Mueller: Russian Interference 'Serious' Threat to DemocracySpecial Counsel Warns of Potential Threats to 2020 Election
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller told members of Congress Wednesday that Russian interference in elections is the most serious challenge to U.S. democracy that he has seen over the course of his career and that it deserves more attention, especially as the 2020 election looms and more disruption is likely.
Mueller testified for several hours Wednesday before both the House Judicial Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, where lawmakers from both parties pressed him for more details on his report that investigated interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.
As he promised at a May 29 press conference, Mueller mostly stuck to repeating the findings and conclusions in the Special Counsel report. For most of the day, he stuck to "yes" or "no" responses and terse answers.
The one area where Mueller appeared willing to stray from the report was when he addressed what Russian’s interference in the 2016 election means for the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
"Over the course of my career, I've seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government's effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American," Mueller, who served as FBI director during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said during his opening statement to the Intelligence Committee.
Later in the hearing, he told committee members that the Russian interference in the 2016 election was not "isolated" and that he believes more disruption is likely in 2020. He did not offer specific details on what Russia might be planning.
The morning hearing before the Judiciary Committee mainly focused on questions regarding obstruction of justice.
The afternoon hearing before the Intelligence Committee dealt with Russian election interference, which led to his appointment as Special Counsel and the two-year investigation that produced the report (see: Mueller Report: With Russian Hacking Laid Bare, What Next?).
For most of the day, Mueller avoided soundbites and other "gotcha" types of statements and kept to the details presented in his report. He also deflected questions from lawmakers about other matters that are still under investigation or were outside the scope of his investigation.
Mueller told Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that his investigation was "not a witch hunt." For months, President Trump has referred to the special counsel ’s investigation as a witch hunt targeting him and his associates.
During his morning testimony to the Judiciary Committee, Mueller said: "The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed," which restated the findings of his report. Mueller also repeated several times that a long-standing Justice Department policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a federal crime (see: Mueller's Investigation Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy).
President Trump has said, however, that the Mueller report totally exonerated him. For their part, Republicans also played up that fact that no conspiracy was ever proven. "The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts," Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., who is the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, noted.
Mueller was appointed special counsel more than two years ago by Rod Rosenstein, then the country's acting attorney general, to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
As a result of the investigation, federal prosecutors brought charges against five Trump advisers as well as 12 Russian intelligence officers. In his report, Mueller concluded that "the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion."
The report concluded - and Mueller reiterated on Wednesday - that the Russian meddling was an attempt to boost Trump's prospects at the expense of his Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton.
As part of his testimony on Wednesday, Mueller added that "indictments we returned against the Russians were substantial," and that he hoped his report and the criminal charges would serve as a warning to foreign governments not to interfere in U.S. elections and domestic politics.
Mueller told Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who serves on the Intelligence Committee, that the Russian interference in the 2016 was not "a hoax," and that the American public should take his findings seriously. "It is a signal, a flag to those of us who have responsibility to exercise that responsibility, not to let this kind of thing happen again," Mueller said.
WikiLeaks and Foreign Interference
Mueller was asked about WikiLeaks, which publishing emails stolen from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. It's believed that Russian agents stole those messages and gave them to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to publish in order to damage the Clinton campaign (see: WikiLeaks' Assange: A Nexus of Media, Hacking and Activism).
When asked about President Trump's comments praising WikiLeaks, Mueller told Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., of the Intelligence Committee that it's "problematic" to encourage publishing of stolen material "in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope, or some boost, to what is and should be illegal activity.”
Mueller told lawmakers that if candidates are approached by foreign government officials offering "dirt" on opponents or assistance during campaigns, they should report those efforts to the FBI. Mueller also noted that he hoped this type of interferences does not become the "new normal."