During testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, former special counsel Robert Mueller acknowledged that a conversation between Russian officials and a Trump Organization associate about a $1 billion Trump-branded condo tower in Moscow could’ve compromised Donald Trump had it been recorded. The reason: At the time, then-candidate Trump repeatedly stated that he had no business ties with Russia.
In a line of questioning about foreign entities gaining potential material to blackmail U.S. officials, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff asked if the fact that Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen discussed Trump Tower Moscow with a Kremlin spokesperson posed a risk to the presidential candidate of being exposed. Mueller agreed with a simple: “Yes.”
“If you are lying about something, you can be exposed, you can be blackmailed,” Schiff said. He later added, “That’s the stuff of counterintelligence nightmares, is it not?”
The two hearings on Wednesday focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. When asked if such interference, including offering negative information on an opposing candidate, was the “new normal” in U.S. elections, Mueller responded, “I hope it’s not the new normal, but I fear it is.”
The seven hours of testimony — during back-to-back hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee, followed by another hosted by the House Intelligence Committee — largely stuck to the contents of Mueller’s April report. Occasionally, however, the former special counsel offered additional —albeit minimal — commentary. While Mueller agreed that the tower in Moscow represented a business interest, from which Trump stood to potentially make millions, he didn’t weigh in on whether the president specifically lied about the timing of his business dealings.
“I think there is some question about when this was accomplished,” he said.
Later on, however, when asked if the president’s written responses to Mueller’s investigation were incomplete and untruthful — Mueller said “generally.” He wouldn’t, however, comment on Trump’s credibility.
What Trump said
Around 3:30, at the end of the second hearing, the president tweeted: “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE.”
“This morning’s testimony exposed the troubling deficiencies of the Special Counsel’s investigation,” Jay Sekulow, Trump’s legal counsel, said in a statement. “The testimony revealed that this probe was conducted by a small group of politically-biased prosecutors who, as hard as they tried, were unable to establish either obstruction, conspiracy, or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”
During a July 2016 press conference, Trump denied having any business dealings with Russia, saying “the closest [he] came to Russia” was that he probably sold some condos to Russians. Mueller’s report notes that Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen approached his boss after the press conference, believing the remarks to be untrue. According to Cohen, Trump responded that Trump Tower Moscow was not a full-fledged deal yet and said, “Why mention it if it is not a deal?” Cohen has also said that he lied about the tower’s timeline at Trump’s direction, telling Congress that talks about the tower halted in January 2016, when they persisted through June 2016. Mueller’s report was unable to conclude whether this was the case.
Questions about Kushner meetings
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, came up a couple of times during the two hearings, though Mueller didn’t offer new details on two key meetings. In the second hearing, representatives cited Kushner’s presence at a meeting in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, with a Kremlin-linked attorney. The meeting followed an email exchange between Donald Trump Jr. and a publicist for a Russian popstar, in which the publicist promised “dirt” on the Hillary Clinton. The Mueller report cites a text message Kushner sent to Paul Manafort during the meeting, which referred to the gathering as a “waste of time.” He ended up leaving the meeting before it ended, according to the report.
As noted in Mueller’s report, Kushner also met with and Sergey Gorkov, head of the Russian government owned bank Vnesheconombank (VEB), on Dec. 13, 2016, at the Madison Avenue offices of Colony Capital. Kushner maintained that the meeting didn’t involve business but focused on improving U.S.-Russia relations. But in a 2017 public statement, VEB described the meeting as one of many business meetings with major U.S. banks and companies. At the time, Kushner Companies was seeking financing for 666 Fifth Avenue, which raised some conflict of interest concerns. In his report, Mueller couldn’t conclude whether or not the meeting dealt with strictly business or diplomacy or both, but noted that there wasn’t significant follow-up between Kushner and Gorkov after the meeting.
During the first hearing, Mueller indicated that the only reason he didn’t charge the president with obstruction of justice was due to a Justice Department policy that bars indicting a sitting president. He noted that the president could be charged after leaving office. However, he backtracked this statement during the second hearing.
“We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime,” Mueller said.
Republican representatives repeatedly questioned why Mueller included language in his report — and has since said himself — that the findings of his investigation didn’t “exonerate” Trump. They said doing so went beyond Mueller’s prosecutorial authority, since the president should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
“You have no more power to declare him exonerated as you do to declare him Anderson Cooper,” said Republican Rep. Mike Turner, who also presented what he said were “textbooks” from Mueller’s law school, the University of Virginia to see if he’d been instructed differently.
The hearings concluded with Schiff, who said it will be up to the Justice Department to decide whether Trump should be indicted on obstruction of justice and campaign finance fraud charges when he leaves office. It will be up to Congress, he said, to look into other questions left unanswered by Mueller’s report.
“You would not tell us whether the president should be impeached, nor did we ask you, since it is our responsibility to determine the proper remedy for the conduct outlined in your report,” he said. “Whether we decide to impeach the house or we do not, we must take any necessary action to protect the country while he is in office.”