Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe’s three-minute long take on some of the Mueller report’s specific findings wound up giving a string of Republican members more ammunition for questioning the credibility of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
At issue for Ratcliffe during Wednesday morning’s long anticipated Mueller testimony before the House Judiciary Committee was that the Mueller report did not explicitly exonerate President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice.
Ratcliffe was the second Republican to question Mueller at the hearing, and the congressman’s line of reasoning was repeated by other committee Republicans who looked to follow the party’s general strategy of doubting the validity of the special counsel’s report.
Trump tapped Ratcliffe as the administration’s new Director of National Intelligence just four days after Ratcliffe led the GOP charge against Mueller. If he is confirmed by the Senate, Ratcliffe would replace Dan Coats as the nation’s new head of intelligence gathering.
Mueller’s 448-page report, the culmination of almost two years of investigations, said while the investigation “does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The special counsel’s findings on obstruction of justice—which make up almost half the report—should not have even been included, Ratcliffe said. He reasoned that the report’s findings, which did not charge or exonerate the president, go against the law that authorized the special counsel’s mission.
“Nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him,” Ratcliffe said to Mueller. “It’s not in any of the documents. It’s not in your appointment order. It’s not in the special counsel regulations. It’s not in the OLC opinions. It’s not in the justice manual, and it’s not in the Principles of Federal Prosecution.”
Ratcliffe was referring to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which in 2000 issued an opinion that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted. That opinion was referenced several times during Mueller’s testimony.
Neal Katyal, a lawyer who helped draft the law which outlines the special counsel’s powers and abilities, took to Twitter to criticize Ratcliffe’s interpretation of the law. He wrote that Ratcliffe was “dead wrong” and that the Mueller report’s findings are allowed under the law.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who was live-Tweeting the hearing, agreed with Ratcliffe, writing that it was “ridiculous for Democrats and the Mueller team to continue claiming Trump isn’t exonerated because Mueller didn’t exonerate him.“
Ratcliffe’s focus on the specific phrase in the Mueller report that states that the report does not exonerate the president was in direct contradiction to a Democratic focus on the same phrasing.
Jarrold Nadler, a New York Democrat and Judiciary Committee chairman, opened Wednesday morning’s hearing with a line of questioning that featured Mueller being asked whether the report exonerated the president.
“Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him, but that is not what your report said, is it?” Nadler asked Mueller.
“Correct. That is not what the report said,” Mueller said in response, and repeated several times later that the report did not exonerate the president.
Later in the day, other Republicans followed Ratcliffe’s line of questioning. During the House Intelligence committee hearing, where Mueller also testified Wednesday, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio told the special counsel that he wanted to specifically focus on the word “exonerate.”
While stacking several legal textbooks in front of himself, Turner argued that the word exonerate is not a legal term, and because of that Mueller had no power to exonerate or not exonerate the president.
“You don’t have the power or authority to exonerate Trump,” Turner said. “You have no more power to exonerate Trump than you have to declare him Anderson Cooper (the CNN anchor).”