Washington, DC – In more than five hours of testimony before two congressional panels, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller said his investigation of Russia’s interference in 2016 US presidential election did not exonerate Donald Trump of obstruction of justice, as the president has claimed.
“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee during the first of back-to-back hearings.
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At the same time, Mueller’s highly anticipated appearance did not appear to offer any game-changing moments for Democrats – or for Republicans.
Instead, Mueller stuck to confirming facts already stated in his 448-page report and declined to endorse competing interpretations of his investigation’s conclusion by either Democrats or Republicans. Appearing at times shaky, Mueller often offered only one-word responses or declined to answer altogether.
Democrats used their question time to attempt to draw out the facts and analysis from Mueller of specific instances outlined in his report. Republicans took a more combative tone, seeking to raise doubts about Mueller’s conduct as special counsel and the credibility of his investigation.
In remarks at the White House after Mueller’s testimony, Trump claimed victory. “It was a good day for our Republican party, our country.”
But some analysts believe the few questions in which Mueller gave more than a one-word response were good for the Democrats.
“On substance, I thought the Democrats did very well today because they got the author and leader of the report to say that the report did not totally exonerate the president of the United States,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Washington, DC.
“And Mueller said – he implied it many times – that there is enough evidence for the president to be indicted after the president leaves office,” Rossi said. But “in terms of flamboyance, and theatre and drama, the Republicans scored more points,” Rossi told Al Jazeera.
After more than five hours of testimony, here’s are the key highlights and takeaways:
A redacted version of the Mueller report published in April concluded there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow. But Mueller declined to make a judgment on whether Trump obstructed justice, though the report outlined 10 instances in which Trump tried to impede the investigation. US Attorney General William Barr and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently determined Trump had not broken the law.
Mueller confirmed on Wednesday that his investigation found substantial evidence that the president repeatedly tried to interfere in the special counsel’s investigation, which took 22 months and involved dozens of lawyers, federal investigators and thousands of pages of interviews and documentation.
Trump has repeatedly said the Mueller report “fully exonerated” him from any wrongdoing.
But Mueller pushed back, telling Congress, “That’s not what the report said.”
“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said.
Mueller also confirmed that Trump wanted him fired for investigating obstruction of justice. “That’s what it says in the report, yes,” Mueller said when asked about the issue.
2. Trump could still be charged, Mueller says
Mueller said that his team never considered charging the president with a crime.
During the morning hearing, he appeared to agree that he would have charged Trump if he wasn’t blocked by long-standing Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
But after Democrats seized on that language, he later clarified himself, saying the correct way to characterise his team’s decision was that “we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
Mueller said that the president could still be charged after leaving office.
3. ‘Not a witch-hunt’
As he did on Wednesday, Trump has repeatedly claimed that the Mueller investigation was a “witch-hunt”.
Mueller rejected that assertion, saying during his testimony, “it’s not”.
4. Russian interference ‘still happening’
Mueller expressed disapproval of the Trump campaign’s acceptance of help from Russia documented in the report, without reporting it to the FBI.
Trump had repeatedly promoted the WikiLeaks publication of Democrat emails during the 2016 campaign.
“‘Problematic is an understatement in terms of giving hope or a boost to what is or should be an illegal activity,” Mueller said. It was “disturbing” and “it certainly calls for investigation,” Mueller said.
Mueller acknowledged that several of Trump’s associates lied to or misled investigators and refused to cooperate. Trump himself refused to be interviewed by the special counsel. Instead, Trump’s lawyers submitted written responses to Mueller’s questions.
Trump told Mueller he “did not recall” what he knew about WikiLeaks in advance, even though his campaign had prepared a political and media strategy around WikiLeaks.
Mueller also warned Russian political interference is continuing.
“Not only wasn’t it a single attempt, they are doing it as we sit here and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” he said.
5. Mueller defends his team
Republicans raised complaints about the conduct of Mueller’s investigation. Former FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page were removed from the special counsel’s team after text messages between the two came to light showing they had negative political views of Trump.
Mueller said in 25 years he had never asked an agent about their political views. He said his team was selected for their professional qualifications.
Mueller offered a spirited response to accusations from Republicans that his team may not have “faithfully, accurately, impartially and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report”.
“I don’t think you all reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us,” Mueller said, adding that is investigation was conducted in a “fair and independent manner”.
When asked what he wanted the American public to take from his report, Mueller said: “We spent substantial time ensuring the integrity of the report.”
6. Impeachment still unlikely
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after Mueller’s testimony it had not changed the Democratic leadership’s position on whether and when to bring impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Pelosi has thus far resisted growing calls within her caucus to begin impeachment proceedings, instead urging patience as multiple investigations into Trump continue.
“If we have a case for impeachment that’s where we will have to go. I would like it to be a strong case,” Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday.
Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after the hearing, “Today was a watershed day in terms of sharing the facts with the American people”.
For his part, Mueller refused to answer questions related to the “impeachment issue”.