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Robert Mueller Hearings: 9 Breakout Moments, From ‘Collusion’ Confusion to the ‘New Normal’

The former special counsel is testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday

Washington, D.C., ground to a standstill on Wednesday morning as former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before two congressional committees on Capitol Hill.

By 9:30 a.m. PT on Wednesday, words and phrases related to the hearings made up eight of the nine topics trending nationally on Twitter. Social media users and TV viewers reacted in real time to the biggest moments of the testimony — which was only the first of two.

Below, find some of the biggest moments:

1. Trump Wasn’t Exonerated

The first round of questioning the former special counsel faced came from House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Jerry Nadler, who wanted to know whether his report on the 2016 election totally exonerated Trump on obstruction of justice, as the president has claimed.

“Correct,” Mueller responded. “It is not what the report said.”

2. Trump Could Be Charged With Obstruction After He Leaves Office

“You believe that he committed, you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he leaves office?” Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, asked after Mueller said that Justice Department guidelines prevented him from indicting President Trump of any crime while he was in office.

“Yes,” Mueller replied.

3. “Impeachment” Is Addressed
Throughout his testimony, Mueller referred to guidance from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that said the Justice Department could not indict a sitting president and explained that he and his team followed that guidance when deciding not to make a determination regarding Trump’s guilt on obstruction of justice specifically. (His prosecutors determined that there was not sufficient evidence to indict Trump or any member of his campaign of conspiracy with Russians to interfere with the 2016 election.)
Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar pressed, asking about his statement in May that the OLM opinion says “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
“That process other than the criminal justice system for accusing a president of wrongdoing,” she asked, “is that impeachment?”
He declined to comment, but she asked about previously mentioned “Constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct.”
“What are those Constitutional processes?” she asked.
“I think I heard you mention at least one,” he said.
When she asked if he meant impeachment, he declined to comment again.
4. GOP Presses on FBI Agent Peter Strzok’s Firing
Rep. Kelly Armstrong pressed Mueller on his hiring (and firing) practices by bringing up those who were fired from the special counsel’s team, most notably former FBI agent Peter Strzok.
The former Mueller probe investigator was called before Congress last summer to answer GOP grievances over his conduct at the FBI, specifically several text exchanges he had with FBI lawyer Lisa Page during the 2016 campaign wherein they worried Trump would be elected.
Armstrong said that Strzok testified last summer he was fired because Mueller was worried about “preserving the appearance of independence” in the investigation.
“He was transferred as a result of instances involving texts,” said Mueller.
“Do you agree that your office did not only have an obligation to operate with independence, but to operate with the appearance of independence as well?” asked Armstrong.
“Absolutely. We strove to do that over two years.”

5. “Collusion” vs. “Conspiracy”

Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, got a trending moment early on when he asked about Mueller’s definitions of “collusion” and “conspiracy.”

And Mueller appeared to stumble on whether the two words are synonymous — which Mueller denied until Collins pointed out that his report noted that for regular people “collusion is largely synonymous with conspiracy as that crime is set forth in the general federal conspiracy statute.”

But when Collins asked him Wednesday if they were colloquially equivalent, Mueller said, “No” — prompting an accusation that Mueller was contradicting his own report.

6. Russian Election Interference Was “Not a Hoax”

During the afternoon hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller insisted that Russian interference in the 2016 election was “not a hoax” — as at least one Republican lawmaker had claimed. “Absolutely, it was not a hoax,” he said. “The indictments we returned against the Russians, two different ones were substantial.”

He added, “We have underplayed to a certain extent that aspect of our investigation that has, and would have long-term damage to the United States that we need to move quickly to address.

Responding to another question, Mueller emphasized the scope of Russian’s efforts — and noted that other countries may be making similar attempts at interference. “It wasn’t a single attempt,” he said. “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

7. The Return of WikiLeaks

Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley read a selection of 2016 tweets from then-candidate Donald Trump declaring his love for WikiLeaks, then asked, “Do any of those quotes disturb you?”

Mueller responded, telling Quigley that calling it “problematic” would be “an understatement in terms of whether it displays, in terms of giving some, I don’t know, hope or boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”

8. “Unpatriotic” to Accept Foreign Help

During a back-and-forth with Rep. Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Mueller agreed it’s “unpatriotic” to accept foreign assistance during an election.

“From your testimony today, I gather that you believe knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do,” Schiff said.

“And a crime, given certain circumstances,” Mueller said.

Schiff went on, “And to the degree that it undermines our democracy and our institutions, we can agree that it’s also unpatriotic.”


“And wrong.”

“True,” Mueller said.

9. The “New Normal” in American Politics

In an exchange with Rep. Peter Welch, the Vermont Democrat, Mueller expressed concern that future candidates to elective office might be more willing to accept help from foreign parties — or to fail to report their knowledge of foreign interference in elections.

“I hope this is not the new normal,” he said, “but I fear it is.”