Robert Mueller testifies Russia investigation did not exonerate Trump

In much-anticipated televised hearings Wednesday morning, former U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller admitted under questioning that President Donald Trump tried to “exert undue influence” over his Russia investigation and was not exonerated by the final report.

The first hearing, before the House judiciary committee, is focusing on whether Trump illegally obstructed justice by attempting to seize control of Mueller’s investigation into whether Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. The subsequent intelligence committee hearing will dive into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Questioned by judiciary chair Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, Mueller agreed the report did not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice 

“The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said in his first Capitol Hill appearance in Washington since wrapping his two-year Russia probe in late March.

Mueller agreed Trump refused to sit down for questioning with the special counsel, despite attempts lasting nearly a year to negotiate an interview.

Mueller also did not dispute a statement by Democrat Hank Johnson of Georgia that Trump tried to get White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed as special counsel.

Mueller looks at documents as he testifies before Congress on Wednesday. Early on, Republicans accused Mueller of going beyond the scope of his responsibilities as special counsel. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

In his opening statement, Nadler praised Mueller’s work and the absence of leaks to the media in his nearly two years of work.

With respect to the special counsel’s findings on Trump, Nadler alleged, “Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with a crime.”

Georgia’s Doug Collins, top Republican on the committee, said the investigation has been completed and is now just a distraction from the important work Congress needs to do. 

“No American conspired to throw the election.”

Collins said “baseless gossip” helped launch the investigations into the president. The Republicans have focused on the intelligence document compiled by Christopher Steele that contained information since proved to be untrue.

Texas Republican Louie Gohmert also assailed Mueller for the presence of Peter Strzok on his team. Strzok was an FBI investigator who worked on behalf of the special counsel team for the first few months of its existence, and was reassigned soon after it was discovered he had sent derogatory texts about Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Robert Mueller delivers his opening statement to judiciary and intelligence committees 5:14

“Peter Strzok hated Trump. You didn’t know that before he was made part of your team?” asked Gohmert.

Texas Republican John Ratcliffe accused Mueller of breaching Justice Department guidelines by offering opinions on Trump’s behaviours.

The special counsel detailed several instances in which Trump tried to interfere with the investigation or derail it temporarily or permanently, as well as occasions where he dangled the possibility of pardons to those questioned by authorities or Congressional committees.

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” said the report. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.

“While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Reluctant witness

Mueller, 74, is a reluctant witness who intended for the report, and then an impromptu news conference in late May, to stand as a testimony.

He had warned he would not stray beyond what has already been revealed in his report, while the Justice Department has instructed him to stay strictly within those parameters.

Mueller frequently gave terse, one-word answers to lawmakers’ questions Wednesday, and referred back to the wording in his report. He at times appeared stilted and halting, and several times asked for questions to be repeated. Many times he said he couldn’t answer certain questions.

Mueller was appointed special counsel on May 17, 2017 by acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein, days after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Comey has since testified that the president pressured him to drop an investigation into former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

‘Maybe I’ll see a little bit of it,’ U.S. President Donald Trump said Monday regarding Mueller’s testimony Wednesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Mueller was tasked with looking into “any links and/or co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as any matters arising from that investigation.

“Our investigation found that the Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the former FBI director said in his opening statement.

Mueller reasserted in his testimony that his team was guided by two directives from the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, written decades apart, that conclude a sitting president cannot be indicted. That advice has never been tested before the courts.

Trump believes report clears him

Trump has said the redacted report cleared him of allegations of collusion of Russia. But the report took pains to explain that collusion is not a specific offence in federal law, though conspiracy is.

Mueller, in his testimony Wednesday, also contradicted Trump’s claim he was a candidate for the FBI role left vacant after Comey’s dismissal. Mueller said he was not a candidate when he met with Trump shortly before being appointed as special counsel.

The report stated while Trump and certain members of his campaign team were receptive to information damaging to rival Hillary Clinton, including from Russia, it could not establish those people had engaged in a conspiracy that could meet the standard for a criminal conviction. In certain instances, as with a controversial Trump Tower meeting in 2016 with Russians who promised dirt on Clinton, the special counsel concluded it wasn’t clear the Trump campaign members had intent or knew that they were potentially breaking the law by taking the meeting and not reporting it to the FBI.

Several Trump associates were found to have lied to federal investigators over the course of the probe, and Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen are in prison for various offences. The Cohen prosecution was carried out at the state level, in part derived from information uncovered by the special counsel.

Evidence of a criminal behaviour is not necessarily a precondition for the political process of impeachment. 

Currently, nearly 90 of the 235 Democrats in the House — where an impeachment inquiry would begin — support launching such hearings, as does former Republican Justin Amash, now an Independent.

Ohio Republican Steve Chabot derided the opposition’s motives for bringing Mueller to testify, accusing the Democrats of trying to build up “a groundswell of support” for impeachment.

Attorney General William Barr, to the pleasure of many Republican legislators, has signed off on an investigation into the origins of the FBI probe into the president, which predated Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.

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