Mueller Fears Trump’s Embrace of Russian Interference Could Be a ‘New Normal’
In hours of grilling on Capitol Hill, the former U.S. special counsel reveals little new but issues a stark warning.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday that the Russian campaign to interfere in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s embrace of that effort may have established a “new normal” in American politics, laying the groundwork for future meddling.
In highly anticipated testimony on Wednesday, Mueller largely stuck to the contents of his report and rebuffed repeated efforts by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers to go into further detail about the nature of the investigation. But he was unwavering on the fact that Russia sought to meddle in the elections and issued a stark warning to lawmakers that foreign interference—and its embrace by political campaigns—could become an established feature of U.S. politics.
At an afternoon hearing before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller was asked by Democratic Rep. Peter Welch whether the 2016 campaign “established a new normal” that will allow political candidates in the future to not report to the FBI that a “hostile foreign power is trying to influence an election.”
Mueller’s response: “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.”
Over several hours of questioning before both the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, President Donald Trump’s legal and political liability dominated the line of inquiry, threatening to drown out a dire warning from Mueller about the current state of Russian political interference: “They are doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign,” he said.
“I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” added Mueller, a former director of the FBI. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.” He also cautioned that many other countries are developing the ability to replicate Russia’s interference efforts.
What appeared to trouble Mueller most about the 2016 campaign was the way then-candidate Trump publicly embraced WikiLeaks, which served as a dumping ground for emails stolen by Russian operatives. “Problematic is an understatement,” Mueller said of Trump’s statements about the anti-secrecy group, which he said gave “hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”
Trump has refused to say that he wouldn’t accept damaging materials about his political opponents in the future. In an interview with ABC News in June, Trump said he might still accept information about an opponent from a foreign country in the 2020 race. Asked if he would accept derogatory material from China or Russia, or call the FBI, Trump responded: “I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen; there isn’t anything wrong with listening.”
Mueller was muted in his response to questioning by both Republicans and Democrats. In refusing to read directly from the report, he deprived Democrats of the soundbites they may have sought. At the same time, he also deflected questioning from Republican members that at times touched upon conspiracy theories about the origins of the investigation.
Congressional Democrats hoped to use Wednesday’s hearing to educate the U.S. public about Mueller’s 448-page report, which documents the Russian campaign to meddle in the election, the Trump team’s embrace of that effort, and Trump’s attempts to obstruct the investigation of that interference.
But Democrats cautioned this week that they weren’t expecting Wednesday’s hearing to change many minds. “People are pretty dug in, not just on Trump and Russia, but they’re pretty dug in on this president,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said ahead of the hearing, on Tuesday.
With Mueller warning of future election meddling, Schiff said that one of his biggest concerns for future campaigns was the development of deepfake technology—the ability to manipulate videos or audio to change what a person appears to have said. “How do we prepare against the late distribution of a fraudulent video?” Schiff said.
In the end, Mueller’s appearance offered no major new information about the investigation. Rather, it devolved into a mostly partisan fight featuring attempts by Democrats to goad Mueller into describing the president’s activity as criminal, an effort that almost entirely failed.
Mueller told Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu that the only reason Trump wasn’t indicted was because of Justice Department regulations prohibiting presidents from being indicted, but then he immediately corrected himself in the next session to say that his investigation in fact hadn’t reached a conclusion on the issue.
Time and again, Mueller dodged lawmakers’ questions by referring to his report, offering sundry variations of the phrase “if it’s in the report, I believe it to be true” to deflect questions. Mueller’s performance was far from flawless. His delivery was often halting, frequently stammering as he searched for the correct legal formulation and chose his words carefully.
Republicans devoted their questions to trying to undermine the basis of Mueller’s investigation by arguing that it was based on tainted information. Republican lawmakers repeatedly attacked the investigation as a product of a dossier compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele.
At other points, they attempted to portray Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic and a shadowy figure in the Russia investigation, as a Russian, or perhaps American, intelligence asset. The confused line of questioning sought to muddy the waters and argue that any information supplied by Mifsud, which was used by the FBI to open the Russia investigation, was disinformation authored by the Kremlin.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, described Mifsud as at the “epicenter” of the Russia investigation and questioned why he hadn’t been indicted for lying to the FBI when the Mueller report describes several instances in which the academic lied to the bureau’s agents.
As with so many other lines of questioning on Wednesday, Mueller said he was not at liberty to answer.
According to a tally by NBC, it was one of 198 times he either deflected or declined to answer a question.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll