How lawmakers can use Robert Mueller's testimony to expose the biggest scandal in the Russia investigation

How lawmakers can use Robert Mueller's testimony to expose the biggest scandal in the Russia investigation
Image via Screengrab.
News & Politics

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller is scheduled to appear before Congress on July 17 to testify about his findings during the Russia investigation — but it remains an open question whether the hearing will be a bombshell or a damp squib.

One reason to think it could be a bombshell is that Mueller's name recognition and national clout will draw millions of eyes, and he will discuss the report on the findings of the Russia investigation that contains many damning conclusions about President Donald Trump and his campaign. When Mueller announced the conclusion of his role as special counsel, the report had already been published for weeks, but his public comments still made a major splash as it refocused attention to the momentous results of the investigation.

But some of the same reasons to think there could be fireworks onl July 17 actually suggest that the testimony might backfire for Democrats hoping the testimony will damage the president's standing. With Mueller comes huge expectations, so anything less than explosive revelations could be a letdown. And Mueller has said that his report is his testimony, and he's clearly reluctant to speak publicly, so his performance before the American people may land with a thud.

So Democrats and any other lawmakers hoping to drive home the importance of Mueller's findings and their damning implications about Trump need to be strategic, leveraging facts that are already public and getting the former special counsel to string them together into a coherent, impactful story about presidential criminality.

Here's how I would do it.

First, abandon any hope that Mueller will provide some new, game-changing insight. I actually think it's more likely than some do that he'll provide new information and revelations, potentially about his back-and-forths with Attorney General Bill Barr, that will actually be novel and important. But he's not going break down and admit he would have loved to prosecute Trump if only he had been allowed to, and he's not going to unveil some new damning ties between Trump and Russia or any previously unforeseen evidence that establishes the president's guilt. When it comes to the key facts in play, we can assume that they're all there in the Mueller report.

Second, I would avoid any technicalities. When Lawfare's Ben Wittes wrote a piece about what he would ask Mueller, he zeroed in on the report's distinctions between not "establishing" certain facts, not finding certain evidence, and not reaching certain judgments. While all this is interesting and important, it won't play well on air, and the vast majority of viewers watching a five-minute clip on TV or Twitter will likely be unable to follow the subtleties and why they matter.

Third, I would focus on the strongest ties between the Trump campaign and Russia — and how it relates to the president's apparently criminal actions. Here's what I mean.

In the Mueller report, readers are taken through dozens of contacts between Russian officials and individuals and members of the president's circle. Some of these are apparently innocuous, but the most damning of the ties, in my judgment, are top Trump campaign officials Rick Gates and Paul Manafort's interactions with Russian political operative (and likely Kremlin intelligence agent) Konstantin Kilimnik.

Mueller explained:

Manafort instructed Rick Gates, his deputy on the Campaign and a longtime employee, to provide Kilimnik with updates on the Trump Campaign — including internal polling data, although Manafort claims not to recall that specific instruction. Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others in Ukraine and with Deripaska. Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign.

"Deripaska" refers to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, which was overseeing hacking and social media astroturfing operations designed to help Trump get elected in 2016. At one point, Manafort, Gates, and Kilimnik met clandestinely at an exclusive club in Manhattan, where they entered and left through separate doors to avoid detection.

"They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states," Mueller wrote — referring to states that were key to Trump's victory.

These interactions look all very suspicious on their own, and having Mueller simply confirm that they all happened — even with a simple "yes" in response to these facts being recited — would be revelatory for many Americans who haven't read the report.

But it gets even worse.

The report explained the Mueller "could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period."

So the reasons for these interactions remains unknown, a fact which thoroughly refutes the idea that Mueller disproved that the Trump campaign and Russia were "colluding." Indeed, these details paint a stunning picture of what collusion might have looked like, even if though Mueller wasn't able to "establish" that it occurred.

Of course, Manafort is in prison, and Gates has pleaded guilty, so this might still seem like old news. That's why it's important to tie directly to Trump.

To do this, we only need to turn to Volume II of the Mueller report. In that volume, Mueller lays out extensive evidence that Trump tried to criminally obstruct the Russia investigation. One of the many incidents analyzed is Trump's comments about Manafort's cooperation with investigators. While Manafort eventually agreed to cooperate with Mueller and provide honest testimony in the investigation, the special counsel later determined — and a judge agreed — that Manafort breached this agreement by continuing to lie to the investigators (Manafort lied, Mueller found, about his interactions with Kilimnik).

This appears to be exactly what Trump wanted.

"Evidence concerning the President’s conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government," the Mueller report concluded.

In so doing, Trump fulfilled all three critical elements of the crime of obstruction of justice, Mueller found. This would be bad enough on its own, but given what I have explained above, it also suggests that Trump broke the law in order to cover up information about the most suspicious and troubling ties between campaign officials and the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election.

This should, without question, be impeachable conduct. And it's all right there in the Mueller report — which the special counsel has said is his testimony. All that lawmakers need to do to bring that to this to light is to list the facts in the right order and get Mueller to agree that what he wrote is true.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by