Robert Mueller Doubles Down, Refuses To Exonerate Trump
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller has said in dramatic US congressional testimony he had not exonerated President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice.
He also defended the integrity of his inquiry under repeated attacks by conservative Republican allies of the president.
Mueller initially testified he would have sought to indict Trump were it not for a Justice Department policy against charging a sitting president. But hours later he corrected himself and said "we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime".
Answering questions publicly for the first time on his inquiry, Mueller appeared for eagerly anticipated testimony in two back-to-back televised congressional hearings that carried high stakes for Trump and Democrats who are split between impeaching him or moving on to the 2020 election.
The former FBI director, who spent 22 months investigating what he concluded was Russian interference in a "sweeping and systematic fashion" in the 2016 US election to help Trump and the president's conduct, appeared for more than three-and-a-half hours before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
Mueller then appeared before the House Intelligence Committee for more questioning. Democrats control the House while Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate.
The Judiciary Committee's Democratic chairman, Jerrold Nadler, praised Mueller and said no one, including Trump, is "above the law". The Intelligence Committee's Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff, accused Trump's 2016 campaign of "disloyalty to country" for inviting, encouraging and making full use of Russian election meddling.
But Trump's Republican allies on the committees tried to paint Mueller's investigation as unfair to the president, with Louie Gohmert heatedly telling him "you perpetuated injustice" and conservative congressman Guy Reschenthaler calling the manner in which the inquiry was conducted "un-American".
"Welcome, everyone, to the last gasp of the Russian collusion conspiracy theory," said Devin Nunes, the Intelligence Committee's top Republican, on Wednesday.
Mueller's 448-page report, released in redacted form on April 18, did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice in a series of actions aimed at impeding the inquiry, but did not exonerate him.
Democratic Representative Ted Lieu asked Mueller during the first hearing whether the reason he did not bring a criminal indictment against Trump was the Justice Department's longstanding policy crafted by its Office of Legal Counsel against bringing criminal charges against a sitting president.
"That is correct," Mueller said.
But Mueller at the outset of the second hearing backed off that testimony.
"I would like to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said, and I quote, you didn't charge the president because of the OLC opinion.' That is not the correct way to say it. As we say in the report and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."
Trump has claimed that the Mueller inquiry resulted in the president's "complete and total exoneration".
"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" Nadler asked Mueller.
"No," Mueller replied.
After the hearing, Lieu told reporters, "What we established today in the hearing is that we have a felon sitting in the White House. Donald Trump committed multiple crimes of obstruction of justice."
Trump has accused Mueller of having conflicts of interest, including saying Mueller wanted the president to appoint him as FBI director after firing James Comey. Mueller disputed Trump's account, saying he had not sought the FBI job from Trump. Mueller noted that Justice Department ethics officials confirmed he had no such conflicts.
"Let me say one more thing," Mueller said. "Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government's effort to interfere with our election is among the most serious."
Mueller avoided being drawn into arguments with Republicans who hammered away at his inquiry, often frustrating lawmakers with responses such as, "I am not going to get into that."
Democrats focused on five actions by Trump that Mueller had investigated as potential obstruction of justice, including at one point telling his White House counsel to remove the special counsel.
Under questioning by Nadler, Mueller acknowledged that the report detailed "multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations".