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During Testimony, Mueller Lets Report Speak For Itself

Jul 24, 2019
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Former special counsel Robert Mueller is now in hour three of questioning by members of Congress. Members of the House Judiciary Committee have questioned Mueller. Some have gone on the attack. Others have just reiterated sections of his report. And Mueller has given short, terse answers. He seems to have stuck to his line that he would let the 448-page report speak for itself. NPR's Ryan Lucas has been watching the hearings this morning. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what's standing out to you so far?

LUCAS: Well, I think, first and foremost, this is a hearing that has largely gone according to script. There have been no bombshells, no grand revelations. Mueller warned - and we've talked about it - that he didn't want to discuss matters beyond what's in his report. He has very much held true to that.

Democrats, they wanted to focus on five episodes in the report of possible obstruction of justice by the president. They wanted to highlight those for the American public. They've done exactly that. They're actually still in the process because this hearing is going on. Republicans, on the other hand, have largely used their time to directly address not - excuse me - not to directly address the report's findings. They have instead pressed their allegations of political bias on Mueller's team. They've also kind of sniped more with Mueller than Democrats have, for sure.

The biggest surprise, frankly, maybe Mueller's own performance here. It's been several years since he's testified before Congress. He's asked repeatedly during this hearing for members to repeat their questions. He appears to have struggled to keep up with some of the rapid pace of questioning. He's 74 years old. Whether that's at play here, I don't know. But certainly, it has not been the kind of robust performance that I think a lot of people expected.

KING: As shared committee members are spending a lot of time quoting the Mueller report back to Robert Mueller, here's an exchange between Congressman Cedric Richmond and Mueller.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CEDRIC RICHMOND: So it's fair to say the president tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records relevant to an ongoing investigation.

ROBERT MUELLER: I would say that's generally the summary.

RICHMOND: Would you say that that action - the president tried to hamper the investigation by asking staff to falsify records relevant to your investigation.

MUELLER: Just going to have to refer you to the report, if I could, for review of that episode.

KING: Is that kind of reflective of how this hearing has been going?

LUCAS: That is how a lot of this hearing has been going, yes. But for Democrats, in some instances that actually works for them because they have read from the report and had Mueller affirm that, yes, indeed that is what they found. And for Democrats in some instances, that's what they want. They want him on tape saying, yes, I did find that the president asked his former White House counsel Don McGahn to, you know, approach the special counsel or have the special counsel fired. So some of that works for Democrats.

KING: So far, the biggest news from testimony is Mueller's answer to Chairman Jerry Nadler's first question. Let's hear the question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUELLER: Well, the finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.

JERRY NADLER: In fact, you were talking about incidents, quote, "in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels," unquote, to exert undue influence over your investigations. Is that right?

MUELLER: That's correct.

KING: Why is that important, Ryan?

LUCAS: Well, remember, the president and his allies have pushed the line that Mueller's report concluded that there was no collusion, no obstruction. The report, however, doesn't say that, and Mueller made that clear today. He's saying that, essentially, the evidence was not sufficient to establish a conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign, but it did document a lot of contacts. And on the question of obstruction, his office did not make a decision on charges because DOJ guidelines prohibit indicting a sitting president.

KING: All right. Former federal prosecutor Shan Wu is on the line as well. He briefly represented Rick Gates, who's an associate of President Trump's. Mr. Wu, thanks for being with us. Let me ask you, what are your main takeaways here?

SHAN WU: My main takeaways are that I think the Democrats are doing a good job. They've had to shift, I think, a little bit. They may have been hoping to elicit longer answers by Mueller to get more of him talking about or reiterating the report. They've had to shift from that to doing more of the reading into the record the report themselves, getting him to agree. But I think that is accomplishing their goal.

Crucially, they have stayed away from any grandstanding or making very accusatory assertions about the president and trying to get him to agree that that's what you won't do. You'll see that the Republicans are running into a problem because that is what they are trying to do. And he quite predictably is stiff-arming them and then staying away from that.

KING: This hearing is focused on obstruction. And there are 10 potential examples of that in the report. But Democrats have been focusing a lot on one, which is President Trump trying to get Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to remove Mueller. Why are Democrats hammering that so hard?

WU: I think, one, because of McGahn's position being the lawyer in the White House and, two, it's such a blatant situation of where he was being asked to misrepresent what had actually happened. So that's a very good example to use. And as a good questioner should do, because Mueller seems comfortable with that, I think they continue to focus on that.

I think two other main points that really struck me were that opening question that got the job done from Nadler, which is - it's going to make it really hard for President Trump supporters to keep claiming that the report fully exonerated him, given Mueller's repetition that it did not and also his use of the term that it did not exculpate him. I'm sure the president will continue to do that (laughter). They'll claim exoneration, but it'll make it really hard for supporters to claim that.

And the second thing, on a more lawyerly point - I was very happy to hear this come out - is that it was made crystal clear that the reason that no charging decision was made about obstruction was because of the Justice Department opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel prohibiting that. And unlike all the spin that there was actual factual innocence or there were solid legal defenses, they simply didn't reach that decision because of the DOJ guidance.

KING: Thank you so much, Shan Wu. Ryan Lucas, let me go back to you real quick. Later this afternoon, the House Intelligence Committee will question Mueller. What are we expecting there?

LUCAS: Well, we expect Democrats who lead that committee to focus more on the first volume of the report, which focuses on Russia's actual interference in the election, which is something that Mueller made clear in his opening statement is a really big concern for all Americans.

KING: NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas and Shan Wu, former federal prosecutor. Thank you guys so much.

WU: You're welcome.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.