WASHINGTON – Former special counsel Robert Mueller told Congress Wednesday that his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election did not exonerate President Donald Trump of allegedly obstructing justice by trying to thwart the probe, even though the U.S. leader has claimed it did.
As hours of testimony started, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler asked the prosecutor, “Did you totally exonerate the president?”
“No,” Mueller responded, later adding, “The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed.”
Mueller explained, however, that Trump could not be criminally charged because of a long-standing Justice Department policy prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president. Mueller said his team unsuccessfully tried for a year to reach agreement with Trump to give live, face-to-face testimony, but the president only answered some questions in writing.
Later in the hearing, Republican Congressman Ken Buck asked Mueller, “You believe that he committed — you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?
“Yes,” Mueller replied.
Why Trump wasn’t charged
However, Mueller, hewing closely to the 448-page report his investigators compiled after a 22-month probe, acknowledged to Republican Congressman Doug Collins that his investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump or any of his 2016 campaign staff with conspiring with Russia to help Trump win a four-year term in the White House.
Another Republican, Congressman James Sensenbrenner, attacked Mueller for continuing his probe even knowing that Trump could not be charged with a crime, although Mueller said that was permissible under Justice Department guidelines.
“If you’re not going to indict the president, then you’re just going to continue fishing, that’s my opinion,” Sensenbrenner said.
As the House Judiciary Committee hearing ended after 3-1/2 hours, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said, “The last three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats. Expect more of the same in the second half.”
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee asked Mueller about his findings on how Russia interfered in the election to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent.
Trump has often attacked Mueller’s investigation, but Mueller, rebuffing one of the president’s frequent claims, said, “It was not a witch hunt.”
Mueller answered many questions with cryptic yes or no responses, saying he stood by the conclusions contained in his lengthy report. At one point he said, “I again go back to the text of the report,” declining to further analyze his findings. He declined to discuss why some people linked to the Russian probe were charged with criminal offenses and others were not. Nor would he venture into discussing any differences he had with Attorney General William Barr over Barr’s characterization of the report before it was released to the public.
And he wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion of his report as it might relate to impeachment of the president.
Obstruction & collusion
Democrats expressed their belief that Trump obstructed justice, as outlined in the report. Republicans insisted Mueller’s report had cleared the president and that the investigation was based on questionable intelligence before Mueller was named special counsel in May 2017. The Republicans cited a report paid for by Democrats containing largely unsubstantiated claims by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele about Trump’s time in Moscow before he entered politics.
Mueller repeatedly said the origins of the Russia investigation, 10 months before he became special counsel, were “outside my purview.”
But shortly after Mueller acknowledged during his testimony that his investigation had not been impeded by the White House, Trump quickly said on Twitter, “In other words, there was NO OBSTRUCTION.”
Millions of Americans tuned in for what proved to be a riveting day of contentious questioning before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.
The hearings were equally critical for the 235 opposition Democrats in the House of Representatives, more than a third of whom have called for Trump’s impeachment or the start of an impeachment inquiry. These critics allege that the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” – the standard for impeachment — by trying to halt Mueller’s 22-month probe.
They focused much of their questioning on at least five instances Mueller cited in his lengthy report in which Trump allegedly sought to inhibit the probe — obstruction allegations that could lead more Democrats to call for the president’s impeachment.
The Mueller report said the president directed then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to try to oust Mueller and then publicly lie that Trump had not told him to seek Mueller’s dismissal. Mueller alleged that Trump directed his one-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to try to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the Mueller investigation. The report also alleged that the president possibly engaged in witness tampering to discourage two key aides convicted by Mueller’s team, Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, from cooperating with investigators.
Mueller, a reluctant witness, has already said, “The report is my testimony,” so it is unclear how much new information might emerge from Wednesday’s hearings. The Justice Department on Monday sent Mueller a letter emphasizing that he “must remain within the boundaries” of the public version of his report and could not “discuss the conduct of uncharged third parties.”
Still, lawmakers could ask Mueller why he did not subpoena Trump to give face-to-face testimony, even though Trump said several times he was willing to testify. Trump answered written questions about his campaign, but refused to answer questions about his alleged obstruction. Trump has claimed to have the “world’s greatest memory.” Yet of the the more than 65 written questions posed to him, Trump said more than 30 times that he had no recollection.
But Mueller appears unlikely to answer the biggest question of all, whether he would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice were it not for the long-standing Justice Department policy prohibiting filing criminal charges against a sitting president.
Even with vocal Democratic opposition to Trump, there appears to be no chance the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to convict Trump and remove him from office even if the House were to impeach him. National polls show Americans are opposed to impeaching Trump, either because they do not believe the allegations against him are serious enough to force his removal or prefer to cast an up-or-down vote on his presidency in the November 2020 election.
Meanwhile, Republican supporters of Trump are equally determined to demonstrate that the Mueller testimony is old news after release of his report two months ago. They contend that the probe should never have been started, that it was based on false assumptions and biased by zealous investigators who supported Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Trump has often claimed that Mueller’s investigative team was composed of “angry Democrats” out to get him and cites the fact that an FBI agent and a lawyer on Mueller’s team who were involved in a romantic relationship often traded anti-Trump text messages. The two said their personal statements did not influence their professional conduct.
The lawyer had previously left the Mueller team. Mueller told the lawmakers that when he learned two years ago of agent Peter Strozk’s anti-Trump texts he “acted swiftly” to have him reassigned within the Justice Department.
For months, and again this week, Trump has claimed more than 250 times the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt.” Trump has often voiced his over-simplified version of Mueller’s conclusion, saying the prosecutor found “No collusion, no obstruction,” and contending that he has been exonerated by Mueller’s report.
But Mueller’s key findings were more nuanced or murkier than that, leaving lawmakers on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees with dozens of questions for him.