Robert Mueller, the tacit lawyer at the center of a polarizing American drama, bluntly rejected the allegations of “complete exoneration” of President Donald Trump in Russia’s 2016 election interference federal probe on Wednesday. Mueller advised in a lengthy day of congressional testimony that the activities of Moscow represented — and still represent — a major threat to American democracy.
The back-to-back appearances of Mueller’s Capitol Hill, his first appearance since wrapping his two-year Russia probe, brought the prospect of a historic climax to a rare criminal investigation into a sitting American president. But his testimony was more likely to strengthen public opinion on impeachment and the future of Trump’s presidency than to reshape it.
Mueller made clear his desire to prevent the partisan fray and the profound political conflicts roiling Congress and the nation with his brief, one-word answers, and a sometimes stilted and stopping manner.
He did not deliver crisp TV sound bites to fuel a push for a Democratic impeachment, nor consolation to Republicans seeking to undermine the legitimacy of his investigation. But in the afternoon, when he sounded the alarm about future Russian election intrusion, his remarks grew more animated. He said he feared a fresh normal of American campaigns that would accept foreign aid.
He condemned WikiLeaks ‘ praise of Trump, which published Russia-stolen Democratic messages. And he said of Russians and others interference: “They’re doing it as we’re sitting here, and they’re expecting to do it in the next campaign.” He said his report should live on after him and his team.
“We spent considerable time ensuring the report’s integrity, knowing it would be our living message to those who come after us,” said Mueller. “But it is also a signal, a flag for those of us who have some responsibility in this region to quickly practice those duties and not allow this issue to persist as it has for so many years.”
Trump, claiming vindication despite renewing severe accusations, concentrated more on his own political fortunes than on wider problems.
Trump’s GOP allies attempted to cast as politically motivated the former special counsel and his prosecutors. They always referred to what they believe to be the investigation’s inappropriate opening.
Meanwhile, Democrats sought to highlight Mueller’s 448-page report’s most incendiary results and weaken Trump’s re-election prospects in respects that Mueller’s book-length report failed. They hoped that even though his testimony did not inspire impeachment requirements— House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that she will not seek impeachment for now — Mueller could spell out the president’s dubious, norm-shattering behavior unambiguously.
Mueller commonly provided one-word responses to issues, even if opportunities were offered to crystallize accusations of judicial obstruction against the president. In his study, he repeatedly referred to the wording.
Was the president lying when he told Russia that he had no company connections? “I won’t go into the report’s information along those lines,” said Mueller. Have you developed any kind of conspiracy between the campaign of Trump and Russia?
Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, inquired about Trump’s various allegations of vindication by the inquiry in the opening minutes of the hearing of the Judiciary Committee.
“What about complete exoneration? Have you effectively exonerated the president completely?” questioned Nadler.
“No,” answered Mueller.
When Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic chairman, asked, “Your inquiry is not a witch hunt, is it?”
“It’s not a witch hunt,” Mueller replied flatly.
He gave a flicker of hope to Democrats when he told California’s Rep. Ted Lieu that he did not charge Trump because of a legal opinion from the Justice Department that says sitting presidents cannot be charged. That declaration cheered Democrats who understood him to suggest that otherwise, they might have suggested prosecution on the strength of the proof.
But Mueller later went home on that exchange, stating: “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president had committed a crime.” His team, he said, never began the process of assessing whether Trump should be charged.
Republicans concentrated on his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to create a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“These are the Mueller report’s facts. Russia interfered with the 2016 election. The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will alter those facts,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican of the Judiciary Committee.
Mueller pressed as to why he hadn’t investigated a “dossier” of claims that the Republicans insist on helping to get the probe started, said it wasn’t his charge. That was, he always said, “outside my purview.”
Mueller mostly brushed aside Republican accusations of bias, but in a time of evident agitation, he said that he did not believe that lawmakers had ever “reviewed a report that is as comprehensive, as fair, as coherent as the report we have before us.” And when he was pressed on the reality that several members of his squad had made donations to Democratic applicants, Mueller bristled at the implications.
“I’ve been in this business for nearly 25 years, and I haven’t had the opportunity to ask someone once about their political affiliation in those 25 years,” Mueller said, emphasizing his hand. “It’s not performed. I’m concerned about the individual’s ability to do the job and do the job rapidly, seriously, and with integrity.” The first hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday concentrated on whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to take control of Mueller’s inquiry. Nearly a dozen episodes were examined for prospective obstruction by the special counsel, including Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and his attempts to have Mueller removed himself.
The evening hearing before the House Intelligence Committee connects the Trump campaign with the Kremlin.
On that issue, Mueller’s study recorded a path of contacts between Russians and Trump partners, including a Trump Tower conference at which Democrat Hillary Clinton’s eldest son of the president was supposed to receive dirt.