Robert Mueller on Wednesday bluntly dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of total exoneration in the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference. The former special counsel told Congress he explicitly did not clear the president of obstructing his investigation.
The televised Capitol Hill appearance, Mueller’s first since wrapping his two-year Russia probe last spring, unfolded at a moment of deep division in the country, with many Americans hardened in their opinions about Donald Trump’s presidency and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary.
Republicans and Democrats took divergent paths in questioning Mueller, with Trump’s GOP allies trying to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated. Democrats, meanwhile, sought to emphasize the most incendiary findings of Mueller’s 448-page report and weaken Trump’s re-election prospects in ways that Mueller’s book-length report did not.
They hoped that even if his testimony did not inspire impeachment demands — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear she will not pursue impeachment, for now — Mueller could nonetheless unambiguously spell out questionable, norm-shattering actions by the president.
Yet Mueller by midday appeared unwilling or unable to offer crisp sound bites that could reshape already-entrenched public opinions.
He frequently gave terse, one-word answers to lawmakers’ questions, even when given opportunities to crystallize allegations of obstruction of justice against the president. He referred time and again to the wording in his report or asked for questions to be repeated. He declined to read aloud hard-hitting statements in the report when prodded by Democrats to do so.
But he was unflinching on the most-critical matters.
In the opening minutes of the hearing, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked Mueller about Trump’s claims of vindication in the investigation.
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked.
“No,” Mueller replied.
Though Mueller described Russian government’s efforts to interfere in American politics as among the most serious challenges to democracy he had encountered in his decades-long career — which included steering the FBI after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — Republicans seized on his conclusion of insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Those are the facts of the Mueller report. Russia meddled in the 2016 election,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts.”
Mueller, pressed as to why he hadn’t investigated a “dossier” of claims that the Republicans insist helped lead to the start of the probe, he said that was not his charge.
That was “outside my purview,” he said repeatedly.
Though Mueller declared at the outset that he would be limited in what he would say, the hearings nonetheless carried the extraordinary spectacle of a prosecutor discussing in public a criminal investigation he conducted into a sitting U.S. president.
Mueller, known for his taciturn nature, warned that he would not stray beyond what had already been revealed in his report. And the Justice Department instructed him to stay strictly within those parameters, giving him a formal directive to point to if he faced questions he did not want to answer.
Trump lashed out early Wednesday ahead of the hearing, saying on Twitter that “Democrats and others” are trying to fabricate a crime and pin it on “a very innocent President.”
Trump has made Mueller a regular target of attack over the past two years in an attempt to undermine his credibility and portray him as biased and compromised.
Over the past week, Trump had begun to frequently ask confidants how he thought the hearing would go, and while he expressed no worry that Mueller would reveal anything damaging, he was irritated that the former special counsel was being given the national stage, according to two Republicans close to the White House. They were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Long aware of the power of televised images, Trump seethed to one adviser that he was annoyed Democrats would be given a tool to ramp up their investigations — and that the cable news networks would now have new footage of Mueller to play endlessly.
Trump this week feigned indifference to Mueller’s testimony, telling reporters in the Oval Office on Monday, “I’m not going to be watching — probably — maybe I’ll see a little bit of it.”
Mueller is a former FBI director who spent 12 years parrying questions from lawmakers at oversight hearings, and decades before that as a prosecutor who asked questions of his own. He resisted efforts to goad him into saying anything he did not want to say. He repeatedly told lawmakers to refer to his report for answers to specific questions.
Wednesday’s first hearing before the Judiciary Committee focused on whether the president illegally obstructed justice by attempting to seize control of Mueller’s investigation.
The special counsel examined nearly a dozen episodes, including Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and his efforts to have Mueller himself removed. Mueller in his report ultimately declined to state whether the president broke the law, saying such a judgment would be unfair in light of Justice Department legal opinions that bar the indictment of a sitting president.
The afternoon hearing before the House Intelligence Committee will dive into ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
On that question, Mueller’s report documented a trail of contacts between Russians and Trump associates — including a Trump Tower meeting at which the president’s eldest son expected to receive dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton — but the special counsel found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy aiming to tip the 2016 election.