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Key Takeaways From Mueller’s Congressional Testimonies

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  • Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress about the findings of his two-year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential efforts by President Donald Trump to obstruct that investigation.
  • Mueller largely stuck to the language of his report, as he had promised he would do earlier if asked to testify.
  • Here are several key takeaways from Mueller’s testimonies.

Mueller Testifies Before Congress

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller gave his highly anticipated testimonies before two House committees Wednesday, speaking for nearly seven hours.

Mueller’s first testimony was before the Judiciary Committee, where the questions mostly focused obstruction of justice and the whether or not a sitting president can be indicted.

His second testimony was before the Intelligence Committee, where questions focused more on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The former special counsel, for his part, kept his responses short and fairly limited. He gave many yes or no answers, often referring the questioner back to the report, or saying he was not able to talk about the matter legally.

According to CNN, Mueller declined to answer a question or deferred a total of 206 times throughout both hearings.

Following the initial release of the report, Mueller had said before that he did not want to testify before Congress and if he did, he would stick to the report.

His ability to give answers was also further complicated by the Justice Department, which told him he could not answer a wide range of questions. 

Most notably, the Department informed Mueller that he was not allowed to answer questions about people who have not been charged with illegal activities, which made it complicated o talk about Trump and his family.

Now that we have Mueller’s testimonies regarding the findings of his investigation, let’s look at some of the key takeaways from the hearings.

Obstruction of Justice & Exoneration

Mueller started his day on Capitol Hill fielding questions from the House Judiciary Committee.

The Chairman of that Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) pressed Mueller on his conclusions as to whether or not President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice.

“The report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?” asked Nadler. Mueller responded saying Nadler was correct.

What about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler continued.

“No,” Mueller replied. 

“Your investigation actually found, quote, ‘multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations.’ Is that correct?” Nadler asked, to which Mueller responded that it was.

Another notable line of questioning about obstruction and indictments came from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). 

‘Sessions was being instructed to tell the special counsel to end the existing investigation into the president and his campaign,’” Lieu read from Mueller’s report. “That’s in the report, correct?” Mueller concurred.

“That would be evidence of an obstructive act because it would naturally obstruct their investigation, correct?” Lieu continued.

“Correct,” Mueller responded.

Questions of Indictment

Lieu later continued to discuss the Department of Justice rule that a sitting president cannot be indicted, which is based off a memo from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).

“I believe any reasonable person looking at these facts could conclude that all three elements of the crime of obstruction of justice have been met,” he said. “And I’d like to ask you the reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?”

“That is correct,” Mueller answered. He later walked that statement back during his opening statements in front of the Intelligence Committee.

“I wanted to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu,” he said in his opening statement. “It was said, and I quote, ‘you didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.’ That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report and as I said in the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.” 

There was a lot of media focus on that exchange and Mueller’s clarification, but the question Lieu asked Mueller before is also fascinating. In answering Lieu’s question, Mueller confirmed that Trump asked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the investigation.

He also seemed to agree with Lieu’s analysis that that would be evidence of an obstructive act.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) struck a similar tone in a question he posed to Mueller. “So it’s fair to say the president tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records relevant to an ongoing investigation?” he asked.

“I would say that is generally a summary,” the special counsel responded.

Regarding the question of whether or not a president could theoretically be indicted once they leave office.

Another one of the most notable moments during Mueller’s testimony in the Judiciary Committee came from this line of questioning from Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO).

Buck asked Mueller if he had found “sufficient evidence to convict President Trump or anyone else with obstruction of justice.” 

Mueller responded that his team “did not make that calculation,” because the OLC opinion “indicates that we cannot indict a sitting president. So one of the tools that a prosecutor would use is not there.” 

Later, Buck asked, “could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?”

“Yes,” Mueller responded.

Trump’s Answers to Mueller’s Questions

Mueller’s testimony at the Intelligence Committee hearing focused more on the portion of his report concerning Russian intervention in the 2016 election.

One of the most talked-about sound bites from that hearing came during questioning from Rep. Val Demings (D-FL). Demings asked a series of questions about Trump’s answers to Mueller’s questions during the investigation.

Mueller never interviewed Trump in person, but Trump gave written answers to Mueller’s questions.

“According to the report there were follow-up questions because of the president’s incomplete answers about the Moscow project,” Demings asked. “Did the president answer your follow up questions either in writing or orally?” 

“No,” Mueller said.

“He did not,” she continued. “In fact, there were many questions that you asked the president that he simply didn’t answer, isn’t that correct?” Mueller responded that it was true.

“And there were many answers that contradicted other evidence you had gathered during the investigation, isn’t that correct Director Mueller?” she asked. 

“Yes,” the special counsel answered.

“Director Mueller, isn’t it fair to say that the president’s written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete because he didn’t answer many of your questions, but where he did his answers show that he wasn’t always being truthful?” Demings asked shortly after, 

“There — I would say generally,” he responded.

WikiLeaks & Russia

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) asked the special counsel a series of questions about WikiLeaks.

He asked Mueller if he would agree with an assessment made by Mike Pompeo when he was the director of the CIA that WikiLeaks is a “hostile intelligence service,”  to which Mueller responded, “Absolutely.”

Quigley then read some statements Trump has made in the past about WikiLeaks.

“‘This just came out… WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks,’ Donald Trump, October 10, 2016, ‘This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. It tells you the inner heart, you gotta read it,’ Donald Trump, October 12, 2016. ‘This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove,’ Donald Trump, October 31, 2016. ‘Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,’ Donald Trump, November 4, 2016. Do any of those quotes disturb you, Mr. Director?” he asked.

“Well, problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of some, I don’t know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller responded.

Finally, Mueller also had a now-viral sound-bite about Russian interference in the election during questioning from Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who asked, “in your investigation, did you think this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence to suggest they’ll try to do this again?”

“It wasn’t a single attempt,” Mueller responded. “The doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.” 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Time) (Fox News)

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Netanyahu Drops Immunity Plea Ahead of Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan

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  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew his plea for immunity from prosecution concerning corruption charges.
  • Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in November. The charges were formally filed in court following his decision to drop his immunity plea.
  • Netanyahu made the announcement from Washington, where he met with President Trump ahead of the president’s official rollout of his Middle East peace plan.

Netanyahu Drops Immunity Plea

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped his plea for immunity from being prosecuted on corruption charges Tuesday, hours before the leader appeared alongside President Donald Trump in a press conference announcing the president’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

In November, Israel’s attorney general announced he was indicting the Netanyahu on bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, marking the first time in Israel’s history that a sitting prime minister had been indicted.

The charges stemmed from three different cases. One of the cases alleges that he illegally accepted $264,000 worth of gifts from tycoons in exchange for lobbying. The two other cases claim that he traded policy favors in exchange for positive news coverage from an Israeli newspaper and a website.

Netanyahu had long denied the charges, calling them an “attempted coup” and a politically motivated “witch hunt” by the left and the media.

As prime minister, Netanyahu was not legally required to step down following his indictment. He will remain in his position until he steps down or another leader is elected in Israel’s third election in the last year, which is set for March 2.

Netanyahu first asked Israel’s Parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution on Jan. 1. However, he did not have enough support from members to get an immunity deal.

He announced that he was removing his immunity plea as Parliament prepared to vote on forming the immunity committee to hear his case.

Right after his announcement, Israel’s attorney general formally indicted Netanyahu in court.

Trump Peace Deal

Netanyahu’s announcement came after the leader met with Trump to discuss the president’s Middle East peace plan.

Netanyahu’s decision to go to Washington has received a lot of backlash from his critics, who accused him of trying to create a media distraction from the immunity vote.

However, in a statement early Tuesday, the prime minister accused Parliament of focusing on his immunity case when they should be focusing on Trump’s peace deal.

“Instead of understanding the greatness of the hour and rising above political considerations, they continue to engage in cheap politics that are damaging to this decisive moment in the history of the country,” he said.

Both Netanyahu and his chief political rival Benny Gantz met with Trump and announced their support of his plan before its official rollout.

On Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu stood with Trump as he announced the highly anticipated Middle East peace plan.

Under the plan, Israel would be given sovereignty over much of the disputed West Bank settlements that have been a source of conflict with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Palestinians would be offered a path to statehood if they agreed to meet a series of goals outlined under the plan.

Many experts have pointed out that the plan gives Israel much of what it has been asking for years while asking Palestinians to give up a lot of territorial concessions.

But in his announcement, Trump said the plan would be good for Palestinians.

“My vision presents a win-win opportunity for both sides, a realistic two-state solution that resolves the risk of Palestinian statehood to Israel’s security,” he said. “Today Israel has taken a giant step towards peace.”

“I want this deal to be a great deal for the Palestinians, it has to be,” he continued. “Today’s agreement is a historic opportunity for the Palestinians to finally achieve an independent state of their very own. After 70 years of little progress, this could be the last opportunity they will ever have.” 

Palestinian leaders, however, rejected the deal before it was even formally announced.

Palestinian officials were not involved in the drafting of the plan at all, and have largely been boycotting any dealings with the Trump administration.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Axios) (The Jerusalem Post)

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Supreme Court Allows Trump Administration to Enforce Tighter Green Card Requirements

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  • The Supreme Court is allowing the Trump administration to begin enforcing a new rule that allows immigrants to be denied permanent legal status in the U.S. based on their past use or projected need for government assistance.
  • Under the new policy, officials can deny green cards to immigrants who have received or might need public benefits, such as Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance.  
  • The rule says that immigration officials can use factors such as English language proficiency, age, wealth, and employment status to determine whether they think someone might need government assistance. 
  • Supporters of the rule argue that it will enforce the ideals of self-sufficiency and responsibility, while opposers say it presents unfair challenges to poor immigrants and might confuse people as the legal battles challenging it are still blazing on.

New Rule

The Supreme Court issued an order on Monday that allows the Trump administration to start enforcing a new rule under which immigrants can be denied from the country if they have received or might need government assistance. 

The new rule can be used to deny green cards to immigrants based on their likelihood to overuse public benefits, or become a “public charge.” For a long time, the government has had the ability to turn away immigrants likely to become “public charges,” but the new policy expands and clarifies the definition of the term to include those who use most forms of Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance, among other benefits.

Under the new regulations, an immigrant can be classified as a “public charge” if they received — or are deemed likely to receive — one or more designated benefits for more than 12 months within a three-year period. 

Additionally, to determine whether immigrants might become a “public charge,” the new rule designates that officials take into consideration their age, wealth, English language skills, education, and employment status, among other factors.

The administration noted that refugees, asylees, victims of trafficking, and other vulnerable groups are exempt from the new rule.

Lengthy Process 

The Department of Homeland Security published a final version of the rule in August. It was supposed to take effect in October, but several states and immigrant advocates filed lawsuits in efforts to prevent its enforcement. 

In response to the lawsuits, several lower court judges imposed nationwide injunctions, blocking the government from enforcing the new standards while legal challenges carried on. Two courts of appeals overturned most of these injunctions.

The Supreme Court’s Monday ruling lifted a New York district judge’s injunction, allowing the new rules to be enforced everywhere nationwide, except for in Illinois, where a separate, state-wide injunction remains in effect.  

The decision was made based on a 5-4 vote that split the court’s conservatives and liberals. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan wanted to leave the lower court’s ruling in place, but they were outnumbered. 

In a statement, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas expressed a joint opinion that focused not so much on the decision, but rather on the nationwide injunctions imposed by lower court judges that they feel are becoming a growing problem.

Federal officials and other supporters of the new policy argue that it will enforce the ideals of self-sufficiency and responsibility.

“This decision allows the Government to implement regulations effectuating longstanding Federal law that newcomers to this country must be financially self-sufficient and not a ‘public charge’ on our country and its citizens,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Monday. 

Meanwhile, those who oppose the new rules argue that they would create unfair challenges for poor immigrants, and go against the historical attitude of the nation to accept foreigners of all statuses. They also claim it will cause confusion as the lawsuits carry on.

Lawyers for opposers of the rule also stressed that it will deter immigrants from using public benefits that they’re entitled to, for fear of being denied green cards.

“The rule will cause hundreds of thousands of individuals and households, in many cases noncitizens not even subject to public charge scrutiny, to forego public benefits for which they are eligible, out of fear and confusion about the consequences for their immigration status of accepting such benefit,” they wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NBC) (The New York Times)

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Calls for John Bolton Impeachment Testimony Intensify After Manuscript Leak

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  • Democrats renewed calls for former National Security Advisor John Bolton to testify in the Senate impeachment trial after new details from an unpublished draft of his upcoming book were reported by the New York Times.
  • According to the Times, Bolton wrote that President Trump told him he wanted to continue a freeze on aid to Ukraine until officials announced investigations the Bidens.
  • Trump denied the allegations and accused Bolton of just trying to sell his book, a claim echoed by other Republicans.

Bolton Manuscript

Calls for former National Security Advisor John Bolton to testify in the ongoing impeachment trial intensified Sunday, following a report from the New York Times detailing new information from an unpublished draft of Bolton’s upcoming book.

According to the Times, back in August, President Donald Trump told then-Security Adviser Bolton that “he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens.”

The news hits at the heart of the ongoing impeachment proceedings.

Democrats allege that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the country to announce investigations into his political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

They also claim that Trump obstructed Congress by refusing to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry, blocking subpoenaed witnesses from testifying, and not handing over key documents.

According to the Times, Bolton, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, “collectively pressed the president about releasing the aid nearly a dozen times” but Trump “effectively rebuffed them.”

Bolton’s book, which is called “The Room Where It Happened,” is set for publication on March 17. According to the Times, the allegations about Trump and the Ukraine aid were included in drafts of the manuscript that Bolton gave to associates.

In a statement, Bolton’s lawyer Charles Cooper said that he had given the White House a copy of the book on Dec. 30 as part of the is a standard review process for administration officials who write books.

Representatives for Bolton, however, have said that he did not give the manuscript to the Times.

“It is clear, regrettably, from the New York Times article published today that the pre-publication review process has been corrupted and that information has been disclosed by persons other than those properly involved in reviewing the manuscript,” Cooper said a statement.

Trump Response

Trump denied the allegations in a tweet late Sunday night.

“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” the president wrote. “In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”

In another tweet on Monday morning, Trump falsely claimed that the House never asked Bolton to testify.

House Democrats did in fact summon Bolton to testify in October, but he declined. At the time, Bolton’s lawyer cited instructions from the White House for former and current White House officials to not testify, though he did say Bolton would testify if subpoenaed.

Democrats did not subpoena Bolton, because the legal process for trying to get testimony or documents from witnesses who had been blocked by the White House could take months if not years.

At the beginning of this month, Bolton said that he would testify before the Senate if subpoenaed for the trial. 

Renewed Calls for Testimony

Even before the House voted to impeach Trump, there was a debate raging over whether or not new witnesses would be called to testify in the Senate trial.

Democrats wanted to call four key witnesses that they say could have first-hand accounts, including Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Republicans, however, have repeatedly refused, saying new evidence should not be introduced in the Senate portion of the trial. 

But Democrats in both chambers have argued that new witnesses should be allowed based on past precedent, pointing out that new witnesses were called during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate.

Democrats again called for new witnesses after the Times story broke. In a statement Sunday night, impeachment managers said that there was “no doubt now that Mr. Bolton directly contradicts the heart of the President’s defense and therefore must be called as a witness at the impeachment trial of President Trump.”

“There is no defensible reason to wait until his book is published, when the information he has to offer is critical to the most important decision Senators must now make — whether to convict the President of impeachable offenses,” the statement continued.

Implications for Senate Trial

The new information could finally give Democrats the push they need to call witnesses.

A vote for new witnesses would only require a simple majority, and Democrats have focused on getting a group of four key Republicans to agree to allow witnesses. Now, some of those Republicans seem to be leaning towards voting in favor of the idea.

In a statement Monday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of the key Republican Senators who had been open about possibly supporting a vote new witnesses, said that the new revelations from Bolton “strengthen the case for witnesses.” 

“The reports about John Bolton’s book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues,” the statement continued.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), another Senator who considered calling witnesses, also made similar remarks to reporters on Capitol Hill Monday.

“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” Sen. Romney said.

But other Republicans have pushed back on the idea.

“If we seek witnesses, then we’re going to throw the country into chaos,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-KY) said on Fox News Sunday night.

However, in a tweet Monday morning, Sen. Graham said that if the Senate voted to allow Democrats their witnesses, then Trump should be allowed witnesses he requested as well. Trump has in the past called for Joe Biden and his son Hunter to testify.

Whether or not witnesses are called, the new information could poke a hole in some of the key arguments put forward by Trump’s defense team.

Republican’s and Trump’s lawyers have continually asserted that there have been no first-hand eyewitnesses, a point made by Deputy White House Counsel Michael Purpura in the Senate trial on Saturday.

“Not a single witness testified that the President himself said there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a Presidential meeting, or anything else,” he said.

Now, Bolton and Democrats claim that the former National Security Adviser is a first-hand witness to Trump connecting the calls for an investigation into Biden to the withheld aid.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Politico) (Fox News)

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