Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart sat patiently as colleague after colleague pressed former special counsel Robert Mueller to open up about his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the actions of President Donald Trump’s team.
Mueller, a former FBI director, didn’t give much up, offering yes and no answers that largely didn’t stray from his public report on his findings.
When Stewart got his chance to quiz Mueller, the Utah Republican laid into what he said was a problematic probe that ensnared innocent people and leaked information to the news media to malign them.
“I have to be honest with you, for going on three years [now] innocent people have been accused of very serious crimes including treason, accusations made even here today,” Stewart said at Mueller's second round of congressional testimony. “They have had their lives disrupted and in some cases destroyed by false accusations for which there is absolutely no basis other than some people desperately wish that it was so.”
Mueller spent 22 months investigating Russia’s efforts to undermine the U.S. election and indicted 34 people and three Russian companies. Seven people have been found guilty or entered plea agreements in the probe so far, including Trump’s former campaign manager, national security adviser and his personal lawyer.
Stewart focused on Trump and his family, including Donald Trump Jr. who met with a Russian lawyer who had been offering “dirt” on Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“Your report is very clear: no evidence of conspiracy; no evidence of coordination,” Stewart said. “And I believe we owe it to these people who have been falsely accused, including the president and his family, to make that very clear.”
Mueller didn’t respond to Stewart’s assertion that the prosecutor didn’t find any evidence of a conspiracy or coordination — Mueller was clear to state earlier that his report does not exonerate the president of any wrongdoing — but the former special counsel said that it was important to do the investigation as quickly and thoroughly as possible to make sure people not charged with crimes know it’s over.
During a lengthy investigation, Mueller said, “Some persons will be under a cloud that should not be under a cloud.”
Stewart, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee and has been a staunch Trump defender during the Russia probe, also held up a binder he said contained 25 leaks from the special counsel’s office to reporters during the investigation. He didn’t offer proof that the leaks came from the office.
“All of them have one thing in common: They were designed to weaken or to embarrass the president. Every single one,” Stewart said. “Never was it leaked [that] you’d found no evidence of collusion. Never was it leaked that the Steele dossier was a complete fantasy nor that it was funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign. I could go on and on.”
The Utah congressman was referencing an unverified research report commissioned by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign that Republicans have charged was actually collusion with Russia by Democrats. The report was handed over to the FBI, but officials have said it did not form the genesis of the bureau’s Russia investigation that was later handed over to the special counsel.
“I do believe that we have done a good job in assuring that no leaks occurred,” Mueller responded.
Mueller’s operation was a tight-lipped machine during the probe with his team of lawyers declining to even say where they ordered lunch from and his spokesman (Utah native Peter Carr) was dubbed “Mr. No Comment” for his consistent response to reporters. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, charged that it was Trump’s other attorneys who were leaking to drip out information ahead of the investigation’s conclusion.
Stewart also pressed Mueller specifically about whether his office gave a heads up to a CNN news crew that happened to be at the home of Trump confidant Roger Stone when his home was raided by FBI agents. CNN said it got no tip but rather took an educated, and successful, guess when the raid might take place.
Mueller faced hours of questioning by House members, ranging from Democrats trying in earnest to get him to expand on his report’s findings and Republicans calling his entire investigation a sham.
Mueller stood firm, though he did note that while he could not indict a sitting president, charges could be brought against a president after leaving office.
The former special counsel also raised concerns that Russia was continuing to meddle in U.S. elections and would do so in the 2020 cycle and, in a rare case at the hearings, noted that he was troubled by Trump's continued praise during the 2016 race of WikiLeaks' efforts to hack into private and campaign email accounts.
“Problematic is an understatement,” Mueller said.
Trump, who tweeted throughout the hearing positive things members of Congress or conservative media figures were saying, later concluded that Wednesday's hearings provided a “very good day” for the Republican Party.
“There was no defense to this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt,” Trump said.
Mueller stated during the hearings, “It is not a witch hunt.”
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who does not sit on the two committees that heard from Mueller on Wednesday, issued a one sentence statement after: “The book was better than the movie.”
Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor at Inside Elections, a political newsletter, tweeted after the hearings that they didn't seem to put a dent into anyone's thinking about the Mueller probe or Trump.
“So the country is pretty much where it was before the Mueller Report was released,” Rothenberg said. “Public opinion has not changed significantly in months. Trump is still unpopular, but his base is holding.”