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Trump lied, behaved badly, Mueller affirms. So what else is new?

Former special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday. Credit: Bloomberg/Andrew Harrer

Mueller doesn't move the ball

Robert Mueller signaled ahead of time that he was going to stick to what was said in his Russia investigation report, and for the most part that's what he did. As before, he gave no prosecutorial conclusion on whether Donald Trump broke the law.

With dogged questioning during back-to-back House committee hearings, Democrats did manage to coax a personal verdict on Trump's behavior to the surface. When Mueller was asked his reaction to Trump's "I love WikiLeaks" comments after the website published Democratic 2016 campaign documents stolen by Russian government hackers, he replied:

"Well, problematic is an understatement in terms of giving some hope or boost to what is and should be illegal activity," Mueller said. He affirmed, as his report said and contrary to Trump's claims, that he did not "totally exonerate" the president: “It is not what the report said.” Mueller also said Trump also was "generally' untruthful in written answers to the special counsel's office.

The report did determine, as Mueller said again, that there was insufficient evidence to tie Trump to a criminal conspiracy with the Russian efforts to help his campaign, though Trump had welcomed it. And while the report listed 10 examples of potential Trump efforts to obstruct justice, Justice Department rules barring indictment of a sitting president pre-empted coming to a decision about charges, Mueller reiterated.

But at the end of the day, Mueller gave Democrats looking to build an impeachment case neither bombshell new revelations nor scintillating sound bites. He repeatedly gave one-word answers or none at all, referring to his report or saying the question was outside his purview.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked up Mueller's testimony as “a crossing of a threshold in terms of the public awareness of what happened." But it did not carry her across the threshold of favoring impeachment, a step she has warned House Democrats against taking without a major shift that would get enough public opinion behind it to get Republicans in the Senate to entertain the idea. In the meantime, The House investigations will lumber on.

For more, see Newsday's story by Tom Brune.

See for yourself

Watch video excerpts of the Mueller hearings and read key take-aways from the testimony.

Changing nothing 

Cancel that Nobel Prize for good. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is still a rocket man. His military fired a new type of short-range ballistic missile in two launches into the seaThursday, South Korean officials said. 

“North Korea appears to be thinking its diplomacy with the U.S. isn’t proceeding in a way that they want. So they’ve fired missiles to get the table to turn in their favor,” analyst Kim Dae-young at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy told The Associated Press.

The next question is whether Trump feels humiliated on behalf of the U.S. Stay tuned.

Janison: The clock is ticking

When Mueller was pressed to explain why he gave up a battle to get Trump to submit to questioning by his investigators, he replied that it would have taken too much time. "If we did subpoena the president, he would fight the subpoena and we would be in the midst of the investigation for a substantial period of time,” he explained.

Timing also looms an issue for House Democrats, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. As they try to build on Mueller's case, the House Judiciary Committee is headed to court to try to force a key figure, former White House counsel Don McGahn, to testify. The special counsel's report described how Trump tried to get McGahn to fire Mueller on a conflict-of-interest pretext, and then to get McGahn behind a false story that the scheme never took place.

Legal battles are also underway to force the administration to turn over Mueller's grand jury material. Whether the House will win, and how long that could take, is unknown, as is whether popular support for impeachment will wax or wane.

Trump: I won

As the hearing concluded, Trump tweeted: "TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!” Then he headed out to the White House South Lawn, yelled at reporters whose questions irritated him, praised Republican lawmakers on the committees who depicted Mueller's investigation as biased and declared it was a “great day for me.”

Trump has previously and inaccurately described Mueller's report as a "total exoneration." After Mueller reiterated that it was not an exoneration, Trump said the special counsel "didn’t have a right to exonerate." For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Not a command performance

One of the day's surprises was that Mueller, especially in the morning session with the Judiciary Committee, did not come across as a commanding figure. He was often halting in his responses, frequently asked for questions to be repeated and on numerous occasions did not appear to have a full grasp of elements of his report.

Mueller was somewhat steadier and more animated with the Intelligence Committee in the afternoon and was perhaps at his liveliest when Republicans pressed attacks on the integrity of his investigation and his team.

To accusations he loaded his staff with what Trump has called "angry Democrats," Mueller defend his record over a career as a Justice Department official and past FBI director:

"We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job. I've been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”

The investigation, he said, was not tainted by political bias. “I don’t think you have reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent, as the report that we have in front of us,” said Mueller.

Fox host's proxies

Besides casting the investigation as partisan, Trump’s GOP allies repeatedly cast suspicions on its origins. Mueller swatted away those questions, pointing out that some are under separate Justice Department probes that he could not comment about.

The Daily Beast found an unusual pattern linking some of the Republican inquiries: At least 18 of them closely matched questions proposed Tuesday night by Trump pal Sean Hannity on his Fox News show.

Politico reports Republicans on Capitol Hill were spiking the football before the hearings concluded. “This is the death rattle for impeachment. The Democrats on the dais looked as if they had been held at a funeral for too long,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida.

New normal?

One subject on which Mueller was expansive was concern that his findings on the scope of Russian election interference has been "underplayed" and that Russians and others will do it again.

“We spent substantial time assuring the integrity of the report, understanding that it would be our living message to those who come after us,” Mueller said. “But it also is a signal, a flag to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don’t let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years.”

He worried that the Trump campaign set a precedent by failing to notify authorities during his campaign about Russia's approaches in the 2016 election.

“I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is."

What else is happening:

  • A federal judge in San Francisco blocked the Trump administration from enforcing new asylum restrictions for immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. The ruling came hours after a federal judge in Washington decided to let the rules stand.
  • Bernard Madoff, serving a 150-year federal prison term for a Ponzi scheme that cost investors $20 billion, is asking Trump to reduce his sentence so he can go free, Bloomberg News reported. A former federal prosecutor on the case said of the clemency request: “That’s hilarious.”
  • Joe Biden said of Trump in a New York Times Magazine interview that in 2016, "I don't think anybody thought he would be as bad as he is."
  • Trump vetoed three congressional resolutions that sought to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
  • Newly unsealed court records confirm that Felix Sater, a former Trump business associate involved in the pre-election effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, was an FBI source against New York's organized crime families and gathered intelligence on al-Qaida and arms dealers in Afghanistan, The Associated Press reports.
  • Trump railed against Guatemala for failing to agree to a measure to curb the flow of migrants, while the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security praised the Central American nation for what he said was cooperation to tighten immigration security.

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