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Mueller testimony: Adam Schiff makes the case for the Russia probe

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Former special counsel Robert Mueller made one thing clear in his marathon testimony before Congress on Wednesday: Russia interfered in the US election, and the threat to American democracy remains in 2020.

“They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said at one point during his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, “and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

Mueller’s underlying warning — that more needs to be done to prevent Russia, and other hostile foreign powers from trying to influence US elections — frequently got lost in the politics of the hearing, as Democrats sought to incriminate President Donald Trump and Republicans sought to discredit the entire Russia investigation.


Former special counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on July 24, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

But Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, ended the second of two hearings with a clear, precise exchange with Mueller.

It got to the core of why Russia’s efforts, combined with the Trump campaign’s well-documented links to Russians during the 2016 election, warranted investigation. Even if, as Mueller concluded, the probe did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Schiff, in his closing questions to Mueller, asked if “knowingly accepting assistance from a foreign government,” to which Mueller responded “a crime.”

Schiff continued, adding that if knowingly accepting assistance from a “foreign government during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do.”

“And a crime in certain circumstances,” Mueller responded.

Schiff continued: “To the degree that it undermines our democracy and our institutions, we can agree that it’s also unpatriotic.”

“True,” Mueller replied, in a rare instance of directly answering a question outside the confines of the report.

Shortly after, Schiff questioned whether public officials acting unethically “also exposes them to compromise particularly in dealing with foreigners.”

“Is that true?” Schiff asked.

“True,” Mueller responded again. The exchange continues as follows:

Schiff: That foreign partner can expose their wrongdoing and extort them.

Mueller: True.

Schiff: That conduct can be of a financial nature if you have a financial motive or illicit business dealing, am I right?

Mueller: Yes.

Schiff: It could also just involve deception. If you are lying about something that can be exposed, then you can be blackmailed.

Mueller: Also true.

It took all day to get to this point, but Schiff, in that brief interaction, helped cut to the center of why the Russia investigation was so critical — and why America needs to pay attention to the results.

It also came through, in Mueller’s more direct responses, that he, too, sees Russia’s attempts to subvert American democracy — and not necessarily Trump’s actions — as the most essential conclusions of his 448-page report.

“We cannot control what the Russians do, not completely,” Schiff said in his closing statement. “But we can decide what we do and that this centuries old experiment we call American democracy is worth cherishing.”

Read the full exchange below.


Schiff

Director Mueller, I want to close out my questions, turn to some of the exchange you had with Mr. [Peter] Welsh [D-VT] a bit earlier. I want to see if we can broaden the aperture at the end of your hearing.

From your testimony today, I’d gather that knowingly accepting assistance from a foreign government during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do.

Mueller

And a crime in certain circumstances.

Schiff

To the degree that it undermines our democracy and our institutions, we can agree that it’s also unpatriotic.

Mueller

True.

Schiff

And wrong.

Schiff

The behavior of a candidate shouldn’t be merely whether something is criminal. It should be held to a higher standard, you would agree?

Mueller

I’m not going to answer that because it goes to the standards applied by other institutions besides ours.

Schiff

I’m [not] just referring to ethical standards. We should hold our elected officials to a higher standards than mere evidence of criminality.

Mueller

Absolutely.

Schiff

You’ve held yourself to a standard of doing what’s right.

Mueller

I would hope.

Schiff

[You] have. I think we can all see that. Befitting the times, I’m sure your reward will be unending criticism, but we are grateful. The need to act in ethical manner is not just a moral one, but when people act unethically it also exposes them to compromise particularly in dealing with foreigners, is that true?

Mueller

True.

Schiff

That foreign partner can expose their wrongdoing and extort them.

Mueller

True.

Schiff

That conduct can be of a financial nature if you have a financial motive or illicit business dealing, am I right?

Mueller

Yes.

Schiff

It could also just involve deception. If you are lying about something that can be exposed, then you can be blackmailed.

Mueller

Also true.

Schiff

In the case of Michael Flynn, he was secretly doing business with Turkey, correct?

Mueller

Yes.

Schiff

That could open him up to compromise that financial relationship.

Mueller

I presume.

Schiff

He also lied about his discussions with the Russian ambassador and since the Russians were on the other side of the conversation, they could have exposed that, could they not?

Mueller

Yes.

Schiff

If a presidential candidate was doing business in Russia and saying he wasn’t, Russians could expose that too, could they not?

Mueller

I leave that to you.

Schiff

Let’s look at Dmitry Peskov. Your report indicates that Michael Cohen had a long conversation on the phone with someone from Dmitry Peskov’s officer. They could have tape recorded that, could they not?

Mueller

Yes.

Schiff

That’s the stuff of counterintelligence nightmares, is it not?

Mueller

It has to do with the need for a strong counterintelligence entity.

Schiff

It does indeed. And when this was revealed that there were these communications notwithstanding president’s denials, the president was confronted about this and he said two things. First of all, that’s not a crime. But I think you and I have already agreed that shouldn’t be the standard, right, Mr. Mueller?

Mueller

True.

Schiff

The second thing you said was why should I miss out on all those opportunities. I mean, why indeed merely running a presidential campaign, why should you miss out on making all that money was the import of his statement. Were you ever able to ascertain whether Donald Trump still intends to build that tower when he leaves office?

Mueller

Is that a question, sir?

Schiff

Yes. Were you able to ascertain, because he wouldn’t answer your questions completely, whether or if he ever ended that desire to build that tower?

Mueller

I’m not going to speculate on that.

Schiff

If the president was concerned that if he lost the election, he didn’t want to lose out on that money. Might he have the same concern about his reelection?

Mueller

Speculation.

Schiff

The difficulty with this, of course, is we are all left to wonder whether the president is representing us or his financial interests. That concludes my questions.

Mr. Nunes, do you have any concluding remarks?

Schiff

Director Mueller, let me close by returning to where I began. Thank you for your service and thank you for leading this investigation. The facts you set out in your report and have elucidated here today tell a disturbing tale of a massive Russian intervention in our election of a campaign so eager to win, so driven by greed, that it was willing to accept the help of a hostile foreign power in a presidential election decided by a handful of votes in a few key states.

Your work tells of a campaign so determined to conceal their corrupt use of foreign help that they risked going to jail by lying to you, to the FBI and to Congress about it and, indeed, some have gone to jail over such lies.

And your work speaks of a president who committed countless acts of obstruction of justice that in my opinion and that of many other prosecutors, had it been anyone else in the country, they would have been indicted. Notwithstanding the many things you have addressed today and in your report, there were some questions you could not answer given the constraints you’re operating under.

You would not tell us whether you would have indicted the president but for the OLC only that you could not. So the Justice Department will have to make that decision when the president leaves office, both as to the crime of obstruction of justice and as to the campaign finance fraud that individual one directed and coordinated and for which Michael Cohen went to jail.

You would not tell us whether the president should be impeached, nor did we ask you since it is our responsibility to determine the proper remedy for the conduct outlined in your report. Whether we decide to impeach the president in the house or we do not, we must take any action necessary to protect the country while he is in office.

You would not tell us the results or whether other bodies looked into Russian compromise in the form of money laundering, so we must do so. You would not tell us whether the counterintelligence investigation revealed whether people still serving within the administration pose a risk of compromise and should never have been given a security clearance, so we must find out.

We did not bother to ask whether financial inducements from any gulf nations were influencing this US. Policy since it is outside the four corners of your report, and so we must find out. But one thing is clear from your report, your testimony from director Wray’s statements yesterday. The Russians massively intervened in 2016 and they are prepared to do so again in voting that is set to begin a mere eighth months from now.

The president seems to become the help again and so we must make all efforts to harden our elections infrastructure, to ensure there is a paper trail for all voting, to deter the Russians from meddling, to discover it when they do, to disrupt it and to make them pay. Protecting the sanctity of our elections begins with the recognition that accepting foreign help is disloyal to our country, unethical and wrong.

We cannot control what the Russians do, not completely, but we can decide what we do and that this searches old experiment we call American democracy is worth cherishing.

Director Mueller, thank you again for being here today.



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