No Collusion? No Obstruction? Hardly. Mueller Succeeds by Obliterating Barr's False Narrative | Opinion

Robert Mueller's testimony before two House committees Wednesday accomplished precisely what it set out to do—obliterate the misconception, created in March by Attorney General William Barr's three-page summary, permitting President Donald Trump to claim no collusion and no obstruction.

In response to a question from Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, the former special counsel agreed that the attorney general's role is not to be a "consigliere" for the president but instead to be our attorney general—the top law enforcement officer of the United States of America.

While Mueller has been criticized for strictly adhering to the language in his report, as he had forewarned he would do, both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee were able to effectively question Mueller about the sections of his report that showed Trump's knowledge of the Russian interference in the 2016 election and his later efforts to cover up the investigation into that Russian interference. In doing so, the committees were able to highlight those sections of the report that most directly relate to Trump.

Beginning in the morning, the Judiciary Committee focused Mueller on the five most egregious examples in his report of potential acts of obstruction of justice by the president: (1) directing White House Counsel Don McGahn to ask the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller; (2) directing McGahn, after the press learned six months later of Trump's attempt to fire Mueller, to deny it occurred; (3) asking former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit Mueller's investigation to "future election interference"; (4) attempting to influence the cooperation of former campaign manager Paul Manafort; and (5) also attempting to influence the cooperation of former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen.

While Mueller would not acknowledge the ultimate conclusion that Trump would have been indicted for these five acts of obstruction but for the fact he is president, the former special counsel came as close as one could without saying Trump had committed crimes. In response to questioning by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Mueller made it clear that the report had not exculpated Trump for these obstructive acts.

It was also obvious that the Democrats had a coordinated strategy of dividing up the questioning to elicit the key facts on these obstructive acts in the 448-page report, not an easy task when each Democratic member of the committee had only five minutes of questioning sandwiched between the five-minute questioning by their Republican colleagues. Without missing a beat, they effectively pulled out the best quotes from the report and projected them on a screen to provide a condensed version for the American public of the report's most important findings.

Using the statements of former assistant campaign manager Rick Gates referenced in various parts of the report, the Intelligence Committee showed that Trump had been informed about upcoming releases by WikiLeaks of documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee and that the campaign had planned activities around the release of the stolen documents. When Mueller was asked about his reaction to Trump's public praise for WikiLeaks during the campaign, Mueller did not pull any punches, replying, "It's problematic—is an understatement, in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some boost to what is and should be illegal activity."

Mueller also deviated from simply reciting quotes from the report when he was asked by Representative Val Demings whether Trump had been candid in his responses to the written questions from the Special Counsel's Office. Mueller was clear that he did not believe Trump's responses were truthful. Mueller testified that it was "fair to say" that "generally" Trump's answers had been incomplete and not always truthful.

As to Russia's interference in the 2016 election, Mueller unequivocally stated that his investigation found that Russia's interference had been sweeping and systematic, and that the goal of the Russian government was to elect Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Mueller also staunchly defended his probe. He flatly denied that it was "a witch hunt," and that in hiring his staff he never questioned their political affiliations and hired them solely for their expertise and lawyering abilities.

Robert Mueller Testimony
Former special counsel Robert Mueller departs after testifying to the House Intelligence Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Capitol Hill on July 24 in Washington, DC. Alex Wroblewski/Getty

The Republican members of both committees made no effort to undermine Mueller's evidence of Trump's potential acts of obstruction or his other questionable conduct but instead trotted out the same defenses to the Russian investigation they have been raising for the past year. Mueller refused to answer questions about Christopher Steele and his dossier because the matter was under investigation by another section of the Department of Justice. Despite this refusal, the Republicans persisted in this line of questioning to suggest that Steele's dossier was a disinformation program initiated by the Russian government that had been funded by the Clinton campaign. There is, of course, no evidence to support this allegation.

Similarly, the Republicans questioned Mueller about professor Joseph Mifsud, the mysterious figure who had told Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had Clinton's emails. The Republicans asked Mueller why Mifsud had not been indicted for lying to the FBI. Again, Mueller refused to answer the question because it related to internal deliberations. However, Muller's report makes it clear that had Papadopoulos not initially lied to the FBI, the FBI would have been able to ask Mifsud the right questions. If the FBI had been armed with the correct information, that might have led to Mifsud's indictment.

In sum, the Mueller testimony succeeded in changing the narrative on the Mueller investigation away from the initial false narrative created by Barr. The question is, Where do the House committees go from here? The obvious next steps are forcing the testimony of those witnesses whom the Mueller team interviewed and who have first-hand knowledge of Trump's actions investigated as potential obstruction of justice. These witnesses include McGahn and Lewandowski. Whether this results in impeachment or a full airing of the facts remains to be seen.

Nick Akerman is a partner at Dorsey & Whitney law firm, a former assistant special Watergate prosecutor and a former assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​