WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump celebrated former special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearances Wednesday before two House of Representatives committees as “a very good day” for himself and fellow Republicans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after Mueller’s testimony about his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged obstruction of justice by Trump that Democrats would push on in their own probes of the president and his administration.
“There was no defense for this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt that’s been going on for a long time,” Trump told reporters using his oft-repeated dismissals of Mueller’s investigation. “What he showed more than anything else is that this whole thing has been three years of embarrassment and waste of time for our country.”
Trump and Republican members of Congress were critical of House Democrats for calling Mueller to speak before the intelligence and judiciary committees, saying they should be moving on from the probe.
But House leaders speaking after the testimony signaled their intention to keep a focus on the White House, including the prospect of future impeachment proceedings if they find sufficient evidence and public support.
“I do believe that what we saw today is a very strong manifestation, in fact some would say indictment, of this administration’s cone of silence in their cover-up,” Pelosi said. “This is about the oath we take to protect and defend the Constitution, but some of the actions that the administration may have taken — and we’ll see through our investigation — may have jeopardized our national security by strengthening Russia’s hand and interfering in our elections.”
Trump not exonerated
Mueller told members of Congress that his investigation did not exonerate Trump of obstructing justice by trying to thwart the probe, even though the U.S. leader has frequently claimed it did.
As hours of testimony started, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler asked the prosecutor, “Did you totally exonerate the president?”
“No,” Mueller responded, later adding, “The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed.”
Mueller explained, however, that Trump could not be criminally charged because of a long-standing Justice Department policy prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president and so his team did not “make that calculation” whether Trump should be charged.
Later in the hearing, Republican Congressman Ken Buck asked Mueller, “You believe that he committed — you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?
“Yes,” Mueller replied.
Trump has often attacked Mueller’s investigation, but Mueller, rebuffing one of the president’s frequent claims, said, “It is not a witch hunt.”
These two exchanges were among the few dramatic moments during five hours of testimony that had been highly anticipated. To a significant degree, Mueller made good on his vow to stick to the confines of his lengthy report on Russia’s bold interference in the election three years ago and Trump’s alleged effort to inhibit the special counsel’s probe.
But whether the daylong hearings will have a lasting effect on Trump’s chances of winning a second term in 2020 and how Americans view him after hearing directly from Mueller is uncertain.
Mueller deflected dozens of questions about his 22-month probe and the 448-page report produced by his team of prosecutors, including declining to answer Republican lawmakers’ frequent queries about the origins of the Russia probe. He said questions about the start of the Russia investigation 10 months before he was named special counsel in May 2017 were “outside my purview” and currently the subject of a review by the Justice Department.
Mueller said his team unsuccessfully tried for a year to reach agreement with Trump to give testimony in person, but the president only answered some questions in writing and not about alleged obstruction.
He said the written responses were “not as useful as the interview would be,” but that prosecutors felt they were running out of time to subpoena Trump and then engage in a lengthy legal battle with the president’s lawyers over whether he would be compelled to testify in person.
Republicans frustrated, too
Mueller, hewing closely to his report’s findings, acknowledged to Republican Congressman Doug Collins that his investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump or any of his 2016 campaign staff with conspiring with Russia to help Trump win a four-year term in the White House.
Another Republican, Congressman James Sensenbrenner, attacked Mueller for continuing his probe even knowing that Trump could not be charged with a crime, although Mueller said that was permissible under Justice Department guidelines.
“If you’re not going to indict the president, then you’re just going to continue fishing, that’s my opinion,” Sensenbrenner said.
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee, who conducted the afternoon session, asked Mueller about his findings on how Russia interfered in the election to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, his 2016 opponent. Democrats and Republicans alike had trouble getting Mueller to say anything of substance beyond confirming what was already in his report.
He declined to discuss why some people linked to the Russian probe were charged with criminal offenses and others were not. Nor would he venture into discussing any differences he had with Attorney General William Barr over Barr’s highly positive characterization of the report before it was released to the public.
And he wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion of his report as it might relate to impeachment of the president.
The 2016 campaign
But Mueller occasionally disparaged Trump’s conduct during the 2016 campaign, including when at political rallies he talked about WikiLeaks’ disclosure of Democratic officials’ emails stolen by Russian operatives that were damaging to Clinton.
Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley read several Trump quotes about the emails, including, “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove” and “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks.”
Asked what he thought of then candidate Trump’s remarks, Mueller said, “Problematic is an understatement in terms of what it displays...”
Republicans insisted Mueller’s report had cleared the president and that the investigation was based on questionable intelligence before Mueller became the special counsel. The Republicans cited a report paid for by Democrats containing largely unsubstantiated and salacious claims by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele about Trump’s time in Moscow before he entered politics.
Nadler and the other Democrats took pains to praise Mueller, a decorated Vietnam war veteran and former FBI chief, and to highlight the most damning evidence against the president cited in the report.
The hearings were equally critical in importance for the 235 opposition Democrats in the House of Representatives, more than a third of whom have called for Trump’s impeachment or the start of an impeachment inquiry. These critics allege that the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” — the standard for impeachment — by trying to halt Mueller’s 22-month probe.
The Mueller report said the president directed then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to try to oust Mueller and then publicly lie that Trump had not told him to seek Mueller’s dismissal. Mueller alleged that Trump directed his one-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to try to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the Mueller investigation. The report also alleged that the president possibly engaged in witness tampering to discourage two key aides convicted by Mueller’s team, Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, from cooperating with investigators.
Even with vocal Democratic opposition to Trump, there appears to be no chance the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to convict Trump and remove him from office even if the House were to impeach him. National polls indicate Americans are opposed to impeaching Trump, either because they do not believe the allegations against him are serious enough to force his removal or prefer to cast an up-or-down vote on his presidency in the November 2020 election.