Robert Mueller says his report did not exonerate Trump but won’t agree with Dems on obstruction

Former special counsel Robert Mueller told Congress on Wednesday that his investigation did not exonerate President Donald Trump and that he couldn’t indict the President because of the Justice Department guidelines, but he would not agree with Democrats that the President had committed obstruction of justice.

Mueller’s long-awaited congressional testimony included dozens of cases where the former special counsel would not engage with lawmakers, frustrating them by declining to answer questions or referring them back to the report.

His exchanges with lawmakers were at times shaky, with answers that were often halting and stilted in the face of rapid-fire questions. But as the hearing wore on, Mueller became more combative with Republicans who criticized him and his investigation.

Democrats sought to have Mueller make clear that Trump was wrong when he claimed he was “totally exonerated” by the Mueller report.

“The finding indicates that the President was not as exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said. “It is not what the report said.”

Mueller also said that he agreed with Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, that he did not indict the President because of the Justice Department opinion on indicting a sitting President. But he also added that he wasn’t concurring with Lieu’s assessment that Trump had committed obstruction of justice.

“I’m going through the elements with you,” Mueller said. “That does not mean I subscribe to what you’re trying to prove through those elements.”

Republicans, meanwhile, lobbed a variety of attacks at Mueller, from his decision to document the President’s actions in his report when Trump wasn’t indicted to the make-up of his team. Mueller reacted angrily when GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota suggested Mueller’s team was politically biased.

“We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job,” Mueller said. “I have been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years I have not had occasion, once, to ask somebody about their political affiliation. 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.”

Mueller is testifying at the most highly anticipated hearing of the Trump presidency, with the potential to reset the narrative about his two-year investigation into the President’s conduct.

After weeks of negotiations, twists and turns over Mueller’s appearance and a pair of subpoenas, the former special counsel is now answering questions about his probe for the first time before the House Judiciary Committee, and will appear this afternoon before the House Intelligence Committee.

The former special counsel’s testimony is the closest thing to a make-or-break moment as it gets for Democrats in their investigations into the President. It’s a potential turning point for the House Democratic impeachment caucus that’s banking Mueller can reset the conversation about the special counsel investigation and convince the public — and skeptical Democratic colleagues — that the House should pursue an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Democrats have pointed to Mueller’s report as a reason to take up impeachment, but he declined to engage on the question.

“Is it true that there’s nothing in Volume II of the report that says the President may have engaged in impeachable conduct?” asked Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.

“We have studiously kept in the center of our investigation, our mandate,” Mueller responded. “And our mandate does not go to other ways of addressing conduct. Our mandate goes to what — developing the report and turning the report into the attorney general.”

Mueller said that he agreed with Lieu that he did not indict the President because of the Justice Department opinion on indicting a sitting President. But he also added that he wasn’t concurring with Lieu’s assessment that Trump committed obstruction of justice.

“I’m going through the elements with you,” Mueller said. “That does not mean I subscribe to what you’re trying to prove through those elements.”

Mueller’s style: Keep it dry

Two sources close to Mueller said Mueller was trying to be careful and trying to keep his answers as close to the report as possible, while some of the questioners are using rapid-fire or long-winded questions to try to have him depart from the report’s language. Mueller’s style is to try to keep it dry and not provide fodder for the ongoing political fights, which doesn’t do well in this kind of hearing, the sources said.

Mueller initially declined to engage with Republicans who tried to attack him directly. After Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican accusing Mueller of having “perpetuated injustice” by running his investigation for two years, Chairman Jerry Nadler gave Mueller a chance to respond.

But Mueller deferred. “I take your question,” he said, instead just moving onto the next lawmaker.

After a brief break, Mueller appeared to engage more directly with lawmakers, particularly Republicans. He pushed back on Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who criticized him over Christopher Steele, the author of the opposition research dossier, and Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who suggested the special counsel’s team had not “faithfully, accurately, impartially, and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report.”

“I don’t think you reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us,” Mueller responded.

During their questions, Democrats walked Mueller through the key passages of his report they feel highlight obstruction of justice. Democrats did the reading because Mueller’s team told the committee ahead of time he would decline to read from the report, according to a congressional source involved in negotiations surrounding Mueller’s appearance.

Mueller defends work of his office

Republicans aggressively sought to undercut the special counsel investigation, raising questions about his decision to write a lengthy report about the President’s conduct when he did not decide to prosecute the Trump on obstruction of justice.

“Volume two of this report was not authorized under the law,” charged Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican and a former prosecutor. “I agree with the chairman, this morning, when he said Donald Trump is not above the law. He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where this report puts him.”

In his opening statement, Mueller defended the work that his team did.

“My staff and I carried out this assignment with that critical objective in mind: to work quietly, thoroughly, and with integrity so that the public would have full confidence in the outcome,” Mueller said.

But Mueller also telegraphed that he would not engage on many of the questions both Democrats and Republicans will want him to answer, from the origins of the investigation to how he decided whether or not to prosecute the President.

“As I said on May 29: the report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text,” Mueller said.

Even if there isn’t a bombshell revelation, Democrats are hopeful that the recitation of the key points of Mueller’s investigation and what it uncovered about the President can move the needle.

“Although Department policy barred you from indicting the President for this conduct, you made clear that he is not exonerated. Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with a crime. And in this nation, not even the President is above the law,” Nadler said in his opening statement.

“We will follow your example, Director Mueller. We will act with integrity. We will follow the facts where they lead. We will consider all appropriate remedies. We will make our recommendation to the House when our work concludes,” Nadler added. “We will do this work because there must be accountability for the conduct described in your report, especially as it relates to the President.”

But if Mueller’s testimony fails to shift the conversation, it could spell the beginning of the end for Democratic efforts to impeach the President.

The reluctant witness

Mueller and his team have said nearly nothing in the two years since he was appointed special counsel, preferring to let the special counsel’s indictments and then the 448-page report do most of his talking. It’s been six years since Mueller has been under the bright lights of a congressional hearing, and Wednesday’s testimony is likely to be far more contentious, every word exponentially more scrutinized.

Some Democrats have sought to tamp down expectations ahead of the Mueller hearing, hopeful that even if he recites the report it will nonetheless have a lasting impact.

“I am fairly realistic about the degree to which any single hearing, any single witness can really move the country in a particular direction,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat. “People are quite dug in on their views of Trump and Russia, and more generally just on their views of this President. If the racist display by the President last week wasn’t enough to change attitudes, I don’t know that anything Bob Muller has to say will.”

Still, Democrats are cognizant that Mueller’s words carry significant weight. Mueller concluded his investigation in March, and the special counsel’s report was released in April. But when Mueller finally spoke in May — emphasizing that the investigation did not exonerate Trump on obstruction and that he could not consider whether to indict Trump because of Justice Department guidelines — it moved a sizable tranche of House Democrats to call for an impeachment inquiry.

Trump’s Republican allies on both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees are expected to press Mueller on a variety of topics intended to both poke holes in the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation and reiterate that Mueller’s investigation did not establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s team and Russia.

“This hearing is long overdue. We’ve had the truth for months — no American conspired to throw our elections. What we need today is to let that truth bring us confidence and closure,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel.

The President himself has said he may watch a “little bit” of the Mueller hearing, and it’s always possible he — and his Twitter account — could respond in real-time to the special counsel. In the days leading up to the hearing, Trump has been on the phone with aides and allies, expressing irritation at having to watch the man whose investigation he has repeatedly lambasted as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax.”

A hearing months in the making

Mueller’s testimony before Congress appeared in doubt at several points. Congressional Democrats were hopeful they would get Mueller before their committees almost as soon as he concluded his investigation — arguing they needed Mueller to push back against what they considered Attorney General William Barr’s misleading narrative about the report and his decision that the President did not commit obstruction.

At first, Democrats pushed to gain access to the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying evidence. But after the Justice Department resisted that endeavor, they turned their sights on the special counsel.

Weeks of negotiations followed, and Democrats believed they were close to securing an agreement in May. But Mueller did not want to testify before Congress, fearing a political circus. He spoke publicly in his final week as special counsel, where he said that that he did not want to testify, telling Congress: “The report is my testimony.”

But Democrats were not persuaded. They continued to publicly call for the special counsel’s appearance and negotiating with Mueller. Ultimately they struck an agreement for him to appear publicly July 17 before both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees if they issued a subpoena to compel his testimony.

That still wasn’t the end of the drama over Mueller. Democrats fought with the Justice Department and the special counsel’s team about whether Mueller’s deputies would appear in a closed session after the special counsel. Junior members of the Judiciary Committee were furious that the arrangement would not give them time to ask questions.

And so one more twist was included in the special counsel’s appearance: His testimony would be delayed one week, and he would sit for an extra hour with the Judiciary Committee to allow all members to ask questions.

The deputies interview was also canceled, but Mueller still wanted his former chief of staff, Aaron Zebley, to appear with him. Just hours before Mueller was set to appear on Tuesday, yet another shift was included in the hearing: Zebley was expected to participate in some fashion as counsel to Mueller, to the protest of Republicans over the last-minute change.

This story has been updated with additional developments and will update throughout Wednesday’s hearing.

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