US President Donald Trump has lashed out after Robert Mueller bluntly dismissed his claims of total exoneration in the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Mr Trump said Mr Mueller did a “horrible” job during seven hours of hearings as Republicans sought to shape the narrative behind the national televised spectacle.
“There was no defence of what Robert Mueller was trying to defend,” Mr Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a fundraiser in West Virginia. “There was no defence to this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt.”
“The kind of questions the White House Correspondents were asking is almost like they didn’t see what went on at the hearings!” @JesseBWatters The hearings were a disaster for Robert Mueller & the Democrats. Nevertheless, the Fake News Media will try to make the best out of it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2019
Mr Mueller told congress he explicitly did not clear the president of obstructing his investigation.
The former special counsel also rejected Mr Trump’s assertions that the probe was a “witch hunt” and hoax.
In hours of sometimes halting and stilted testimony, Mr Mueller also condemned Mr Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks, which released Democratic emails stolen by Russia.
He declared Russian election interference one of the greatest challenges to democracy that he had encountered in his career.
Russia, he said, was “doing it as we sit here”.
Mr Mueller’s reluctance at the televised Capitol Hill hearings to stray beyond his lengthy written report, and his reliance on terse, one-word answers, produced few if any new revelations to move Americans who may be hardened in their opinions about the success of Donald Trump’s presidency and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary.
But that didn’t stop Republicans and Democrats from their own divergent paths to question Mr Mueller.
Mr Trump’s GOP allies tried to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated. They referred repeatedly to what they consider the improper opening of the investigation.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to emphasise the most incendiary findings of Mr Mueller’s 448-page report and weaken Mr Trump’s re-election prospects in ways that Mueller’s book-length report did not.
They hoped that even if his testimony did not inspire impeachment demands, Mr Mueller could nonetheless unambiguously spell out questionable, norm-shattering actions by the president.
Yet Mr Mueller appeared unwilling or unable to offer crisp sound bites that could reshape public opinions.
He frequently gave single-word answers to questions, even when given opportunities to crystallise allegations of obstruction of justice against the president. He referred time again to the wording in his report.
But he was unflinching on the most-critical matters.
In the opening minutes of the hearing, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, asked Mr Mueller about Mr Trump’s claims of vindication in the investigation.
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked.
“No,” Mueller replied.
When Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, asked, “Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?”
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mr Mueller flatly replied.
He gave Democrats a flicker of hope when he told Democrat Ted Lieu that he did not charge Mr Trump because of a Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted. That statement cheered Democrats who understood him to be suggesting that he would otherwise have recommended prosecution on the strength of the evidence.
But Mr Mueller later walked back that statement, saying, “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
His team, he said, “never started the process” of evaluating whether to charge the president.
Republicans focused on his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Those are the facts of the Mueller report. Russia meddled in the 2016 election,” said Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts.”
Mr Mueller, pressed as to why he hadn’t investigated a “dossier” of claims that the Republicans insist helped lead to the start of the probe, he said that was not his charge.
That was “outside my purview”, he said repeatedly.
Mr Mueller mostly brushed aside Republican allegations of bias, but in a moment of apparent agitation, he said he didn’t think lawmakers had ever “reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us”.
And when he was pressed on the fact that multiple members of his team had made contributions to Democratic candidates, Mr Mueller bristled at the implication that his prosecutors were compromised.
“I have been in this business for almost 25 years, and in those 25 years I have not had the occasion to ask somebody about their political affiliation,” Mr Mueller said.
“It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”