Democrats had one of their most successful moments in the opening minutes of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before Congress on Wednesday: He countered President Donald Trump’s insistence that he has been exonerated by Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“The president has repeatedly said that your report exonerated him. That is not what your report said, is that correct?” asked the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Jerrold Nadler, in the morning
Mueller answered, “Right, that is not what the report said.”
Nadler: “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?”
The president meanwhile was tweeting, “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION,” and again attacking Mueller as a “highly conflicted” investigator with a team of "angry Democrats."
“Why didn’t Robert Mueller & his band of 18 Angry Democrats spend any time investigating Crooked Hillary Clinton, Lyin’ & Leakin’ James Comey, Lisa Page and her Psycho lover, Peter S, Andy McCabe, the beautiful Ohr family, Fusion GPS, and many more, including HIMSELF & Andrew W?” the president wrote.
Mueller's refutation of the president's claim was one of the top takeaways from his long-anticipated testimony before Congress about his 448-page report. Democrats highlighted sections about Trump’s potential obstruction of justice, while Republicans attacked the report itself, Mueller’s team and even Mueller himself. Meanwhile, commentators had lots of questions about Mueller’s performance, particularly muted in the morning, though more animated in the afternoon.
Mueller’s team did not find sufficient evidence to charge any Trump campaign member with criminal conspiracy but also did not exonerate the president of a crime. The report said the team was unable to say the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice: “The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Asked during the morning session to explain the report’s findings in plain terms, Mueller said, “The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”
At the start of the afternoon session before the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Adam Schiff of California led Mueller through a series of questions -- about Russia's sweeping and systematic interference with the election, Russian outreach to the Trump campaign and the lies told by members of Trump's campaign team, among them former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and the president's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.
"And when Donald Trump called your investigation a witch hunt that also was false, was it not?" Schiff asked.
"I like to think so, yes," Mueller said.
"Well your investigation is not a witch hunt," Schiff said, a claim Trump has made repeatedly.
"It is not a witch hunt," Mueller said.
If some Democrats hoped that his testimony would spark calls for impeachment, that seemed unlikely. Mueller's responses were guarded and sometimes unsure; at one point he seemed to be searching for the word "conspiracy." He repeatedly declined to answer questions, and when in an afternoon session Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, gave him 1 minute and 39 seconds to say what he wanted the American people to glean from the report, he took up only a fraction of that time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pushed back on calls for impeachment, an issue that has divided the country and even Democrats, some of who argue that they should focus instead on defeating the president at the polls.
Mueller has steered clear of talking about impeachment, saying only during his news conference on May 29 as he announced his resignation from the Justice Department, “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
During the hearing, Republicans brought up impeachment, among them Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who asked why the report did not recommend it. Mueller said that he was not going to talk about the issue.
But it wasn’t until the end of the morning session that a Democrat finally raised the issue. Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar asked whether Mueller’s comment at the news conference referred to impeachment.
Mueller said he would not comment, but when she asked him about a footnote about constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct, he said, “I think I heard you mention at least one.”
"Impeachment?" she asked.
He declined to comment.
Other Republicans criticized Mueller for leaving exculpatory information out of the report and accused his team of bias. Former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were having an affair, were removed from the team over anti-Trump texts that they exchanged. Others supported Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Peter Strzok hated Trump,” Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert told Mueller. “You didn’t know that before he was made part of your team?”
"I did not know that," Mueller said, adding he acted quickly to reassign Strzok when he found out.
In one of his most animated moments, Mueller defended his team’s integrity regardless of their politics.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years and in those 25 years, I’ve not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation,” 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.”
He repeatedly declined to answer questions about the so-called Steele dossier, a report from former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for Fusion GPS. Fusion GPS was hired to do opposition research on Trump by a law firm working for Clinton and the Democratic party.
The dossier contained unverified data and Republicans have repeatedly called it fake.
Democrats in the morning focused on the times Trump possibly obstructed justice as laid out in Mueller's report. Trump put pressure on the former FBI Director James Comey to end an investigation into Flynn, who lied about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
After Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel on May 17, 2017, Trump told advisers that it was “the end of his presidency” and demanded that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions resign, though when Sessions submitted his resignation, Trump didn’t accept it.
In the summer of 2017, when reporters were asking about a June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower including Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who was said to be offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Trump directed aides not to disclose emails setting up the meeting. Then he edited a press statement for his son to say only that it was about the adoption of Russian children.
The emails came out.
“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. wrote.
At the end of the afternoon session, Mueller warned of future Russian interference in U.S. elections and of other countries replicating what the Russians had done.
"It wasn't a single attempt," he said of the Russian effort. "They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
By the end of the seven hours of testimony, Mueller had declined to answer or had deflected questions for a total of 198 times. NBC News kept track. You can listen here.