The Robert Mueller hearings continue to grind on, and perhaps especially on Mueller himself. At times, Mueller acts as nothing more than a one-word validation for Democrats reading verbatim from his report. At other times, he appears lost and unfamiliar with it — especially in this tough cross-examination from Republican Jim Jordan. Jordan highlights the curious case of Joseph Mifsud in the Russia-collusion saga, whose name comes up 87 times in Mueller’s report, included repeated references to his lying to investigators.
And yet, when Jordan asks why the FBI didn’t charge Mifsud for lying as he did with Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort, Mueller can’t immediately recall Mifsud or his role. When his memory gets refreshed, Mueller can’t offer any explanation for their decision not to press charges either:
Mifsud’s not just a footnote in Mueller’s narrative. He first gets introduced on page 5 of Volume I as the man — as Jordan accurately notes — who tells George Papadopoulos that “the Russian government had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of e-mails.” Papadopoulos’ indictment and conviction for obstruction by Mueller’s office directly relates to his interactions with Mifsud (pages 9 and 81 fn). On page 193, Mueller’s report outlines a number of false statements that Mifsud subsequently made to investigators:
Papadopoulos’s false statements in January 2017 impeded the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Most immediately, those statements hindered investigators’ ability to effectively question Mifsud when he was interviewed in the lobby of a Washington, D.C. hotel on February 10, 2017. See Gov’t Sent. Mem. at 6, United States v. George Papadopoulos, No. 1 :17-cr-182 (D.D.C. Aug. 18, 2017), Doc. 44. During that interview, Mifsud admitted to knowing Papadopoulos and to having introduced him to Polonskaya and Timofeev. But Mifsud denied that he had advance knowledge that Russia was in possession of emails damaging to candidate Clinton, stating that he and Papadopoulos had discussed cybersecurity and hacking as a larger issue and that Papadopoulos must have misunderstood their conversation. Mifsud also falsely stated that he had not seen Papadopoulos since the meeting at which Mifsud introduced him to Polonskaya, even though emails, text messages, and other information show that Mifsud met with Papadopoulos on at least two other occasions-April 12 and April 26, 2016. In addition, Mifsud omitted that he had drafted (or edited) the follow-up message that Polonskaya sent to Papadopoulos following the initial meeting and that, as reflected in the language of that email chain (“Baby, thank you!”), Mifsud may have been involved in a personal relationship with Polonskaya at the time. The false information and omissions in Papadopoulos’s January 2017 interview undermined investigators’ ability to challenge Mifsud when he made these inaccurate statements.
Why wasn’t Mifsud charged with the same crime as Papadopoulos? After all, they later got Papadopoulos to admit he’d lied and to cooperate with investigators. That would have cured the defects listed in this summary and allowed prosecutors to dig deeper into Mifsud, but it appears that they just let the matter drop. Mueller had no answer for this, and tried to claim that he couldn’t discuss declination and charging decisions. “It’s obvious, I think,” Mueller told Jordan, “that we can’t get into charging decisions.”
Excuse me? His report exists because the statute requires Mueller to explain his charging and declination decisions. Jordan suggests that the reason for Mueller’s refusal to answer is that Mifsud is an intelligence operative, but even if that were the case, Mueller had no trouble indicting “thirteen Russians no one ever heard of,” as Jordan put it. Why not Mifsud? Mueller won’t say. Jordan suggests that the reason is that Mifsud might not be a Russian intel asset but perhaps an American intelligence asset. And that might explain both why Mueller didn’t charge Mifsud and why Mueller won’t talk about him, because that would fall right into Michael Horowitz’ probe.
Today’s performance from Mueller was supposed to launch renewed Democratic efforts to impeach Donald Trump based on his report. Instead, Mueller has looked alternately like a pawn and an uncertain and confused bureaucrat, which is going to have an impact on the assessment Americans have about the special-counsel probe and its import to their lives. As Politico reported before Mueller made his appearance, that was already going badly for Democrats:
Since the public release of a redacted version of the Mueller report, Democrats have grown more skeptical that the Russia investigation was conducted fairly, according to a new poll.
Voters in general have grown more dubious about the Justice Department’s lengthy investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the POLITICO/Morning Consult survey, tipping the scales away from net trust in the probe as lawmakers prepare to grill the special counsel on Wednesday morning.
By a 5-point margin, the poll found that, overall, there’s more skepticism about how the Justice Department conducted its investigation than trust that it was carried out fairly: 37 percent of voters said that they believed Mueller’s investigation had been carried out very or somewhat fairly, compared with 42 percent who said the probe was conducted “not too fairly” or “not fairly at all.”
Both Democrats and Republicans have tilted toward a belief that the inquiry, which wrapped up this spring after almost two years, was not conducted fairly. An April survey — conducted shortly after the report’s release — found that 46 percent of voters thought the probe had been fair, compared with 29 percent who felt it had been unfair.
The Mifsud question might make the fairness question even more pertinent.