WASHINGTON — Former special counsel Robert Mueller explicitly told lawmakers Wednesday that his investigation did not “completely and totally exonerate” President Donald Trump of obstructing justice, contrary to what the president has claimed.
In the first of two back-to-back appearances before U.S. House committees, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, kicked off questioning Wednesday morning by pressing Mueller on Trump’s claims.
“The report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice,” Nadler said. Mueller replied, “That is correct.”
Nadler continued, “And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Mueller responded, “No.”
The report, Nadler went on, “expressly states that it does not exonerate the president.” Mueller said, “It does.”
Just before the hearing kicked off, Trump made his latest declaration on Twitter that the report found “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!”
Little new information was revealed during Wednesday’s hearings, as the famously scripted Mueller largely stuck to the findings of his report, and repeatedly refused to answer lawmakers’ speculative questions.
But Democrats and Republicans alike on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees sought to use the closely watched hearings to gain political leverage — Democrats by asking Mueller to confirm portions of his 448-page report into Russian election interference, and Republicans by attacking Democrats’ motives and the integrity of Mueller’s team.
Rep. Ben Cline (R-6th), a freshman and the lone Virginia lawmaker to sit on either of the panels that questioned Mueller on Wednesday, slammed what he called Mueller’s “creative” legal theories.
Cline asked whether Attorney General William Barr disagreed with Mueller’s interpretation of the law, but Mueller declined to answer. “I leave that to the attorney general to identify,” he told Cline.
Later, Cline pronounced himself unimpressed with Mueller and said it was time for the nation to “move on.”
With respect, Mueller was not impressive today. He provided no new information & was confused about his report. I asked him about his creative analysis of the obstruction of justice statute that he used for his conclusions regarding @realDonaldTrump in Volume II. Time to move on! pic.twitter.com/qKH3Iwl2vs
— Congressman Ben Cline (@RepBenCline) July 24, 2019
Democrats on the committee said that although Mueller refused to expand much beyond his report, the hearings were a valuable exercise.
“For people who have read the Mueller report or followed these issues, this hearing was not surprising,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after the hearing. “For people who did not, this should have blown their minds, because they saw for the first time Robert Mueller saying yes to multiple instances of obstruction of justice by Donald Trump.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said afterward, “The critical thing is that the American people saw overwhelming and devastating evidence of obstruction of justice relayed in fine detail both by the committee and by the witness and it’s irrefutable.” Raskin called Mueller’s testimony “a great victory for the truth and for the possibility of justice in the country.”
Republicans questioning Mueller, meanwhile, attacked the integrity of his team and his investigation, and accused Democrats of using the hearings as political theater.
Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) accused Mueller’s team of having “infamous and widely publicized bias,” and defended the president’s frustrations during the long-running investigation.
“Mr. Mueller, there’s one primary reason why you were called here today,” Johnson said. “Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle just want political cover. They desperately wanted you today to tell them they should impeach the president.”
Mueller, however, declined to discuss impeachment.
Trump said earlier this week that he “probably” wasn’t going to be watching Mueller testify, but his Twitter feed Wednesday morning was packed with clips and comments from the House hearings. “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” he tweeted after Mueller’s first appearance.
In a press conference later in the day headlined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats in the House, including Nadler and Adam Schiff, D-Calif, the chairman of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the lawmakers said the day was about “painting a picture” for Americans of the details of the lengthy, legalistic report.
“I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “Because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children’s children and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard this moment. This is our watch.”
However, Pelosi said House Democrats were awaiting the results of legal battles seeking to pry information from the Trump administration before taking additional steps.
Other Democrats say they don’t need to hear anything else.
Lots of constituents calling after the Mueller hearings to ask me to support an impeachment inquiry. I have supported one since May, and you can read why here: https://t.co/tizblTSQB3
— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) July 24, 2019
Editor Robert Zullo contributed.