Robert Mueller says his investigation into Donald Trump did not clear the President of wrongdoing, and suggested Mr. Trump may not have told the truth when he answered questions for the probe.
In testimony Wednesday to two congressional committees, the former special counsel said he chose not to make a decision on whether to lay charges against Mr. Trump because Justice Department guidelines forbid indicting a sitting president. But he said a president could be criminally charged after leaving office.
Mr. Mueller also described the President’s praise of WikiLeaks’ disclosures of stolen documents as “problematic,” and left open the possibility that there was some collusion with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.
In the months since Mr. Mueller submitted the final report on his investigation, Mr. Trump has repeatedly said the probe revealed there was “no obstruction” and “no collusion,” and that Russian election interference was a “hoax.” Mr. Mueller fought back against those assertions.
“The President was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed,” Mr. Mueller told the House judiciary committee.
Asked by Jerry Nadler, the panel’s Democratic chair, whether he had exonerated Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller replied flatly: “No.” Asked whether the lack of charges against Mr. Trump indicated his innocence, Mr. Mueller said: “You would not indict because, under [Justice Department] opinion, a sitting president cannot be indicted.”
In a later session with the House intelligence committee, Mr. Mueller said that election interference was “not a hoax.”
The President, who had previously said he did not plan to watch Mr. Mueller’s testimony, tweeted throughout it.
“NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!” he wrote. “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!”
Mr. Mueller appeared at committee reluctantly; he had indicated that he preferred his report speak for itself. But the Democratic majority called him to testify as they mull whether to start impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Mueller spent nearly two years investigating Kremlin election meddling and allegations Mr. Trump obstructed justice by attempting to shut down probes into it. He uncovered several attempts by Mr. Trump to shut down or curtail his investigation and revealed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians.
The former special counsel also indicted several people close to Mr. Trump with a range of financial crimes and for lying to investigators, but did not charge anyone with conspiring with the Russians. He also opted not to make a decision on whether Mr. Trump had obstructed justice.
For the most part, Mr. Mueller was careful and guarded Wednesday, answering most questions in a brief monotone and frequently telling Democratic questioners to read his report.
Mr. Mueller also repeatedly refused to say whether he would have charged Mr. Trump had Justice Department rules allowed it. “We did not reach a determination as to whether the President committed a crime,” he said at one point.
There were, however, moments of drama.
When Florida Congresswoman Val Demings asked whether it was “fair” to say that Mr. Trump “wasn’t always being truthful” in his “inadequate” answers to Mr. Mueller’s questions, the former special counsel replied: “I would say generally.”
Mr. Mueller said he settled for the written answers rather than subpoenaing Mr. Trump for an interview because he feared the President would launch a court challenge that would cause the investigation to drag on.
At another point, Congressman Peter Welch said Mr. Mueller’s decision not to charge anyone with conspiring with the Russians did not mean there was “no evidence of a conspiracy.” Mr. Mueller said this assertion was “absolutely correct.”
And when asked about Mr. Trump’s supportive tweets about WikiLeaks, which published embarrassing Democratic e-mails stolen by Russian spies during the election, Mr. Mueller condemned the President’s comments.
“Problematic is an understatement, in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is, and should be, illegal activity,” he said, adding that the comments were “disturbing and also subject to investigation.”
Committee Republicans, for their part, laced into Mr. Mueller, accusing him of unfairly smearing Mr. Trump despite not charging him.
“Having desperately tried and failed to make a legal case against the President, you made a political case instead. You put it in a paper sack, lit it on fire, dropped it on our porch, rang the doorbell and ran,” Congressman Tom McClintock said.
Mr. Mueller fired back: “I don’t think you’ve reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us.”
Whether Mr. Mueller’s appearance will move the dial on impeachment is unclear.
“Your work speaks of a President who committed countless acts of obstruction of justice,” intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff told Mr. Mueller. “Had it been anyone else in the country, they would have been indicted.”
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi shied away from calling for Mr. Trump’s removal from office after the hearing. Even if the House did pass articles of impeachment against the President, he would almost certainly be acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate.
“My position has always been, whatever decision we made in that regard would have to be with our strongest possible hand,” she told reporters.
Jennifer Rodgers, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, said the cautious Mr. Mueller did not reveal anything that wasn’t already known. He also avoided providing the Democrats with any soundbites summarizing the wrongdoing his report uncovered.
“I think he really wanted to come across as non-partisan in the extreme. He was stone-faced, he never raised his voice,” said Ms. Rodgers, who now teaches law at Columbia University. “No one could question it and say he was biased or trying to damage Trump.”
In fact, the former special counsel’s most animated comments were directed not at the President’s conduct, but at his dismissiveness of Russia’s behaviour.
“Absolutely it was not a hoax,” he said of the campaign to undermine the 2016 election. “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
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