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Robert Mueller Tells America "No," He Did Not Totally Exonerate The President

Former special counsel Robert Mueller warned that the Russians are attempting to get involved in the American elections saying, "they’re doing it as we sit here."

Last updated on July 24, 2019, at 4:44 p.m. ET

Posted on July 24, 2019, at 7:16 a.m. ET


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  • Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified Wednesday before two congressional committees about his probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections and President Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation.
  • Mueller is a man of few words — during his testimony he hewed closely to the conclusions of his report.
  • Mueller dismissed Trump’s repeated claims that the Mueller report “totally exonerated” him, testifying that it was “not what the report said.”
  • He warned that the Russians are attempting to get involved in the American elections saying, "they’re doing it as we sit here."
  • Mueller said that he would not be able to answer questions about the opening of the FBI’s Russia investigation or any questions about the Steele dossier.
  • Even so, House Democrats grilled Mueller with questions that highlighted Trump’s efforts to impede the high-profile investigation and the president's efforts to have Mueller fired.
  • Meanwhile, Republicans attacked Mueller's credibility, saying he is a biased investigator.

Robert Mueller said his testimony would stay within the text of the 448-page report.

Mueller’s opening statement, as expected, hewed closely to the conclusions of his 448-page report, and he reiterated that he would not summarize the results any differently during his testimony.

"The report is my testimony," Mueller said, "and I will stay within that text."

Mueller also said that he would not be able to answer questions about the opening of the FBI’s Russia investigation or any questions about the Steele dossier, both topics that Republican lawmakers were expecting to grill him about.

Mueller also amplified the significance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy," Mueller said. "The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. As I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American."

Mueller reiterated that the report did not completely exonerate Trump.

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Mueller dismissed Trump’s repeated claims that the Mueller report “totally exonerated” him, testifying that it was “not what the report said.”

"Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him," Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler told Mueller. “That is not what your report said, is it?”

Mueller replied, “Correct, not what the report said.”

“What about total exoneration. Did you totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked.

“No,” Mueller responded.

Nadler then quoted from Mueller's report, saying the investigation found multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigation.

He then asked Mueller to explain "in plain terms" his findings of his investigation.

"The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed," Mueller said.

Rep. Ted Lieu: “The reason again that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?” Mueller: “That is correct”

At the start of his next hearing, Mueller clarified what he meant in this exchange with Rep. Lieu: "As we say in the report and I said in the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."

The former special counsel, in response to later questioning, said he did not indict Trump for obstruction of justice because of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion that says a sitting president cannot be indicted. Back in May, Mueller emphasized that the policy meant his office could not indict Trump, but also that his office didn't get to the point of concluding whether Trump committed a crime; they presented evidence on both sides of that question.

Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu asked Mueller, "The reason again that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?”

"That is correct," Mueller responded.

During the second hearing, Mueller corrected himself on the characterization of the exchange with Lieu, reiterating that his team did not determine whether Trump committed a crime.

“I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said, and I quote, ‘you didn't charge the president because of the OLC opinion.’ That is not the correct way to say it," Mueller said. "As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”

Mueller testified that it would be “unconstitutional” for him to indict Trump based on the OLC opinion. When Nadler asked if the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice after he leaves office, Mueller said, "True."

Mueller said Russia is still trying to interfere with US elections.

Russian interference in US elections didn't end in 2016, former special counsel Robert Mueller told members of Congress Wednesday — in fact, he added, they're still doing it "as we sit here."

During his questions, Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who previously served in the CIA, said Russia posed a "significant threat" as it increased the frequency and intensity of its active measures, using groups like the infamous troll farm, the Internet Research Agency.

Mueller said he agreed, adding that in 2020, the threat wouldn't be coming from Russia alone.

"Many more countries are developing the capability to replicate what the Russians have done," Mueller said.

Mueller added that it was critical for US government agencies to work together against the ongoing Russian threat.

"It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here," he told committee members. "And they expect to do it during the next campaign."

Mueller fielded repeated questions about Trump's efforts to have him fired.

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Democrat lawmakers got Mueller to repeatedly testify about Trump’s efforts to fire him as special counsel after learning that Mueller was investigating him for obstruction of justice as part of the Russia probe.

"Director Mueller, you found evidence, as you lay out in your report, that the president wanted to fire you because you were investigating him for obstruction of justice. Isn't that correct?" Rep. Ted Deutch asked Mueller.

"That's what it says in the report. And yes, I stand by the report," Mueller replied.

Mueller testified that Trump had called his then–White House counsel, Don McGahn, at home and directed him to fire Mueller. McGahn, however, declined.

The president then urged McGahn to dispute that Trump had asked him to fire Mueller, asking McGahn to create a White House document rebutting the account, according to a New York Times report.

During the hearing, Mueller was asked if Trump "tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records relevant to an ongoing investigation."

"I would say that’s generally a summary," Mueller responded.

When asked why the president of the United States wanted him fired, Mueller said, "I can’t answer that question."

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Republicans attacked Mueller as biased and called his investigation “un-American.”

Republicans attacked Mueller’s credibility, painting him as a biased and unfair investigator as the former special counsel testified before Congress for the first time since releasing his report into 2016 election interference.

Although Mueller found insufficient evidence to conclude Trump’s team criminally conspired with Russia, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee had their knives out.

They accused Mueller of hiring Trump-hating investigators, said he violated Trump’s rights to presumption of innocence, and even called his investigation “un-American.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close ally of Trump’s on Capitol Hill, accused Mueller of holding Trump to a double standard. He said Mueller “threw the book” at Trump associates who lied, but refused to charge other dishonest witnesses.

“Maybe the reason why there’s the discrepancy in what you focused on is because the team was so biased, pledged to the resistance, and pledged to stop Trump,” said Gaetz.

He and others brought up now-infamous texts by former FBI agent Peter Strzok that insulted Trump. When Mueller said he acted swiftly to remove Strzok from his team once the texts were revealed, he was met with skepticism.

“Well, there’s some discussion how swift that was,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert.

Gohmert insinuated that Mueller had a conflict of interest because he was longtime friends with former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump fired. He defended Trump as an innocent man trying to stand up for himself.

“What he’s doing is not obstructing justice. He is pursuing justice. And the fact that you ran it out two years means you perpetuated injustice,” said Gohmert.

Mueller repeatedly seemed caught off guard by Republican attacks, often struggling to defend himself. At times he pushed back on Republican characterizations of his investigation, but frequently the questions veered into territory that Mueller said he could not comment on. At one point, he was accused of refusing to answer questions.

In a heated moment, Mueller pushed back against questions from a Republican lawmaker who suggested that Mueller’s team was biased toward Hillary Clinton.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong said that some of the top attorneys in Mueller’s team had shown their political bias either by attending Clinton’s election night party or by representing her and her aides in litigation.

Mueller, who had avoided being confrontational during the nearly three-hour hearing, finally appeared to lose some of his cool at the insinuation.

"We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job," Mueller told Armstrong. "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. 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 said.

Several Republicans hammered Mueller on the second part of his report, which did not find Trump had committed obstruction of justice but also did not exonerate him. They argued that Mueller had no right to specify Trump was not exonerated, and said this violated the principle of presumption of innocence.

“The drafting and the publication of some of the information in this report without an indictment, without prosecution, frankly flies in the face of American justice. And I find those facts and this entire process un-American,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler.

Mueller often struggled to get a word in edgewise. When Rep. John Ratcliffe challenged Mueller to cite a Department of Justice policy that directed him not to exonerate Trump, Mueller started to respond that he could not but he was facing a unique circumstance. But Ratcliffe cut him off, citing time constraints, and continued his attacks.

“Respectfully, you managed to violate every principle in the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that aren’t charged,” said Ratcliffe.

“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 Volume 2 of this report puts him,” he added.

After the hearing, Trump told reporters at the White House he thought Mueller did “horrible” in his testimony and the handling of the investigation.

"There was no defense to this ridiculous hoax — this witch hunt," Trump said. He also called Wikileaks — which he repeatedly praised on the campaign trail — a “hoax.”

"This has been a very bad thing for our country," he said.

Mueller refuses to touch impeachment question

Republican Rep. Mike Johnson tried to coax Robert Mueller into saying he would not recommend impeachment, but Mueller wasn’t biting.

“One last important question. Your report does not recommend impeachment. Does it?” asked Johnson.

Mueller responded, “I’m not going to talk about recommendations.”

Johnson tried again, asking if the report concludes that impeachment “would not be appropriate here, right?” But again Mueller said he would not discuss recommendations.

Johnson ultimately abandoned the matter. “That’s one of the many things you wouldn’t talk about today. But I think we can all draw our own conclusions,” he said.

Later, during Democratic questioning, Johnson tried to raise a point of inquiry, asking Democratic chair Rep. Jerry Nadler whether the point of the hearings was to try to get Mueller to recommend impeachment. But Nadler declared the inquiry out of order and refused to let Johnson speak further.

At a time when Democrats are grappling with whether to begin an impeachment investigation into Trump, several members ended their questioning by saying it now falls to Congress to take action.

Democratic Rep. Al Green, who has led the push for impeachment in the House, said Democrats needed to “move forward after this hearing” with opening an inquiry. “We were told to wait for the report, we did. We were told to wait for Mr Mueller’s testimony, we have. We now have to move forward with impeachment,” he said.

"If we don’t, we’re starting to engage in the paralysis of analysis such that at some point we’ll say, ‘too late to impeach, let’s defeat [Trump] at the polls,’" Green added. "And then the suffering that he has caused would be to the extent that history won’t be kind to us.”

The second part of Mueller's testimony begins with Rep. Adam Schiff accusing Trump of "disloyalty to the country"

In his opening statement, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who has resisted Democrats’ efforts to impeach Trump, accused the president of “disloyalty to the country” for welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“Disloyalty to country. Those are strong words, but how else are we to describe a presidential campaign which did not inform the authorities of a foreign offer of dirt on their opponent, which did not publicly shun it, or turn it away, but which instead invited it, encouraged it, and made full use of it?” Schiff said.

Last week, Schiff was one of 137 Democrats who voted against pursuing impeachment against Trump.

In his opening remarks, Schiff also accused the Trump campaign of engaging in lies, greed, and corruption.

“But worst of all, worse than all the lies and the greed, is the disloyalty to country, for that too, continues,” Schiff said. “When asked, if the Russians intervene again, will you take their help, Mr. President? Why not, was the essence of his answer. Everyone does it.”

He also said, “But disloyalty to country violates the very obligation of citizenship, our devotion to a core principle on which our nation was founded, that we, the people, not some foreign power that wishes us ill, we decide, who shall govern, us.”

Schiff asked Mueller about his two-year investigation, asking if it was a "witch hunt" as Trump frequently claims.

Schiff: “When Donald Trump called your investigation a witch hunt, that was also false, was it not?

Mueller: “I like to think so, yes.”

Schiff: "Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?"

Mueller: “It is not a witch hunt.”

Mueller also testified that Trump’s claim of calling the Russian interference in the 2016 election a “hoax” was false.

Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Mueller says offers of foreign dirt can be a crime but won’t say whether the Trump Tower offer was illegal

Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked Mueller whether 2020 political campaigns should tell the authorities if a foreign government or person offers them dirt on an opponent.

“Should be — and it can be depending on the circumstances — a crime,” Mueller replied.

It is illegal for foreigners to make campaign contributions to US elections.

But Mueller later declined to say whether an offer Donald Trump Jr. received regarding incriminating information about Hillary Clinton would be proof of an illegal campaign contribution.

Trump Jr. had received the offer in a June 2016 email from a music publicist who helped set up the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting that followed just a few days later. The publicist, Rob Goldstone, had noted that the information was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. had responded enthusiastically to the offer, saying, “if it’s what you say I love it.”

Rep. Terri Sewell, another Democrat on the committee, asked Mueller whether the exchange was “evidence of an offer of illegal assistance.”

“I cannot adopt that characterization,” Mueller responded.

“Isn't it against the law for a presidential campaign to accept anything of value from a foreign government?” Sewell said.

“Generally speaking, yes, but there— generally, the cases are— are unique,” Mueller said.

Later, Mueller told Sewell that he didn’t believe anyone in the Trump campaign had informed the FBI of Goldstone’s offer. Sewell also asked whether campaigns are responsible for letting the FBI know if a foreign government offers information.

“I would think that is something they would and should do,” Mueller replied.

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Mueller says Trump's past praise of WikiLeaks is "problematic"

Mueller testified that Trump’s tweets praising Wikileaks were “problematic” and said that the president was boosting “illegal activity.”

Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley quoted various tweets by Trump in which the president had said, “I love Wikileaks,” “This Wikileaks stuff is unbelievable,” and “This Wikileaks is like a treasure trove.”

Quigley asked Mueller how he would react to those tweets.

“Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some, I don't know, hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said.

"They’re doing it as we sit here"

Mueller warned that the Russians are attempting to get involved in the American elections “as we sit here.” He also testified that Russians would interfere in the 2020 elections as well.

Republican Rep. Will Hurd asked Mueller if he found any evidence to suggest that Russians would interfere in the US elections again.

“It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign," Mueller said.

Mueller says he didn’t interview Trump because a subpoena would have taken too long

Mueller explained that though they had the power to, his team did not subpoena the president for an in-person interview because Trump would have fought it in court, which would have extended the length of the investigation.

Robert Mueller explains he didn’t pursue a subpoena against Trump because of “the necessity of” wrapping up the investigation and he expected the president to fight a subpoena

“We negotiated with him for a little over a year,” Mueller said. “But when we were almost towards the end of our investigation and we had little success in pushing to get the interview of the president, we decided we did not want to exercise the subpoena powers because of the necessity of expediting the end of the investigation.”

“The expectation was if we did subpoena the president, he would fight the subpoena, and we would be in the midst of the investigation for a substantial period of time,” Mueller added.

Mueller, pressed by Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, said the written responses Trump provided to Mueller’s questions were “certainly not as useful as the interview would be.” Maloney then asked if the president ever tried to plead the fifth, and Mueller declined to comment.

Maloney continued to query Mueller about his decision not to subpoena the president, saying that one explanation is that Mueller “flinched,” but he added that the former FBI director didn’t “strike [him] as the kind of guy who flinches.”

“I hope not,” Mueller said.

“We had to make a balance decision in terms of how much evidence we had compared to the length of time it would take [litigating],” Robert Mueller further explains his decision not to subpoena Trump

“The third explanation I can think of is that you didn't think you needed it,” Maloney continued.

Maloney then pointed to a section of the report that discussed cases in which an in-person interview was not necessary for proving intent, asking Mueller: “Did you have sufficient evidence of the president's intent to obstruct justice, and is that why you didn’t do the interview?”

“There's a balance,” Mueller said. “In other words, how much evidence you have to satisfy that last element against how much time you're willing to spend in the courts, litigating the interview with the president.”


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