueller to say something beyond what was in the report. How successful were they?

JOHNSON: Well, Mueller basically confined himself to the report. But they did get him to say that another - Justice Department after the president leaves office might decide to charge Donald Trump with a crime of obstruction of justice. And that's one of the reasons why they conducted this investigation without making a call one way or the other.

Mueller also, in the hearing, talked about maybe the president not being entirely credible in some of his responses to the investigators and how testimony from witnesses - witnesses inside Donald Trump's own White House - had contradicted what the president was saying. These are people like former White House counsel Don McGahn, chief of staff Reince Priebus, presidential adviser Corey Lewandowski and others. They told this investigative team, led by Robert Mueller, that the president was trying to hinder the investigation.

KELLY: All right. Let me turn you to Republicans and what they were trying to make happen today. If I might try to summarize their strategy in a few words, it seemed to be to try and impugn the overall investigation, also trying to close the door on impeachment. I'm going to let you listen to a sample of that. This is Ohio Republican Steve Chabot.


STEVE CHABOT: My Democratic colleagues were very disappointed in your report. They were expecting you to say something along the lines of here's why President Trump deserves to be impeached, much as Ken Starr did relative to President Clinton back about 20 years ago. Well, you didn't. So their strategy had to change. Now, they allege there's plenty of evidence in your report to impeach the president, but the American people just didn't read it. And this hearing today is their last best hope to build up some sort of groundswell across America to impeach President Trump. That's what this is really all about.

KELLY: Sue Davis, is that what this is really all about?

DAVIS: Well, the congressman has a point. There are certainly a number of House Democrats - according to NPR's count, 94 to be precise as of today - that at least believe impeachment proceedings should begin, if not that they already believe the president should be impeached. The big overarching question of today is, did it move the needle on Capitol Hill? Will we see more House Democrats coming out in response to this hearing and saying, yes, now I do believe we should move forward with impeachment? I will say that I think today was a good day for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in that she has been a very public skeptic of impeachment as a political path forward, as a viable political path forward.

KELLY: And now she's only got to get through another couple of days and everybody goes on August recess.

DAVIS: That's true. But also I think you would really need a bombshell. You would really need something to happen to either fundamentally change - shift public opinion or shift the view of Capitol Hill. I did not hear anything today that struck me as being something that could move the needle. I think if - this has given Pelosi ammunition to say to her caucus, let's hold back on impeachment, let's continue oversight, let's continue the hearings, impeachment's not the path.

KELLY: All right. Let me move us on to hearing No. 2 of the day. This was the House Intelligence Committee. It is chaired by Adam Schiff of California. The ranking member is Devin Nunes. And here is how Nunes kicked off the hearing.


DEVIN NUNES: Welcome, everyone, to the last gasp of the Russia collusion conspiracy theory.

KELLY: OK, a very different approach than his colleague, the chairman, Adam Schiff, had. He gave Robert Mueller the chance to respond to the president's oft-cited refrain about the special counsel investigation.


ADAM SCHIFF: And when Donald Trump called your investigation a witch hunt, that was also false, was it not?

MUELLER: I'd like to think so, yes.

SCHIFF: Well, your investigation is not a witch hunt.

MUELLER: It is not a witch hunt.

SCHIFF: When the president said the Russian interference was a hoax, that was false, wasn't it?


KELLY: Carrie Johnson, a very transparent effort to dismiss the witch hunt thing. Will it work?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. In fact, elsewhere in the hearing, it came out that there were something like 126 contacts in all between Russians and members of the Trump campaign or people surrounding Donald Trump. Robert Mueller also said his indictments against Russian military figures and other Internet trolls in Russia had been underplayed. He said that they're doing it as of - the Russians, they're doing it as we sit here today. And they expect to do it in the next campaign, interfering in American elections.

KELLY: One more thing to ask you about, one more piece of tape to play. This was about WikiLeaks, and it was one of the rare moments where we seemed to get a little bit of news out of this hearing. Let's listen.


MIKE QUIGLEY: This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove - Donald Trump, October 31, 2016. Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks - Donald Trump, November 4, 2016. Wouldn't those quotes disturb you, Mr. Director?

MUELLER: I'm not sure, and I would say...

QUIGLEY: How do you react to them?

MUELLER: Well, it's probably - problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some - I don't know - hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.

KELLY: All right. And I should add that as Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat, leading the questioning there on WikiLeaks. Carrie, what's the significance?

JOHNSON: That was as tough as Robert Mueller got today. That was basically his way of kind condemning President Trump...

KELLY: Problematic.


KELLY: That was as strong as we got.

JOHNSON: That was his way of condemning candidate Trump for asking for help or basically urging on WikiLeaks during the campaign. Elsewhere in the hearing, he said - Mueller said, I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is. He wants everybody to start paying attention now to foreign adversaries interfering in the elections.

KELLY: All right. A closing thought from each of you, and it's the basic one. What do we know now that we didn't know at 8 this morning? What did we learn here? Sue Davis.

DAVIS: In terms of the facts, I don't think we did learn anything new. I think that in the closing remarks that Adam Schiff made, I thought it was - sort of the big takeaway of the day is that, in many respects, the president and his conduct was unethical, but it wasn't criminal, at least by the determination of Robert Mueller. And now the question is to the question of impeachment, which is a purely political question, do they believe that they have the political ammunition to move forward? I think that's the question we're going to follow up in the days and weeks ahead. But today, the needle seems kind of stuck to me.

KELLY: Kind of steady. Carrie Johnson.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, I'm not sure that we know everything we want to know yet. There are things that may be still classified or deeply buried. Why did Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman, share polling data with a figure the FBI has linked to Russian intelligence in August 2016? What did that guy do with the polling data? There were questions about that - no answers today from Bob Mueller.

KELLY: All right. That is analysis of the Robert Mueller hearings, both of them, on Capitol Hill today from NPR's Carrie Johnson covering the justice beat and NPR's Susan Davis covering Congress.

Thanks so much to you both.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
Susan Davis
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.