Former special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims that his investigation had exonerated the president of obstructing his probe into Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the 2016 election.
“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller declared at the opening of congressional hearings into his investigation.
He described the 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.
The televised Capitol Hill appearance, Mueller’s first since wrapping his two-year Russia probe last spring, unfolded at a moment of deep divisions in Congress and the country, with many Americans hardened in their opinions about the success of Donald Trump’s presidency and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary. It was unclear whether hours of testimony will shape public opinion about Trump’s acts.
Democrats hoped his testimony would weaken Trump’s reelection prospects in ways that Mueller’s book-length report did not. They hope that even if his testimony doesn’t 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.
Republicans, by contrast, immediately defended Trump and criticized the Democrats for continuing to go after him. They highlighted Mueller’s 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 frequently gave terse, one-word answers to lawmakers’ questions, and referred back to the wording in his report. He at times appeared stilted and halting, and several times asked for questions to be repeated.
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 carry the extraordinary spectacle of a prosecutor discussing in public a criminal investigation he conducted into a sitting US president.
Mueller, known for his taciturn nature, warned that he would not stray beyond what’s already been revealed in his report . And the Justice Department instructed Mueller to stay strictly within those parameters, giving him a formal directive to point to if he faces questions he does 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.”
“Why didn’t Robert Mueller investigate the investigators?” Trump said in his tweet.
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.
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.