Former special prosecutor Robert Mueller dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of total exoneration in the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference on Wednesday, telling Congress he explicitly did not clear the president of obstructing his investigation.
Democrat and Republican members of Congress took divergent paths in their questioning of Mueller, who appeared before both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee.
Trump’s GOP allies attempted to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated, while Democrats honed in on the most incendiary findings of Mueller’s 448-page report.
Five members of Florida’s congressional delegation were on the Judiciary Committee that had the first stab at grilling Mueller. Here are the five most interesting exchanges between Mueller and Florida’s members of Congress.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach
Panhandle Republican Matt Gaetz is adept at instigating viral exchanges during often mundane House committee hearings. He succeeded again on Wednesday.
In his time for questioning, Gaetz pressed Mueller on a favorite conspiracy in conservative circles: the origins of an incendiary and unsubstantiated dossier on Trump written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
Gaetz pushed Mueller on why he didn’t investigate Steele and the dossier.
“You state with confidence that the Steele dossier was not part of Russia’s disinformation campaign?” Gaetz asked Mueller. “And [Fusion GPS founder] Glenn Simpson testified under oath that he had dinner with [Russian lawyer Natalia] Vesilnitskaya the day before and the day after this meeting with the Trump team. Do you have any basis as you sit here today to believe Steele was lying?”
Mueller responded, "No, that part of the building of the case predated me by at least ten months.”
Gaetz immediately hit back.
“Did Russians really tell that to Steele," he said, "or did he just make it all up and he’s lying to the FBI?”
“Let me back up a second if I could," Mueller said. “As I said earlier, with regard to Steele, that’s beyond my purview.”
“No, it is exactly your purview, Mr. Mueller, and here’s why: Only one of these two things is possible — either Steele made this whole thing up and there were never any Russians telling him of this vast criminal conspiracy that you didn’t find — or Russians lied to Steele," Gaetz said.
“As I said before and I’ll say again, it’s not my purview as others are investigating what you address,” Mueller repeated.
Gaetz would further push Mueller to speak about Steele, to which Mueller, in different words, continued to say it was not in his purview.
“What I think is missing here is the fact that this is under investigation elsewhere in the Justice Department and, if I can finish sir, and consequently it is not in my purview — the Department of Justice and the FBI should be responsive to this particular issue.”
Trump and Republicans have repeatedly suggested that the dossier instigated the investigation into Russia election interference. That is not true.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, focused his questioning on the president’s alleged attempt to “fire Mueller” because he was unhappy the special counsel was investigating him for obstruction of justice. He said this was a clear attempt to obstruct the investigation.
In the most notable exchange, Deutch asked: “Director Mueller, you found evidence as you lay out in your report that the president wanted to fire you because you were investigating him for potential obstruction of justice. Isn’t that correct?”
“That’s what it says in the report. And yes I stand by the report,” Mueller said.
Deutch responded: “Director Mueller, that shouldn’t happen in America. No president should be able to escape investigation by abusing his power. But that’s what you testified to in your report."
Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando
For most of today’s questioning, Mueller regularly referred back to his initial report, leaving little room for new information to be brought forward.
He did, however, tell Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, that he would “generally agree” that lies by the president’s campaign and administration officials impeded his office’s investigation into 2016 Russian election interference. It was one of the most unveiling moments of his otherwise tight-lipped testimony.
“Director Mueller, a couple of my colleagues wanted to talk to you or ask you about lies, so lets talk about lies,” Demings said to begin her questioning. “According to your report, page 9, volume 1, witnesses lied to your office and to Congress about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.
“Other than the individuals who plead guilty to crimes, based on their lying to you, did other witnesses lie to you?”
Mueller responded: “I think there is probably a spectrum of witnesses in terms of those who are not telling the full truth and those are outright liars."
Later in her questioning, Demings asked, “And that lies by Trump campaign officials and administration officials impeded your investigation?”
After a pause, Mueller responded, “I would generally agree with that.”
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Weston
Before her questioning even began, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel, D-Weston, called Mueller a “patriot.”
What followed was a line of questioning that drew out relatively short answers from Mueller — none of which were longer than seven words.
Most notably, however, was Mucarsel-Powell’s question to Mueller, “An attempt to obstruct justice does not have to succeed to be a crime ... Simply attempting to obstruct justice can be a crime?”
“True,” responded Mueller.
Mucarsel-Powell closed her questioning with a statement, saying, “What is clear is that, anyone else, including some members of Congress, would have been charged with crimes for these acts. We would not have allowed this behavior from any of the previous 44 presidents, we should not allow it now or for the future to protect our democracy.”
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota
Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, much like Gaetz, asked Mueller about Steele, the former British intelligence agent, and what role he may have played in kicking off the Russia probe through a controversial dossier.
Where Steube differentiated from his fellow Florida Republican was in asking Mueller if he was “conflicted” and biased toward the president for him not hiring him for the FBI director job — one day before he was appointed special counsel.
“My understanding was it was not applying for the job. I was asked to give my input on what it would take to do the job, which triggered the interview you’re talking about,” Mueller answered.
"So you don't recall on May 16, 2017, that you interviewed with the president regarding the FBI director job," Steube said, reminding Mueller that he was under oath.
"I interviewed with the president," Mueller said.
"Was it about the FBI director job?" Steube added.
"It was about the job, not me applying for the job," Mueller said.
"So, did you tell the vice president that the FBI director position would be the one job that you would come back for?" Steube asked.
“I don’t recall that one,” Mueller answered.
Steube’s question appeared to come directly from the mind of the president. Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that Mueller interviewed for the job and warned Mueller not to say otherwise under oath.