Robert Mueller testified Wednesday during two Congressional hearings, focusing on Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump and his associates obstructed justice. This came after Mueller’s two-year investigation as Special Counsel concluded and he presented his findings in the nearly 450-page Mueller Report.
Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general under President Barack Obama, wrote the Special Counsel regulations in 1999. Recently, the Supreme Court lawyer and law professor wrote in the New York Times that Mueller could give three simple answers during his testimony that would “speak volumes.” After the testimony concluded on Wednesday afternoon, Katyal spoke with Katie Couric Media about his biggest takeaways from the hearings.
Katie Couric: What was your overall impression of the day?
Neal Katyal: The morning started off a little rickety and meandering, and I think President Trump was celebrating by the end of the first hearing. Mueller seemed not particularly aggressive, not particularly passionate and answered the questions to the extent that they stayed within the four corners of his report. But what looked like a win for the president at the lunch hour curdled really quickly into something very devastating for him.
In the afternoon, Mueller — using the same exact demeanor in the morning (nonpartisan, by the book, and so on) — painted a picture that was really devastating to Trump and the Trump campaign. First, he said that Russia massively interfered in the election. Second, Russia had a preferred candidate, Trump, and that the intervention efforts were to benefit him. Third, the Trump campaign welcomed the assistance. Fourth, the president’s own son celebrated the assistance by saying, “If it is what you say it is, I love it.” Fifth, Trump himself had business dealings with Russia in the form of the Moscow Tower and the like.
If you take those things together — you take what Mueller was saying about the clear and present danger to American democracy because of ongoing Russian interference efforts — then you paint a picture that is devastating for Trump. It’s also worrisome to every American because the heart and soul of the country is its democratic process. If it’s being disrupted, you’d want an administration and a Congress whose first priority is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Instead, as the morning showed, the president tried to shut down an investigation into the very thing that is so threatening to American democracy.
You wrote that most people didn’t read the full Mueller Report. Do you think that its message has now reached people?
It’s too early to say. The afternoon was so powerful, and pretty easy for people to grasp. We’re not talking about three different elements of a federal crime. We’re talking about something pretty simple: the Russian government dumped emails and did all sorts of things to alter Democratic processes in the 2016 election.
What moments stand out to you?
In the morning, I’d point to two things. One is the very opening of the hearing. Chairman Nadler’s opening, which echoed the stuff in the New York Times piece about the president saying no collusion and no obstruction, that the report totally exonerates the president. Asking whether those things were true was powerful right away and sets the tone for the hearing. The second was the interchange with Ted Lieu — not the one that later Mueller returned to in the second hearing, but an earlier part of the interchange which was taking Mueller through page 97 of the second volume of his report. That has to do with Trump’s attempt to try to get Jeffrey Sessions to un-recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. What I thought was so effective was that Lieu said, look, there are three elements to obstruction: there’s the obstructive act, there’s the criminal intent, and there’s the nexus of the criminal proceedings. With respect to each of those, Mueller admitted that those were shown in the report on that very page. So, to me, that was as good as you’re ever going to get from someone like Robert Mueller saying, look, I think a crime was committed here.
In the afternoon, the opening remarks by Schiff and the first line of questions — about Russia interfering and Trump benefiting — really stand out to me. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat or independent or libertarian or Green Party person; that should set your hair on fire because it’s so scary. The idea that we have an administration that does nothing about it — in fact, worse than nothing because they’re actively interfering with an investigation into it — is a flashing red signal that something is seriously wrong right now.
Did Mueller’s reactions surprise you at all?
Mueller’s demeanor and reactions were pretty much what I expected. But the rule book has changed now, and the attorney general said he can reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice. He wasn’t directly asked about that, and I think he should be.
So, what comes next?
Again, that’s too early. But I’ll tell you what I hope is next: Congress does its duty, realizes that federal crimes were committed and things that were maybe short of a crime but which are really damaging to America’s national security and Democracy happened. I hope there is a full investigation. This white house asserts so many different privileges and blocks so many different subpoenas; if you have to call it impeachment then so be it. We the american people have to get the fundamental truth of what happened.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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