Ultimately, voters will decide Trump’s future

Former special counsel Robert Mueller returns to the witness table following a break in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday sent the clearest signal yet that impeachment may be slipping out of reach for Democrats and that the ultimate verdict on President Donald Trump will be rendered by voters in the 2020 election.

Democrats had hoped the former special counsel’s appearance would be a turning point. A Marine who served in Vietnam, Mueller is the kind of square-jawed federal prosecutor to whom Americans may have once listened as a trusted source of authority. But in this era of stark political polarization, galvanizing the public is a difficult task even if Mueller wanted to produce a viral moment, which he never seemed inclined to do. Rather than swoop in to give voice to the 448-page report, Mueller said very few words.

What Mueller did say was striking: Trump was not exonerated of potential crimes. His report found Russia interfered in the 2016 election in “sweeping and systematic” fashion. Accepting foreign campaign assistance is wrong, he agreed. But Mueller’s reluctance to engage, and his one-word answers, deprived the country of a where-were-you-when moment that could bring decisive conclusion to the probe and Trump’s role in trying to obstruct the investigation.

“It was not a hoax,” Mueller testified of Russian election interference.

The result, after more than six hours at the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, was that the sides in Washington were retrenching to their familiar outposts, leaving voters to decide what to do next.

Trump derided Mueller’s appearance — “disaster,” he tweeted — and started fundraising off it. The president’s reelection campaign set a $2 million goal over 24 hours, it said, to counter those trying to “TRICK the American People into believing their LIES.”

Allies of the White House quickly joined in. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Mueller’s appearance “sad.” Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, said the hearing was the “last gasp” of the investigation.

“It’s time for the curtain to close on the Russia hoax,” Nunes said. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”

Much was riding on Mueller’s appearance, coming months after the release of his report in April. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is weighing liberal calls for impeachment against her own instincts for a more measured approach investigating the Trump administration and laying out the findings.

Activists on the party’s left flank have been impatient with what they see as Pelosi’s slow-walking of impeachment — but they’ve also been deferential to her strategy. More than 85 House Democrats have called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings, and more lawmakers are expected to add their names after Mueller’s testimony.

Yet even though Democrats hold the House majority, they’re far from the 218 votes that would be needed to approve articles of impeachment. With Republicans controlling the Senate, many Democrats warn moving forward is a political dead end.

“If we have a case for impeachment, that’s the place we will have to go,” Pelosi said afterward.

Mueller, in his testimony, didn’t push the issue any further. While Mueller’s team declined to prosecute the president, in part because of a Justice Department opinion against indicting a sitting president, the report also suggested other remedies, including in Congress. Asked about impeachment as an option Wednesday, Mueller refused to comment on it.

The former special counsel was always going to be a reluctant witness who wanted his report to speak for itself. Democrats knew what they would encounter even if they were hoping for a Mueller of a different vintage, from his time leading the FBI after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Instead, they saw a less forceful public presence, hard of hearing at times, hesitant to answer many of the questions, but one still skilled enough in the ways of Washington to not read his report in a way that Democrats could exploit.

When Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., asked if Mueller would read a certain section from the report, Mueller turned the tables: “I’m happy to have you read it.”

Republicans had their own expectations and tried to portray Mueller as an actor in an elaborate attempt to undermine Trump’s election. Their revived their long-running theory about the origins of the report during Hillary Clinton’s campaign and posed questions that seemed well designed to be replayed on conservative media, even if they, too, found Mueller’s answers were not entirely fulfilling.

It had all the trappings of a classic Washington political drama, yet brought little closure.

Even if Mueller had been a more eager player, he may not have been able to make a more convincing case. Gone are the Watergate-era hearings, when lawmakers crossed party lines to engage critically over then-President Richard Nixon. The impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton changed that dynamic, and the partisan divide since has only deepened to a point of rupturing whatever’s left of political comity.

Still, Mueller’s appearance was far from a political loss for either party. Ahead of the 2020 election, both are trying to reach the slice of Americans who have not hardened to partisan positions.

A June poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 31% of Americans said they didn’t know enough to say whether Mueller’s report had completely cleared Trump of coordination with Russia and 30% didn’t know whether it had not completely cleared Trump of obstruction. A CNN poll found that just 3% said they had read the whole report.

Perhaps Mueller’s testimony, with his button-down lawyer’s approach, reached some of them.

As voters consider what they’ll do, Mueller did leave them with one definitive point — a warning about what happened in 2016 and a plea that they pay attention to what may be coming.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. … This deserves the attention of every American.”

___

AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro has covered Congress since 2010.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

FBI Director may provide preview of Mueller testimony

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

FBI Director Christopher Wray’s appearance before a Senate committee could be something of a preview of the intense questioning special counsel Robert Mueller is likely to face in Congress the next day.

Wray is set to testify Tuesday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies, Sen. Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina Republican has vowed to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation.

Republicans are likely to spend time questioning both Wray and Mueller about Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who helped lead the Trump investigation and exchanged anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 election with an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page.

Once Mueller learned of the existence of the texts, which were sent before his appointment as special counsel, he removed Strzok from his team investigating potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Strzok was ultimately fired and Page left the bureau.

Wray made headlines during a Senate hearing in May when he broke from Attorney General William Barr and said he didn’t consider court-approved FBI surveillance to be “spying” and that there was no evidence the FBI illegally monitored Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election. Barr has said he believes “spying did occur” on the campaign and suggested the origins of the probe may have been mishandled.

Barr didn’t specify what he meant when he said he believed there had been spying on the Trump campaign, but he was likely alluding to the FBI obtaining a secret surveillance warrant in the fall of 2016 to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, whose interactions with Russians several years earlier had raised law enforcement suspicions even before he joined the campaign

Barr has not said such surveillance was necessarily improper, but Trump nonetheless seized on those comments to suggest his campaign was spied on in an illegal and unprecedented act. The attorney general appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham, the chief federal prosecutor in Connecticut, to investigate the surveillance methods used during the investigation and to probe the origins of the Russia investigation. Part of Durham’s mandate is to investigate whether there was a proper basis for the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Wray has previously declined to discuss in detail the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign because of Durham’s investigation and a separate, ongoing Justice Department inspector general probe into the origins of the Russia inquiry.

As FBI director, he has sought to avoid public spats with Trump, but his appearance on Capitol Hill comes amid signs of possible tension between the two men.

President Donald Trump told ABC News last month that Wray was “wrong” to suggest that Donald Trump Jr. should have called the FBI as the organizer of a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer offering negative information on his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. Wray made the comment during the May congressional hearing and said the FBI would want to know about any outreach from a foreign government to an American political campaign.

Trump told ABC that if a foreign power were offering dirt on his 2020 opponent, he’d be open to accepting it and would have no obligation to call the FBI.

___

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

Trump attacks Mueller, claims he was ‘exonerated’

President Donald Trump talks with reporters before departing on Marine One for the Air Force Academy graduation ceremony, Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump angrily assailed special counsel Robert Mueller’s motives on Thursday, a day after Mueller bluntly rebuffed Trump’s repeated claims that the Russia investigation had cleared him of obstructing justice.

The president also offered mixed messages on Russia’s efforts to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. Early in the day, Trump tweeted he had “nothing to do with Russia helping me get elected.” That was the first time he seemed to acknowledge that Russia tried to help his campaign. Then on the White House South Lawn, Trump told reporters: “Russia did not help me get elected. You know who got me elected? You know who got me elected? I got me elected. Russia didn’t help me at all.”

Mueller’s report said Russia interfered in the election in hopes of getting Trump elected, but his findings and intelligence officials have stopped short of saying the efforts contributed to Trump’s victory.

Trump’s 20-minute eruption underscored that he remains deeply distressed over the probe that has shadowed his presidency for nearly two years, even after Mueller announced his resignation and the closure of his office. Democrats are mulling the possibility of impeachment proceedings.

Trump insisted that he’s been tough on Russia and that Moscow would have preferred Clinton as president. But that’s not what Russian President Vladimir Putin has said. When asked last year in Helsinki whether he wanted Trump to become president, Putin replied: “Yes, I did.”

On Wednesday, Mueller, in his first public remarks on the Russia investigation, pointedly rejected Trump’s claims — repeated almost daily — that the special counsel’s investigation cleared him of criminal activity and was a “witch hunt.” Mueller emphasized that he had not exonerated Trump on the question of whether he obstructed justice, but said charging Trump with any crime was “not an option” because of Justice Department rules.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller declared.

Attorney General William Barr, however, said Mueller could have reached a decision on whether Trump obstructed justice. Barr said in an interview with “CBS This Morning” that though Justice Department rules prevent the indictment of a sitting president, Mueller nonetheless could have decided whether Trump had committed a crime.

Trump repeated his baseless claims that Mueller is “conflicted,” contending that Mueller, who served as FBI director under President George W. Bush, wanted his old job back, but that he had told him no. He said Mueller, a Republican, was “a true never Trumper” and “didn’t get a job that he wanted very badly.”

Mueller had been considered for the FBI director position shortly before being named as special counsel. But then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has said that while the White House had invited Mueller to speak to the president about the FBI and thought about asking him to become director again, Mueller did not come in looking for a job.

Trump also said Mueller should have investigated law enforcement officials who the president claims tried to undermine him. Mueller’s mandate, however, was to investigate Russian election interference, possible coordination with the Trump campaign and any obstruction of that investigation.

Among those whom Trump says Mueller should have investigated were members of the special counsel’s own team, including Peter Strzok, a former FBI agent who helped lead the investigation and exchanged anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 election with ex-FBI lawyer Lisa Page.

Strzok was removed from Mueller’s investigative team following the discovery of the texts and later was fired from the FBI. Page has left the bureau. Strzok told Congress that there was “no conspiracy” at the FBI to prevent Trump from becoming president.

Trump, asked about impeachment by Congress, called it a “dirty word” and said he couldn’t imagine the courts allowing him to be impeached. “I don’t think so because there’s no crime,” he said.

Mueller made clear that his team never considered indicting Trump because the Justice Department prohibits the prosecution of a sitting president. He and others have indicated that the next move, if any, is up to Congress, which has the power of impeachment. Trump has blocked House committees’ subpoenas and other efforts to dig into the Trump-Russia issue, insisting Mueller’s report has settled everything.

___

Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Chad Day, Mike Balsamo, Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

__________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2019 Capitol Hill Blue

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved