Congressional Republicans gave Robert Mueller and the Democrats a rough ride Wednesday, but no one took on the special counsel with greater intensity than Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
The testimony of the lead investigator into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian interests in 2016 was a highly anticipated event following the release of his so-named Mueller Report.
Mueller, a former FBI director, at times stammered his answers, and the Democrats appeared disorganized and frantic, grasping for anything to gain traction in what they hoped would lead to impeachment proceedings against the president.
It was clear by the end of the day: Nearly two years of investigations, hundreds of subpoenas, and countless witnesses interviewed showed the Trump campaign did not coordinate or conspire with the Russian government in its election-interference activities -- no indictments, no collusion, no obstruction. Mueller had gone to The Hill Wednesday hoping to clear his record but his "case" crumbled against searing GOP questioning.
Florida's Gaetz led the charge. He landed a haymaker of a question/response. Gaetz asked as his opener, “Director Mueller, can you state with confidence that the Steele dossier was not part of Russia’s disinformation campaign?” The Steele Dossier has become such a discredited component of the entire Russian investigation that Mueller is desperate to get away from it.
Haltingly, Mueller answered, “As I said in my opening statement, that part of the building of the case predated me by at least 10 months.” Gaetz, who was ready for this meek deflection, jumped all over the special counsel.
“Yeah, and Paul Manafort’s alleged crimes regarding tax evasion predated you. You had no trouble charging them. As a matter of fact, the Steele dossier predated the attorney general (referring to William Barr), and he didn’t have any problem answering the question when Sen. Cornyn asked the attorney general the exact question I asked you, director.”
Gaetz then moved on to the red meat of this particular subject: Where was the Russian involvement with the origination of the dossier, and why was Mueller so incurious? “Christopher Steele’s reporting is referenced in your report. Steele reported to the FBI that senior Russian foreign ministry figures along with other Russians told him there was ... ‘extensive evidence of conspiracy between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.’”
“Here’s my question," Gaetz continued. "Did Russians really tell that to Christopher Steele? Or did he just make it all up and was he lying to the FBI?” Mueller resorted here to his pattern throughout the day’s questioning -- claiming to Republicans to have his hands tied and unable to answer, but effusive and open with Democrats’ queries.
“As I said earlier, with regard to Steele, that is beyond my purview.” This was a patently ridiculous response from Mueller, given he was charged with finding out specifically if there was Russian involvement in this very aspect. How could his investigation be launched due to the contents of the Steele dossier, but not have the dossier itself under his "purview"? It was pure deflection. Gaetz kept up the pressure.
“No, it is! It is exactly your purview, Director Mueller, and here’s why: Only one of 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 fired back.
“Now, if Russians were lying to Steele to undermine our confidence in our duly elected president, that would seem to be precisely your purview, because you stated in your opening that the organizing principle was to fully and thoroughly investigate Russia’s interference. But you weren’t interested in whether Russians are interfering.”
Gaetz said he couldn't stress this portion enough: By Mueller’s own statement he was charged with looking into Russia’s interference with the election. How can he then state the very document that launched the investigation, and directly involved Russia, could not be part of his Russian investigation?
Also, his decision to completely ignore Michael Steele in his investigation is made more ridiculous by his treatment of Manafort. The guilty plea, and surrounding indictments of Manafort, involve his personal business dealings and financial illegalities taking place years before the election. How those details were within Mueller’s purview, but the very details behind the founding document were not defies common sense.
Gaetz, a lawyer with a practiced courtroom presence he used effectively during his years in the Florida House, made the defining charge. “If Steele was lying," Gaetz said, "you should have charged him with lying.”
Mueller once again resorted to his standard claim that anything involving Steele was "not in his purview." This was a transparently neutered claim, because Mueller did not launch a fresh investigation. He took over an existing FBI investigation; therefore, attempting to pass the responsibility to the FBI is invalid. Mueller took control of their prior work, and as such, Steele was perfectly in his purview.
“So it’s not in your purview to look into whether or not Steele is lying,” responded Gaetz. “It’s not in your purview to look into whether or not anti-Trump Russians were lying to Steele.”
This effectively illustrated the underlying problems with Mueller’s two-year quest and showed how he failed to come up with anything substantive regarding coordination. Matt Gaetz managed to stand out on a day when a number of GOP politicians had strong performances.
See for yourself the Gaetz-Mueller exchange below:
Even usually Democrat-supportive major TV networks and mainstream media sources admitted that at the very least, the Dems lost face.
Said MSNBC’s Ari Melber: "The Mueller hearing 'didn’t land' where Democrats were hoping. I think at the end of the day there was a lot of talk about today being the time people would hear some of the stories which I would argue objectively are concerning or shocking in this report. I'm not sure that at the end of the day Bob Mueller was the one voicing that. Some of the members in the committee did. But he really didn't. And so that leaves, I think, the country watching and saying we've been waiting for this, what was this that we just saw? If it was an interesting discussion, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe these are complex issues. Ultimately, it didn't land where the Democrats said they were hoping, at least for part one on obstruction.”
Said ABC News’ Katherine Faulders: “Democrats also hoped Mueller would read some of his report to ‘bring the report to life’ so the American public could hear the words of the report from Mueller himself. That’s not happening. Mueller hasn’t read it when asked to.”
Washington Post Reporter Paul Kane said on Twitter, “No Mincing Words Here: Bad Morning For Pro Impeachment Crowd. They Needed A Bravo Testimony ... That Hasn’t Happened So Far. Many hours remain. Let’s see.”
ABC’s News’ Terry Moran: “Impeachment’s over. I don't think Nancy Pelosi is going to stand for your members to bring forward what will lose in the American public. The problem with Mueller’s testimony on this issue is, he had to carry the ball for them some way. At least by being a vigorous, strong, rock-solid prosecutor. He looked like someone who slowed a step or two.”
Adam Reilly, WGBH News tweeted this: “It’s Early But The GOP Is Absolutely Smoking [Democrats]. If the Dems can’t find someone with the common sense to retool and let Mueller push back against Republican claims that his investigation was a miscarriage of justice, they’ll lose far more from this hearing than they gain. It’s early but the GOP is absolutely smoking them.”
Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.