‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ Like the lawman in the ’50s crime show Dragnet he’s sometimes compared to, Robert Mueller doesn’t embellish. So Congressional Democrats will almost certainly be disappointed when he testifies next week. He’s always said: just read the report. He’s always said: I’m not going to add to it. That hasn’t stopped a frenzy of anticipation by Democratic members of the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, where Mueller will appear. Someone who deals regularly with Democrats on both said: ‘You can’t get them to concentrate on anything else.’
Other high profile hearings have seen more grandstanding than forensic skill from committee members. That was true of the appearance by President Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen. This Congress full of lawyers has not found its Perry Mason. For all these reasons, a former official in the Obama administration told me he had ‘low expectations’ for Mueller’s appearance. And yet, this was ‘a rare opportunity for something new to happen’. What, then, should they ask him?
They could start by asking Mueller if he believes that the Kremlin can blackmail President Trump with sex tapes. This was one of the central, and most incendiary, claims in the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer. The ‘pee tape’? James Comey, the FBI director fired by Trump, believes it ‘possible’ that it exists. But in Mueller’s report there is just a single reference to supposed Russian government kompromat – compromising material – on Trump, and it’s buried in a footnote.
The footnote says that in October 2016 Cohen got a text from a Russian businessman, Giorgi Rtskhiladze, saying: ‘Stopped flow of tapes from Russia but not sure if there’s anything else. Just so you know…’ It goes on to say that Cohen spoke to Trump about this. What did Cohen say? How did Trump react? Did he dismiss the text as ridiculous, something that could not possibly be true? Or did they discuss damage limitation? How, exactly, did Rtskhiladze say he had stopped the flow of tapes? The answers to these questions would be highly revealing. Mueller should be asked what Cohen said about all this during his many hours of questioning.
The footnote also says that Rtskhiladze told Cohen of ‘rumors’ that compromising tapes were held by Russians connected to the Crocus group, which hosted the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013. Don’t assume that Rtskhiladze was talking here about the ‘pee tape’. In 2017, I met a man described as a former officer with Russian intelligence who said he had seen Trump kompromat. It was filmed, he said, in a private apartment in the Crocus complex in Moscow. Trump was ‘chasing a prostitute’ through one room of the apartment, ‘holding her by the hair and hitting her’.
The ‘former intelligence officer’ was also prone to making rambling speeches about how ‘the Jews’ and ‘the masons’ ran the world. He had a garbled story about criminal groups keeping stacks of gold bars on pallets at airport warehouses around the world. He said that Vladimir Putin was seriously ill and had a body double. We felt like visitors to a psychiatric hospital who start to wonder if the man with the white coat, stethoscope and plausible manner is one of the patients, not a doctor.
It seemed just as likely that the former intelligence officer was a lunatic, a fantasist, or a conman. But over more than a year, we worked to check his identity. Eventually, we were surprised to learn that he was who he said he was. We went back to speak to him again in 2018 and he gave us more details of the ‘US election operation’. He described some of the men ‘who run Russia’ meeting in a dacha outside Moscow to watch ‘the Trump tapes’ for entertainment, knocking back vodka, slapping their knees, creased with laughter, tears running down their faces: ‘That is our candidate for president of the United States.’
Even former Russian intelligence officers can be liars and fantasists (and believe that ‘the Jews’ run the world). But we also discovered – in a way that means I can say this with certainty – that the US government knows this character. And I was told, more recently, that a senior official from a former Soviet republic visited Washington to offer some Trump tapes. The intelligence committee should ask Mueller what he did to investigate the kompromat issue and if, like Comey, he believes it’s at least possible that such material exists. Do phone intercepts show Kremlin officials talking about the president being vulnerable to blackmail? Did the US intelligence agencies’ Russian assets discuss this? If they did, what assessment was made of their information? How many witnesses did Mueller’s team interview on this question? Does the US government have any tapes, even if their authenticity is not proved, even if they have been shown to be fakes?
This is important because lurid stories like that of the pee-tape seem almost designed to fascinate journalists – and everyone else. Mueller should be asked if he saw any evidence of a campaign of disinformatzia about Trump by Russian intelligence, which has been skilled in peddling outrageous yet irresistible lies since Tsarist times. The report’s single footnote on kompromat says that, when questioned, Rtskhiladze said he had found out that the tapes he texted Cohen about were fakes. Interestingly, he also never informed Cohen of this important fact.
Cohen figures in another big story from the Steele dossier that was never proved, or disproved. This is the claim that Cohen went to the Czech capital, Prague, in the summer of 2016 to meet Russian agents and discuss fixing the election. It is curious that Mueller’s report puts the denial of this entirely in Cohen’s mouth. ‘Cohen had never traveled to Prague and was not concerned about those allegations, which he believed were provably false.’ Mueller should be asked if he’s satisfied that Cohen really didn’t do this. Did the inquiry establish a timeline of Cohen’s movements in 2016? Did the investigators believe his statement that he was in LA when Steele said he was in Prague? Did they get Cohen’s cell phone records? That matters because of reports that Cohen’s phone pinged a cell tower in Prague. There is reason to believe that this data exists (though whether it has been faked is another question). Did Mueller ask the Czech authorities to hand over any phone records they might have? The significance of Prague is that this is where ‘collusion’ happened, if collusion there was, something that Mueller was unable to prove.
There are several other hanging threads in his report. The Trump Organization’s relationship with Deutsche Bank, for instance. Or Trump’s incredibly profitable sale of a mansion in Florida to a Russian oligarch, Dmitri Rybolovlev. Trump bought the place for $41m and sold it for $95m. Mueller should be asked what investigations he has given to other prosecutors: how many ‘ongoing matters’ there are involving the president or his family. As I say, it’s unlikely, that the ramrod straight Mueller will give anything away. Prosecutors who operate under Department of Justice rules aren’t supposed to talk about damaging evidence they might have if they are not going to charge someone. And Mueller says he is bound by DoJ policy that you can’t indict a sitting president.
The Democrats might have more luck with obstruction of justice. Mueller set out ‘facts’ on this without reaching a conclusion. The attorney general, William Barr, took those facts – thank you very much – and wrote to Congress saying he’d decided that the president was in the clear. Mueller then wrote a tetchy letter to Barr accusing him of failing to ‘fully capture the context, nature, and substance’ of the investigation. I’m told that Mueller and Barr had a row in private about obstruction. That comes from a single source, though one who told me correctly that Trump would be OK on collusion but not on obstruction. The judiciary committee should ask Mueller if he met Barr before handing in his report and what they said to each other.
The very last paragraph of Mueller’s report is worth reading in full.
‘If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’
That is ominous for the president, or it could be if the House of Representatives decides to impeach. Mueller’s demeanor in front of the two committees next week might justifiably be that of a weary teacher. The class has failed to do the reading again but keeps asking for more pointers on how to complete the assignment. Mueller, the institutionalist, believes it’s up to Congress to prosecute a president, not him. He’s given them the tools to do the job, if that’s what they want to do. He could reasonably answer their questions with another question of his own: Why are you wasting time talking to me?
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.