The two-year Russia investigation did not exonerate President Trump, former special counsel Robert Mueller told Congress on Wednesday, contradicting the president’s claims and giving Democrats the made-for-TV quote they hoped for.
Mr. Mueller, testifying to two House committees, did not say Mr. Trump committed crimes. That was not a determination his team was allowed to make, the special counsel said.
But Mr. Mueller did say Mr. Trump wasn’t truthful in his written testimony to the special counsel, that Trump campaign benefitted from Russian interference then lied to cover it up, and that the campaign may have betrayed American democracy.
He even said the president could still be charged with a crime after he leaves office.
In perhaps his most striking criticism he said Mr. Trump was wrong to praise WikiLeaks for releasing Clinton campaign emails during the 2016 campaign
“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal behavior,” Mr. Mueller said during roughly six hours of testimony to the House judiciary and intelligence panels.
Yet the 74-year-old prosecutor struggled at times with the details of his own report, was unable to say there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and would not say whether the president deserved impeachment.
Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters afterward, saw the testimony as an unqualified success for himself.
“We had a very good day today,” the president said. “I think everybody understands what is going on. There was no defense to this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt.”
“This was a devastating day for the Democrats,” Mr. Trump added.
Democrats said they saw it differently, calling his testimony a watershed day.
“The American people now realize more fully the crimes that were committed against our Constitution,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, told reporters after Mr. Mueller’s testimony. “It is a crossing of a threshold in terms of the public awareness of what happened. “
Still, Mrs. Pelosi signaled Mr. Mueller’s testimony isn’t enough to start impeachment proceedings.
She cast it as an invitation to more investigation, saying the special counsel didn’t probe the president’s finances, but that’s what House Democrats will do. She said that will show the motives behind the president’s behavior.
“It means we can get the information to show the American people what the obstruction of justice was all about,” she said.
It’s unclear if Mr. Mueller’s comments will resonate with the majority of Americans who, so far, appear unwilling to support impeachment.
Democrats admitted the hearing was an attempt to carve Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report into sound-byte moments that could cut through the American attention span and drive the issue home.
Trying to create those moments, Democrats read from the report to try to goad the former prosecutor into repeating some of its damning conclusions.
For the most part, he resisted, saying only that he stood by the report.
In one exchange, Rep. Andre Carson asked him if he thought the campaign’s behavior was “a betrayal of the democratic values our country rests on.”
“I can’t agree with that,” Mr. Mueller said. “Not that it’s not true, but I cannot agree with it.”
Even when Democrats thought they had a victory, Mr. Mueller appeared to snatch it from their hands.
At several points during the Judiciary Committee hearing, Mr. Mueller indicated he would have indicted the president for obstruction if not for Justice Department guidelines.
But he kicked off the intelligence committee hearing by saying he had to correct that statement.
“We did not make any determination with regard to culpability. We did not start that process,” he said.
His correction didn’t affect Democrats, who still asserted that but for the guidance Mr. Mueller would have brought charges.
Republicans, meanwhile, brushed over Mr. Mueller’s repeated findings of troubling behavior on the president’s part as he fumed at the ongoing investigation.
“This president has not done anything wrong in the process,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters.
Mr. Mueller appeared to differ.
The key exchange came early in the day, when Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler asked if the report “did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice.”
“That is correct,” Mr. Mueller replied.
“And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president”?” Mr Nadler followed up.
“No,” responded Mr. Mueller.
Republicans countered by getting Mr. Mueller to admit that despite the president’s antipathy, the special counsel finished its probe without interference.
The GOP also managed to trip Mr. Mueller during his testimony.
The Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, trapped Mr. Mueller in a contradiction with his own report over whether there was a difference between “conspiracy” and “collusion.” Mr. Mueller initially said there was, but had to backtrack after shown his own report that said there wasn’t.
Mr. Mueller was more forceful during the afternoon’s session with the intelligence committee, defending the 22-month investigation.
He insisted that his probe was not a “witch hunt,” and defended his team against claims of partisanship by Republicans.
After Rep. Kelly Armstrong, North Dakota Republican, highlighted Democratic leanings of Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors, the special counsel raised his voice for the first time all day.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years. I have not had an occasion to once ask somebody about their political affiliation,” he said. “What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”
Mr. Armstrong fired back, telling Mr. Mueller he should have better avoided the appearance of conflicts of interest.
GOP attempts to get Mr. Mueller to discuss the origins of the FBI’s original probe into the Trump campaign were stonewalled.
The prosecutor even declining to discuss if his team ever interviewed Christopher Steele, the ex-British spy who authored a salacious dossier that launched the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant for a top Trump campaign aide.
Mr. Mueller said there are other investigations about the FBI’s behavior, and said the events happened before he was special counsel.
Mr. Mueller did make an appeal for lawmakers to keep their eye on 2020, and the certainty that Russia will attempt to meddle in the election again.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said.
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