Fact-check: How House members exaggerated facts in questioning Robert Mueller

 

It seemed like he didn’t want to be there, and he looked tired. Nevertheless, Robert Mueller appeared publicly to repeat findings from his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s reaction to the investigation.

Mueller emphasized the following findings in his testimony before two U.S. House committees:

• The report did not exonerate President Trump from charges of obstruction of justice. Mueller wasn’t particularly eloquent about this point, though. Under questioning from U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Mueller said: "The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed."

• The special counsel did not have the authority to charge Trump due to Justice Department policy and guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel, or OLC. So the report made no conclusions about whether Trump obstructed justice or not, even though it presented evidence on the issue. Mueller emphasized this point in an afternoon clarification to morning questioning. 

• Mueller said he was allowed to complete his investigation to his satisfaction, and that he tried to complete it quickly. "It was in the public interest for our investigation to be complete, but not to last a day longer than was necessary," he said.

Democrats sought to elevate Mueller’s findings by reading passages from his report and emphasizing key findings. Mueller himself refused to read from the report and tended to answer questions tersely.

Republicans, on the other hand, alternated their attacks, by suggesting that Mueller found no criminal wrongdoing by the president while also implying that Mueller had conducted a partisan witch hunt. 

Here’s a fact-checked summary of some of the day’s notable moments.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas: "You didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says write a confidential report about decisions reached. Nowhere in here does it say write a report about decisions that were not reached."

Experts say Mueller followed the DOJ rules.

Federal regulations say, "At the conclusion of the Special Counsel's work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel." 

Ratcliffe also erred about the need to avoid "extra prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that are not charged," said Ric Simmons at Ohio State University College of Law.

"Mueller was offering evidence that could be used if the attorney general did in fact decide to charge him," Simmons said. "Not only is that not barred, it is precisely the kind of evidence that Mueller would be expected to bring to give proper advice to the attorney general."

Doubling down on that, Saikrishna Prakash, professor at the University of Virginia, said "nothing in the American legal system precludes a prosecutor from commenting upon a case she investigated."

— Jon Greenberg

Fact-checking Donald Trump's claims about Democrats on Mueller's team

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas: "(Mueller) and James Comey have been good friends or were good friends for many years."

This claim needs context. It doesn’t seem like Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey were friends in a personal sense or spending free time together. 

Mueller told Gohmert the two men were "business associates" who "both started off in the Justice Department." 

After Gohmert pressed him further, he added, "We were friends."

Comey has also spoken publicly on their relationship. Asked if he is "best friends" with Mueller during his testimony before Congress in December 2018, Comey said they are "not friends in any social sense."

"I am not," Comey said. "I admire the heck out of the man, but I don't know his phone number, I've never been to his house, I don't know his children's names. I think I had a meal once alone with him in a restaurant. I like him."

Nevertheless, the two men worked together for years on some extraordinarily sensitive issues. 

In his question, Gohmert referenced a 2013 Washingtonian story on the two men’s "unusual friendship" that noted their professional relationship stretched back to 2003, when Comey was deputy attorney general and Mueller was FBI director.

The story said they became "close partners and close allies" over their opposition to the possible reauthorization of a controversial domestic surveillance program.

Here’s what Gohmert said about the story: "(It) said basically when Comey called, you dropped everything you were doing. It gave examples. You were having dinner with your wife and daughter, Comey calls, you drop everything and go. The article quoted Comey as saying if a train were coming down the track, and I quote, ‘At least Bob Mueller will be standing on the tracks with me.’"

That’s in reference to the story’s recollection of a moment in 2004, while Comey was filling in as acting attorney general and Mueller was FBI director, when Comey was bracing for a showdown with members of the Bush administration over the surveillance program. The story said:

"Riding down Pennsylvania Avenue in the back of Mueller’s SUV, the FBI director and the acting attorney general sat quietly. Comey thought, A freight train is heading down the tracks, about to derail me, my family, and my career. He glanced to his left at his fellow passenger, thinking, At least Bob Mueller will be standing on the tracks with me. 

That night, Mueller was at dinner with his wife and daughter when he got a call from Comey. The FBI director didn’t hesitate: ‘I’ll be right there.’"

— Bill McCarthy

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.: "President Trump cooperated fully with the investigation." 

This is False

Johnson said Trump "encouraged all witnesses to cooperate with the investigation and produced more than 1.4 million pages of information and allowed over 40 witnesses who were directly affiliated with the White House or his campaign."

But Mueller sought the White House’s cooperation in other ways — and was limited by Trump’s lack of cooperation.

Trump refused an in-person interview that Mueller’s team sought for more than a year, and he provided written responses that the Mueller report described as "inadequate."

On his written answers, the president indicated more than 30 times that he could not recall the information being requested, and he did not answer questions about obstruction of justice or events that took place during the presidential transition.

Mueller’s report also documented multiple "key issues and events" that were examined as part of the obstruction probe, including instances in which Trump tried to impede the investigation or instructed his staff to do so. On one occasion, Trump directed former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, but McGahn refused.

"The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful," the Mueller report said, "but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."

— Bill McCarthy

How much did the Mueller investigation cost?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.: "In the Paul Manafort case alone, you recovered as much as $42 million—so that the cost of your investigation to the taxpayers approaches zero."

There isn’t a direct link between the cost of Mueller’s investigation and related asset forfeitures.

Proceeds from forfeited assets go toward a general Justice Department fund that the attorney general can use to pay for "any necessary expenses associated with forfeiture operations such as property seizure, detention, management, forfeiture, and disposal." The fund can also be used to pay for "certain general investigative expenses," including federal law enforcement operations with state and local officers, according to the Justice Department’s website.

In general, recovered money going into a broad fund is a best practice, so prosecutors aren’t motivated to go after the richest targets and set others aside, a legal expert told us

As part of a plea agreement, Manafort forfeited to the government his real estate property in New York, funds in three bank accounts, and his life insurance policy. Court documents did not specify the estimated value of each asset. The total cost of the investigation is unclear at this point. The Justice Department’s website only lists three expenditures statements. Direct and indirect costs totaled $25.2 million through Sept. 30, 2018. Mueller formally closed the special counsel’s office in May.

— Miriam Valverde

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.: "Most prosecutors would want to make sure there is no appearance of impropriety. But in your case, you hired a bunch of people that did not like the president. Now, let me ask you. When did you first learn of Peter Strzok's animus toward Donald Trump? … Peter Strzok hated Trump. You didn’t know that before he was made part of your team, is that what you are saying?"

Peter Strzok is a former FBI agent who was removed from Mueller’s team. Strzok was removed after the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General discovered text messages he exchanged with Lisa Page, then an FBI lawyer with whom he was having an affair. In their text messages, Strzok and Page disparaged Trump before the 2016 election. They communicated using FBI devices.

The text messages included statements of hostility toward Trump and of support toward Hillary Clinton, the inspector general said in a June 2018 report. The report centered on the FBI’s and Justice Department’s actions related to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. The text messages were discovered in the course of that review.

Page told the inspector general’s office that she had a 45-day temporary assignment on Mueller’s team, but returned to her FBI duties on or around mid July 2017. The inspector general’s report said Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team "on approximately July 28, 2017" and returned to the FBI in another position, after the Deputy Attorney General and Mueller were informed of the text messages on July 27, 2017.

At the hearing, Mueller told Gohmert that he first learned about Strzok’s comments about Trump in the summer of 2017 and "acted swiftly to have him reassigned elsewhere in the FBI."

The inspector general’s report said that the messages "cast a cloud" over the FBI’s handling of the Clinton investigation and the investigation’s credibility. "But our review did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed," the report said. (Here are more details on the text messages between Strzok and Page.)

— Miriam Valverde