I’ll Be Watching Mueller’s Congressional Testimony…I Hope You Will Be Too

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This Wednesday, July 24, beginning at 8:30 am ET, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will testify—reluctantly—before two committees of the House of Representatives. I believe it is extremely important that as many people as possible watch his testimony and listen to his responses to questions.

I am deeply saddened for our country that The Mueller Report, its findings, and the man himself have become such partisan issues. According to every reputable intelligence source we have, it is indisputable that the Russians interfered with our 2016 elections.

This is cyberwarfare–and more–and it is as serious an attack as any that could have occurred. Its intentions were to disrupt our democracy and make us distrust our government and its institutions. I believe the Russians were successful beyond Vladimir Putin’s wildest dreams.

An easily digestible exploration of The Mueller Report is available in a multi-issue podcast from Lawfare, a national security blog produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution.

Lawfare calls The Mueller Report “one of the most important and consequential documents of our time,” but adds: “most people aren’t reading it.” That’s why they’ve put together the podcast, which they hope will be widely shared.

I have just listened to the first episode, “Active Measures,” and it is a fascinating examination of the report, with added interviews and just a sufficient amount of drama to hold the listener’s interest. I strongly recommend it to you all.

I will not spend much time now mentioning my dismay that Republican officials—elected and unelected—and the Republican party, which has long been deeply concerned about national security, have sought to distort the findings, malign Mueller—a lifelong Republican with an impeccable career of service—and repeat President Trump’s oft-stated meme that this is “fake news” and there was no collusion, no obstruction of justice.

The fact that Attorney General Bill Barr misrepresented the findings at the outset, thereby planting seeds of doubt in the minds of many, is another huge disappointment. But at least we will finally hear what Mueller himself has concluded—in his own words.

My intention had been to read every one of the 448 pages of The Mueller Report. However, like most Americans and—more importantly and regrettably—most members of Congress, I didn’t get around to it.

But my husband did—every page, every reference—and though he’s not an attorney, he’s a careful reader and a thoughtful and skeptical individual. So I am grateful to him for providing me with his findings and insights.

I hope you’ll find the information that follows a helpful “primer” for viewing Mueller’s testimony. And if you don’t watch or listen, I hope you’ll think very carefully about the implications of the findings for our democracy.

VOLUME 1: THE RUSSIAN ATTACK.

The primary question: Were there willing accomplices, and if so, is that provable?

What follows is background information to give context to those of you who may not have followed these developments as closely as we have.

The “Internet Research Agency”

The Russian attempts to “mess with” our democracy began with the work of the Russian-based “Internet Research Agency” (IRA) in 2014.

At that point, the intent was to gain a toehold in the US, learn about what Americans were thinking and where our divisions lay, and begin gaining online followers through social media–specifically Facebook and Twitter, with seemingly innocuous efforts appealing to cat lovers and the like.

In 2015, even before Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy, the efforts began to discredit her with phony stories, including with regard to her role as Secretary of State, delivered through bots whose origins, unknown to observers, were in Russia.

It wasn’t until 2016, when Donald Trump declared his candidacy and demonstrated strong sympathy for Russia, that the IRA’s campaign focused its considerable Internet presence of fake sites on building him up and continuing to tear Clinton down.

Based on their reconnaissance, the IRA sought to sow dissension in the US by, for example, creating fake pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim groups and staging competing rallies, in the hope of fomenting violence.

(And as we are clearly seeing today, they had rich raw material to work with: they didn’t have to create dissensions–they simply had to exacerbate already existing ones.)

When Facebook began taking down the fake sites in 2017, they had reached hundreds of millions of people and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers.

Triggers for the 2017 FBI Investigation

A series of events and media reports led to the FBI’s 2017 investigation of the Republican Party’s presidential campaign because they generated speculation about a possible conspiracy to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to become President of the United States. They included:

*US, European Union, and Canadian sanctions against Russia for its military annexation of Crimea and an attempt to move eastern Ukraine closer to the Russian Federation.

*Multiple contacts with Russia by individuals close to then-candidate Trump.

*The deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia.

*Putin’s animus toward former Secretary of State Clinton, including his belief that she sought to undermine the Russian regime.

*Trump’s past financial history [which he often denied] with Russian financial people to maintain credit for the Trump Organization (theory: that this would make him vulnerable to blackmail)

*Wikileaks’ pseudo-journalistic public exposure of the Democratic National Committee’s internal communications.

*The FBI’s receipt of information of Russian involvement in US politics sufficiently serious to generate a counter-intelligence investigation into what role—if any—the Trump campaign played with Russia’s interference into the 2016 election.

Then, after the election, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation due to his own contacts with members of the Russian government.

President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, expressing anger that Comey refused to publicly say that Trump was not a subject of the investigation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, an outside party who would carry on the investigation.

After the 2-1/2 year investigation, Mueller reported he could not find a conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.

He noted, however, that people lied or claimed executive privilege to avoid questioning, making it difficult to get all the relevant facts.

Our questions: If Trump, et al, had nothing to hide (‘no collusion!”), why did they feel the need to lie repeatedly, attempt to interfere with the Special Counsel, and refuse to cooperate (while claiming that they were cooperating)?

And why are they still trying to prevent Congress from performing its Constitutionally guaranteed oversight function?

A major stumbling block was the refusal of the President to sit down for a face-to-face deposition with the Special Counsel. The President was allowed a “take-home exam,” making a comprehensive testimony with follow-up questions impossible.

As noted above, it now seems evident that by 2016, Putin thought that Trump could be nominated for US President. Putin saw Trump as sympathetic to Russia’s interests and able to blunt US interference with Russia’s plans for Eastern Europe. (Why Trump was, and continues to be, so sympathetic has been the subject of much speculation.)

In contrast, Putin viewed Clinton as a major disrupter who probably wouldn’t accede to Russia’s desire to have the US lift sanctions levied because of Crimea. The Russians began their campaign of disruption by hacking into the DNC computers and establishing a vast presence of Internet trolls planting phony stories about Clinton and the Democrats.

It may be that certain persons who were investigated for possible unlawful Russian contact were, in fact, either willing or unwitting conduits of Russian messaging (eg, Flynn, Stone, Manafort, Papadapoulos, Assange), but this information has not been proven.

It does seem that most of the activity and efforts to communicate flowed from Russia to the US.

It is difficult to say how successful Russia was in tipping the election in Trump’s favor. Polls were within the margin of error for Clinton. Without Russian involvement, Trump may have lost any advantage he received from Comey’s last-minute reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails (an investigation that was again closed before the election, but in the words of Trump’s campaign aide Kellyanne Conway, “The damage is done.”)

Mueller’s reference to the difficulty in nailing down  information due to lying and claims of executive privilege is significant.

There were also unanswered avenues for inquiry, such as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s meeting with Russian ambassador Kislyak and Sergei Gorkov (VEB Bank, a major Russian-owned bank). Were these diplomatic or business—or diplomatic for business?

VOLUME TWO: INTERFERENCE WITH RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Mueller did, indeed, specify areas involving the President that could be within the legal framework of “obstructive act,” ”nexus [connection] to a pending or contemplated official proceeding,” and “intent.”

If the House of Representatives decides to open an impeachment inquiry, some or all of the following will probably become the basis for that action.

*Pressuring FBI Director Comey to end the probe of Michael Flynn.

*Firing Comey, deemed obstruction because Trump understood that the continuing investigation would give rise to personal and political concerns, ie, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen pursuing the Trump Tower deal until June 16, 2016, after Trump had stated that he’d had no business with Russia after he’d been sworn in.

*Attempting to fire Special Counsel Mueller for alleged conflicts. Trump asked White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller through Rosenstein. McGahn, fearing a Saturday night massacre akin to Watergate, refused.

*Seeking to curtail the Special Counsel investigation. The President asked Corey Lewandowski to call upon Jeff Sessions to end the investigation to prevent scrutiny of the president. Lewandowski didn’t do it.

*Seeking to keep emails about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting from the public. (Since he didn’t attempt to keep the emails from the Special Counsel, this point didn’t fit all the criteria for obstruction)

*Asking Sessions repeatedly to “unrecuse” himself so that he could shield the President from the investigation.

*Ordering McGahn to deny that the President tried to fire the Special Counsel. McGahn refused.

*Acting toward Manafort in a manner suggesting he was dangling a pardon to keep Manafort from cooperating with the Special Counsel.

*Reacting to Michael Cohen in a way that would discourage Cohen from cooperating with the government.

*Expressing skepticism publicly about Russian involvement with the emails while he and his staff were actually trying to get more information about Wikileaks’ releases.

MUELLER’S CONCLUSION:

(The Special Counsel was operating under “longstanding” Department of Justice [DOJ] policy that prevents charging a sitting President with a federal crime.)

“BECAUSE WE DETERMINED NOT TO MAKE A TRADITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL JUDGMENT, WE DID NOT DRAW ULTIMATE CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S CONDUCT. THE EVIDENCE WE OBTAINED ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S ACTIONS AND INTENT PRESENTS DIFFICULT ISSUES THAT WOULD NEED TO BE RESOLVED IF WE WERE MAKING A TRADITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL JUDGMENT.

AT THE SAME TIME, IF WE HAD CONFIDENCE AFTER A THOROUGH INVESTIGATION OF THE FACTS THAT THE PRESIDENT CLEARLY DID NOT COMMIT OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE, WE WOULD SO STATE.

BASED ON THE FACTS AND THE APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS, WE ARE UNABLE TO REACH THAT JUDGMENT. ACCORDINGLY, WHILE THIS REPORT DOES NOT CONCLUDE THAT THE PRESIDENT COMMITTED A CRIME, IT ALSO DOES NOT EXONERATE HIM.”

On May 6, 2019, more than 400 former federal prosecutors who had served under both Democratic and Republican administrations [updated: now more than 1000] made a public statement saying the following:

“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony changes for obstruction of justice. “

You can read the entire statement here.

A few additional thoughts:

The President was saved from putting himself into even greater jeopardy by aides (McGahn, Lewandowski, and probably Hope Hicks) who advised him against certain actions and/or did not follow through on his requests that they implement illegal acts.

We think—as do others—that separating the two parts of the report weakened the Special Counsel’s effort. The items of obstruction were proof to us that the President felt that the investigation could lead to something so damaging that it was worth the effort to interfere and discredit and/or fire Mueller.

These actions strongly suggest that he either knew or at least recognized that Putin was doing plenty to tilt the election in his favor.

As far as we know, the impetus for the Russian contacts came from Russian sources. However, by soft-pedaling Russia’s activities—most recently laughing with Putin about the findings at their last meeting—he certainly seems complicit in Russia’s efforts.

At best, he appears to be responsible for serious dereliction of duty in denying the implications of Russia’s cyberattack, refusing to denounce Putin, and failing to marshal all efforts to prevent a repeat in 2020.

One final, related note:

Richard Clarke, a White House counterterrorism advisor to four presidents, who tried to warn the Bush administration about the imminence of an attack just before 9/11, has written a new book about cyber threats. He points out that there are more than 4000 counties in the US running their own elections. They need help. But, he said in an NPR interview:

:...Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican majority leader, is standing in the way of a bill that has passed the House to give hundreds of millions of dollars’ assistance to the counties and to the states so that we can improve their cybersecurity. Right now, it’s impossible to have all of these counties and all these state governments even know when they’re under attack. Many of them say they’ve never been attacked. Well, they have no capability of knowing.” 

Why is McConnell refusing to allow this bill to come to a vote in the Senate?

The public and the media must press McConnell to give us an answer.

Where are the patriots? Who is protecting us from foreign cyberattacks and other interventions in our elections? How will we know if the results of the 2020 election are valid? And what would the lack of certainty mean for our democracy?

Annie

21 thoughts on “I’ll Be Watching Mueller’s Congressional Testimony…I Hope You Will Be Too

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you. Unfortunately our politics has become evangelized. Both sides seem to think their take on facts is “inerrant”, to use fundamentalist terminology. Once that happens dialogue becomes impossible. You are either a “believer” or a “heretic.”

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    1. Michael, I’m not sure if I welcomed you to annieasksyou, but consider this my formal hello! I’m so pleased that you’re participating in the dialogue and hope you’ll feel inclined to do so often.

      I continue to be hopeful. So many new members of Congress really seem to feel they’re there to do the people’s business. We need leadership that can somehow speak to the issues that most Americans care about. And we have to ensure that when bipartisan legislation reaches the Senate, it will receive a fair vote. Heavy lifting, to be sure, but we can’t continue on our current path.

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  2. I will absolutely be watching every minute of Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday, and I hope many other American voters will do the same. I actually did read all of the Report, and I think it’s pretty damning to the Trump and his disciples. True, it doesn’t support “collusion” with the Russians in the sense of a planned conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign for Russia to interfere with the 2016 election, but it makes clear that Russia did interfere, with the purpose of helping Trump, and that Trump and his people gladly accepted the aid. The second part, which I hope will be the big problem that ends his Presidency, makes it very clear that there was obstruction of justice, on the part of several people working for Trump, all the way to the top, with Trump himself. Reading the Report left me with no doubt that Trump deserves impeachment and removal from office. That’s all even before his most recent appeals to the racist ideas that his adoring fans at his rallies seem to love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, hooray for you for reading the entire report! I am hoping that Mueller’s testimony is sufficiently convincing that the majority of the public is persuaded that it is time for the House to open an impeachment inquiry—and that inquiry yields such compelling evidence that recalcitrant Senators can no longer turn a blind eye to this President’s continual affronts to the office he holds—and to our democracy.

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  3. Thanks Annie! This is a great summary. I listened to the podcast which was very informative. We will definitely be watching Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday and I don’t think my guests will mind watching it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great, Fran! So glad you listened to the podcast too—would love to talk it up so more people know about.

      If your guests are as bright and well-informed as you are, I assume they’ll want to watch it too!

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  4. Your first point is the most important. Russian meddling/interference/influence is a real problem and should be the focus of all of this. Sadly, this is not the reason Mueller and his report keep getting attention. If anyone thinks the House leadership has any agenda here other than “Get Trump” they are sadly mistaken.

    I will confess that I will not be reading the report. The right says it found no problems while the honest left says “maybe, maybe not” is as strong as it gets. The report being in the nature of a prosecutorial document, it has failed to meet its burden of proof.

    It is clear that the Russians saw pushing Trump as destabilizing to America. They turned out to be right, it would seem. But then most on the left side of things (including the popular press) were pushing Trump all through the primary process as well, as often as not because of a widely held belief that Hillary Clinton would win against him in a blowout.

    I would suggest that an alternative explanation for Trump’s actions (which Mueller’s team characterized as potential or attempted obstruction) was his characteristically wild and undisciplined reaction to what he rightly perceived as an attempted takedown job after winning the election. Look at the wildly disparate ways in which the FBI handled serious allegations about both candidates. There was never a serious attempt to “take down” Hillary Clinton despite some evidence of a massive pay-to-play scandal during her time as Secretary of State and her destruction of the contents of the famous illegal server. But Trump, on the other hand, warranted covert counter-intelligence operations (which some don’t like calling “spying”) and the classic tactic of trapping underlings in inconsequential lies so as to encourage them to roll over and cooperate.

    I was a decided non-fan of Trump at the time of his election. But he has done one thing masterfully well – he has generated such a pathological hatred from many of his political opponents that they have invested almost all of their efforts of the past two and a half years in a massive “Get Trump” campaign, which has thus far failed to yield real evidence of wrongdoing. Maybe these hearings will get them across the finish line, but I doubt it.

    My prediction is that in twenty years we will look back at the lessons of abuse of power coming from James Comey and a politicized FBI. And how the Clinton Campaign’s dirty trick of leaking a manufactured “Russian dossier” got traction beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In addition to keeping a special prosecutor busy for half of the current administration, it may continue to have residual effects on the next election as well.

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    1. I think there is a subtext to the Mueller testimony that is missing. We have a less and less literate society, and by that I don’t mean the ability to read but rather the ability to think deeply. As a result Barr succeeded in shaping the Mueller reports’ findings with his press conference in a way that favored Trump. It is the narrative that Republicans reiterated repeatedly and Barr succeeded in keeping the nuts and bolts of the report out of the public long enough for his interpretation to solidify among Trumpees and others. The democrats, I think, want Mueller on TV to try to create a different narrative for the voters who will not think past a 10 second sound bite on the report. Unfortunately the tribalism, hypocrisy, and lack of thinking on both sides and among the citizenry is such that I don’t see anything changing. Both sides will see the testimony through their predetermined bias lenses.

      JP blasts Comey and the FBI but when Comey came out weeks before the election to suggest they were investigating Clinton ( a likely violation of FBI guidelines) Republicans lauded him while democrats cried foul. When Trump fired Comey and Comey became a critic democrats christened him a hero and Republicans labeled him as the anti-Christ. There are too many examples of this hypocrisy to enumerate and it is not confined to those in public office. The rank and file voter parrots these platitudes without a further thought and when confronted with contradictory facts or examples of their hypocrisy that parrot Trump’s “fake news” or they simply deny the facts.

      As for the future I disagree with JP that it will somehow focus on Comey and the FBI. George Will wrote a recent column in which he noted that the damage Trump has done to civic discourse as well as to American institutions is a bell that “can’t be unrung.” I think that is true and we are about to see a more blatant “Southern Strategy” by Trump which will have equally damaging effects. While Nixon used it with “law and order” and other possible subtle dog whistles, Trump will be more blatant about it and will appeal directly to the prejudices and biases of his base (while periodically denying he is doing so). He has peeled off the veneer and we get to see our fellow citizens for who they really are, with all their fears and biases.

      And JP is right. Russian interference was real and will continue and must be addressed but there is no excuse for Trump’s denial of the interference or his blocking of efforts to address it. It is amusing to me that Trump’s defenders suggest he has the right to be upset with how the media has negatively portrayed his legitimacy but at the same time they complain that the media has no right to complain about how Trump has negatively portrayed the media and called them the “enemy of the people.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Down in this thoughtful commentary—except I give the Democrats more credit for wanting to save our democracy—though I hope the’ll keep their grandstanding to a minimum.

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      2. I hope you are right. But all who object to Trump, democrats included, face a dilemma in responding. As Nietzsche wrote “when you wrestle with a monster, be careful you don’t become one.” That’s the dilemma. Whether to go low or high is difficult as Trump’s pathology makes it hard to stay on the high road and, unfortunately, the American public seems to prefer spectacle over substance. How to balance this is the problem for democrats, along with espousing policies that will attract voters.

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    2. Alas, my friend: with the exception of our agreement on the role of the Russians, you and I couldn’t be further apart on this one.

      To me, the story actually begins when Obama told McConnell about the Russians’ activities in anticipation of alerting the public, and McConnell warned him that if he did that, McConnell would accuse him of politicizing the electoral process. Unfortunately, Obama backed down. McConnell’s actions then were all of a piece with his now refusing to allow a vote on a House-passed bill to aid counties and states in protecting the voting process. Counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, whom I quote in this post, said he believes McConnell feels Russian interference is necessary to ensure a Republican win.

      I see James Comey as a basically honest but egotistical man who thought he was above it all—quite the opposite of Mueller, stickler for details and tradition. I don’t see how you can say the report hasn’t met the prosecutorial burden when you haven’t read it, while 400-plus former prosecutors say that if it weren’t for the tradition not to indict a sitting president, the evidence is clearly there.

      As to the difference in FBI treatment: Comey publicly announced the reopening of investigation into Hillary when there was no there there; no one knew about the investigation into Trump until after the election. If you think the FBI favored one candidate, I think you’re pointing at the wrong one.

      Re: what you call the manufactured Russian dossier, that was brought to the FBI’s attention by John McCain, who knew of Christopher Steele’s prior, highly respected work. A great deal of it—except for the most salacious part—has been proven true.

      Trump’s behavior has been outrageous and corrupt for years—anyone who did business with him knew that. He is destroying all the norms and replacing them with bigotry, cruelty, and gross incompetence. So many conservatives have left the party because of his actions. He acts solely in his own interest, and the only people who escape being sullied by him (such as Don McGahn) simply refused to lie for him.

      I just hope we can try to restitch the tattered shreds of our democracy once he’s gone—and he doesn’t try to foment violence if/ when he’s removed from office or defeated.

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  5. Good for you, Annie. Nice summary and I’ll be turning to the podcast next. Scary times. Sad times. Manipulative times. It’s enough to make one want to scurry into the far north of Canada and hope for the best. Instead, I’ll be working for my pick among the Dems, once the dust settles. My list of issues shuffles around in order, but here they are: cybersecurity, the environment, women’s bodily rights, the drift of Supreme Court, overturning Citizens United, immigration reform . . . To think the old days could be sifted into “single issue voters” — hah! Thanks, as usual, for your clear, cogent information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Denise.

      I certainly understand your shuffling list of priorities; I’m always hard-pressed to answer when asked what my top priority is.

      Let’s hope we get some leadership that will inspire us and build consensus around these important issues.

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    1. Hi, Janine—

      So good to hear from you! Yes—lots to worry about, but some very interesting developments emerged during the afternoon (Judiciary Committee) session. One can only hope.

      We always think of Canada as being our gentle, good neighbor to the north. Troubling to think of your country’s going through more than ordinary political problems as well.

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    1. Thanks so much, Joni. I have a story I think you’ll find amusing. A few days before the 2016 election, we attended a lecture given by Calvin Trillin, a funny and thoughtful journalist/author. He opened by saying, “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m not more anxious about the election. It’s because I already have a house in Canada.” At that point, a man in the audience called out: “How many rooms?”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s funny! I forgot to mention that I did watch some of Mueller’s testimony at night, and my 93yr old mother watched all of it during the day and found it quite interesting, as she always liked politics. She’s very well informed.

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