By Agence France-Presse
Robert Mueller denied Wednesday that Donald Trump was exonerated of obstructing his two-year probe into Russian election meddling, but in high-stakes testimony before Congress he once again declined to accuse the US president of a crime.
During a marathon day of nationally-televised hearings, the former special counsel told lawmakers that while Justice Department policy prevented him from charging a sitting president, Trump could theoretically be indicted after he leaves office.
Mueller’s much-anticipated testimony failed however to give Democrats what they most sought: a clear statement that Trump criminally obstructed justice that would buttress an impeachment effort.
He came tantalizingly closer to doing so than in the massive report produced by his 22-month investigation, telling the House Judiciary Committee that “the president was not exculpated from the acts that he allegedly committed.”
But the septuagenarian Mueller — who was testifying under duress, appearing hesitant and visibly straining at times to hear the rapid-fire questions aimed at him — largely stuck to his script.
Dozens of times, the former FBI director declined to answer questions from both Democrats and Republicans, deflecting numerous inquiries back to the content of his 448-page report.
Trump — who had insisted he would not be watching the show on Capitol Hill — weighed in gleefully midway through, sarcastically tweeting his thanks to Democrats for organizing the hearing.
Hammering home the point, the White House, which had feared Mueller’s testimony could further damage Trump’s political standing, described it instead as an “epic embarrassment” to Democrats.
– ‘The president can’t be charged’ –
Over three and a half hours in the first of two hearings, before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller disappointed Democrats who hoped for more damning evidence on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and Trump’s alleged acts of obstruction.
Mueller was appearing before cameras for only the second time since he was named to lead the Russia investigation in May 2017, and most Americans were hearing from him for the first time since the probe began.
After four decades as a US justice official, the former Marine earned a reputation as a tough, disciplined and no-nonsense prosecutor who has no time for politics.
But the conclusions of his final report, released in April, left many confused about whether he had implicated Trump in crimes.
It catalogued extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, including attempts to cooperate or collude — neither of which is a specific crime.
It also laid out in detail 10 instances when Trump allegedly tried to obstruct the investigation.
But Mueller said in the report and in Wednesday’s hearings that he was prevented from recommending charges against Trump because Justice Department rules prohibited him from indicting a sitting president.
“The president cannot be charged with a crime,” he said.
– Boosting illegal Russian activity –
In answering yes-or-no questions in the second hearing, before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller confirmed that Trump’s campaign had deeply questionable contacts with Russia in 2016, agreeing that some were in part inspired by potential business deals.
He called Trump’s public outreach to WikiLeaks in July 2016, when the then-candidate encouraged the website to leak more Russia-stolen documents on his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, “problematic.”
“Problematic is an understatement, in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” he said.
Communications between WikiLeaks and Trump’s son Donald Jr. in that period were “disturbing” and a reason for investigation, Mueller said.
And he said it was “absolutely correct” that, despite not charging Trump campaign members with conspiracy to collude with Russians, the investigation did turn up evidence of conspiracy.
– ‘Not a witch hunt’ –
Apparently wary of being used for televised sound bites in the brewing fight for the White House next year, Mueller refused to read aloud on camera the conclusions of his report or describe those conclusions in full sentences.
Instead, his curt, evasive answers seemed likely to thwart efforts by Democrats to further tar Trump’s reputation.
But Mueller was more vocal in defending the integrity of his own investigation, which Trump has labelled a “witch hunt” led by a team of anti-Trump Democrats.
“It is not a witch hunt,” he said.
“I’ve 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,” he said.
“What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”