Democrats find cold comfort in Robert Mueller’s testimony
Ex-special counsel did not exonerate Donald Trump but stuck to report’s findings
Democrats looking for a standout moment during testimony to Congress by former special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday were left disappointed, as the former FBI chief refused to elaborate on the findings of his 22-month investigation.
For more than six hours, Mr Mueller was questioned on the contents of his 448-page report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, in the first public testimony by the former FBI director since he opened his investigation in May 2017.
But, in keeping with his messaging ahead of his appearance before the house judiciary and intelligence committees, the 74-year-old refused to deviate from the report’s contents.
Throughout the hearing he frequently evaded questions. “I would refer you to the report and the way it is characterised in the report,” he said at one point. “That’s outside my purview,” he said at another, phrases that were repeated dozens of time throughout the day.
Mr Mueller also requested that some committee members repeat their questions. His halting style – and at times frail manner – raised questions about his command of the details of the inquiry.
For Democrats hoping that Mr Mueller’s testimony would bolster their own investigations, or further the case for impeachment, there were some positive developments, however.
In one of the first exchanges of the day, Mr Mueller confirmed he had not exonerated President Donald Trump.
“What about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president,” house judiciary committee chairman Jerry Nadler asked.
“No,” replied the former special counsel.
He also said that the “president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed”.
Obstruction of justice
Mr Mueller, a former FBI director, also confirmed that Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice after he leaves office.
Mr Mueller was more ambivalent on the question of whether he would have indicted Mr Trump if it had not been for the existence of department of justice rules preventing him from doing so – a key question for Democrats seeking to prove the president’s guilt.
Under questioning by Californian democrat Ted Lieu in the first session, Mr Mueller was asked whether the reason he did not indict Mr Trump was because of the standing legal opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president. He replied: “That is correct.”
But Mr Mueller clarified this further as he opened his afternoon testimony. “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,” he said.
In the former special counsel’s opening statement – his longest intervention during the two back-to-back hearings – Mr Mueller also stressed that the reason he had been appointed was because of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“As you know, in May 2017, the acting attorney general asked me to serve as special counsel. I undertook that role because I believed that it was of paramount interest to the nation to determine whether a foreign adversary had interfered in the presidential election,” he said.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29th, this deserves the attention of every American.”
Later, he described Mr Trump’s comments in 2016 that he loved WikiLeaks as “disturbing”. “It certainly calls for investigation,” he said, in one of the strongest statements of his testimony.
He also shed some light on his decision not to subpoena the president to secure an interview, stating that he assumed Mr Trump would fight the subpoena and thus extend the investigation “for a substantial period of time”.
Ultimately, there was little in Wednesday’s testimony to embolden those calling for impeachment within the Democratic Party, though senior Democrats said afterwards they would continue with the six congressional investigations already under way.
Republicans, in contrast, were triumphant. “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter during a break in the testimony.He expanded on this sentiment later as he left the White House for a campaign event. “Today proved a lot to everybody,” he said, adding that the Republican Party in particular had “a very good day”.
“I very much appreciate those incredible warriors that you watched today on television, the Republicans who defended something,” he said, referring to the Republican members of the committee. “They were defending our country.”