With five minutes to question former special counsel Robert Mueller, Rep. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, used most of his time Wednesday to critique Mueller’s interpretation of obstruction of justice.
The three-hour House Judiciary Committee hearing featured mostly one-word or brief answers from Mueller about the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference. Mueller told the committee he explicitly did not clear President Donald Trump of obstructing his investigation, and Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice once he leaves office. Cline accused Mueller of applying “creative legal analysis” to the obstruction statute.
“I’m concerned about the implications of your theory for overcriminalizing conduct by public officials and private citizens alike,” Cline said.
Cline suggested that Mueller’s broad interpretation of the law could be applied in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server and whether her email setup put any of the nation’s secrets at risk. In a television interview in 2015, former President Barack Obama said, “I don’t think it posed a national security problem.” Cline then asked Mueller if Obama could be charged with obstruction of justice because of his remarks. Mueller referred Cline to his report on the Russia probe.
After Cline criticized one of the members of Mueller’s legal team, Mueller twice tried to defend him, but Cline cut Mueller off each time. Cline spoke for four minutes.
“Let me move on, I have limited time,” Cline said.
As the question of impeachment looms, Cline has faced reminders of the 1974 impeachment hearings for President Richard Nixon and the crucial role of a predecessor from Roanoke.
Caldwell Butler represented the 6th Congressional District during the House Judiciary Committee hearings on impeaching Nixon.
As a first-term Republican representative, Caldwell was one of a few from his party to break ranks and vote to impeach Nixon. As the evidence mounted against Nixon, Butler felt compelled to stand against corruption. Butler went on to win reelection four times. He died in 2014 at the age of 89.
Cline, a lawyer and former prosecutor, is a freshman and has supported Trump. He served as the chief of staff to his 6th District predecessor, former Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Roanoke County.
Politics have changed since 1974; there’s more partisan polarization. In the 6th District, Cline faced a tough intraparty battle to win the Republican nomination last year. Going against Trump would likely result in harsh backlash from party activists.