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Mueller Rejects Trump 'Exoneration' Claim — But Sticks To His Script

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Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Wednesday.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Wednesday.

Democrats sought Wednesday to underscore that former special counsel Robert Mueller has not cleared President Trump and that many contacts were uncovered between his campaign and the Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

"No," Mueller said.

That exchange made the point that Democrats have repeated since Mueller filed his report: His findings don't boil down to a vindication or an inoculation for President Trump, as the president claims.

What isn't clear is what they do mean, or will mean in terms of actions by the president's opponents.

Mueller studiously avoided being drawn into questions about prospective impeachment proceedings — which divide the Democrats that control the House majority — and admitted that someone else might decide to charge Trump with a crime after he's no longer in office.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., asked Mueller whether he believed there was sufficient evidence for a charge when Trump no longer enjoys the protection of the Justice Department policy that forbids indicting a president.

Yes, Mueller said. But for the Office of Legal Counsel's opinion that bars charging a president, the former special counsel said to Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., he and his office might have decided whether to try to bring an indictment against Trump.

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Some Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed doing so if they're elected next year, but no president has ever been prosecuted after the fact for actions in office — another political minefield for the party to navigate.

Other Democrats on Wednesday emphasized what they called key findings from the special counsel's investigation, including the details about Trump's then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, meeting with a Russian contact who has been linked with Russia's intelligence agencies — and giving him polling and other material from the Trump campaign.

But Mueller also stressed in his opening statement that he would not go beyond what he has already said or written or go beyond the guidelines the Justice Department has imposed on what he can reveal on Wednesday.

Collins and Co. for the minority

Republicans used their time with Mueller to emphasize that the special counsel established no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian attack on the election.

House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins, R-Ga., sought to underscore the thoroughness of Mueller's report — and the conclusion, supported by that thoroughness, that there had been no conspiracy between Trump's campaign in 2016 and the Russians who interfered in the election.

Other members attacked the former special counsel for what they called malpractice and bias.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, told Mueller that he had failed to fulfill his responsibilities as a prosecutor by writing that he could neither charge Trump nor "exonerate him" — but exoneration is not a prosecutor's job, Ratcliffe said.

His job is to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to bring a charge and, if he can't, not only mustn't he bring the charge, he also must not reveal what he uncovered since there won't be an indictment, Ratcliffe said.

"You managed to violate every principle and most sacred tradition for prosecutors," the Texas congressman said.

Ratcliffe asked Mueller if he could cite a written Justice Department policy that permitted the specific actions he had taken with his investigation and his report.

"I cannot," Mueller said, "but this is a unique situation."

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, sought to draw Mueller out about some of the more salacious aspects of the Russia imbroglio, including the so-called Russia dossier produced by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

But Mueller wouldn't go there. He said that matter was being handled by others inside the Justice Department and, at one point, said he didn't know either the names Fusion GPS — the political intelligence firm that commissioned the Steele material — or Glenn Simpson, its founder.

Mueller deferred again in a second session with the House intelligence committee to address alternative hypothesis propounded by Ranking Member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and other members about the early phase of the Russia investigation.

That's also being investigated by others in the Justice Department, he said.

The former special counsel also tried to dispute accusations that members of his team were politically biased because of their work with Democrats or political contributions. Mueller said he picked the most effective people for the job.

The Justice Department calls for officials not to consider employees' political views when hiring or making assignment.

Reluctant witness

The white-haired former G-man didn't want to testify before Congress. He gave one-word or monosyllabic answers, asked members of Congress to repeat themselves, and frequently responded by saying, "I'd refer you to the report."

Mueller said in a brief statement at the Justice Department earlier this year that his report was his testimony and that he didn't think it would be appropriate for him to star in a big set piece event on Capitol Hill.

The longtime prosecutor also sometimes appeared to struggle to follow which members of Congress were questioning him and he wasn't able to recount precisely, at one point, which presidents in the past had nominated him for which of the roles he has served.

Democrats insisted that Mueller appear. They negotiated for months and eventually compelled him with a subpoena.

Nadler believed it be valuable simply for more Americans to see and hear Mueller on TV describing what he found in his investigation, given that many people haven't read his report.

Mueller documented a vast wave of interference by Russia's government in the 2016 presidential election with the object of hurting candidate Hillary Clinton and helping Trump get elected.

The special counsel's office also documented many contacts between Trump's campaign and Russians during that time but did not establish a criminal conspiracy related to the election.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., mentioned during the intelligence committee hearing that national security officials — including, earlier this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray — have warned that election interference will continue through the 2020 presidential race.

Knowing what Americans know today, Himes said, should a campaigns contacted by foreign agents report that to the FBI?

"It should and it can be — depending on the circumstances — a crime," Mueller said.

As to Trump's praise for WikiLeaks in 2016 while it was revealing politically embarrassing material stolen by Russian government cyberattackers, Mueller was asked how he reacted to those comments.

"Problematic is an understatement," Mueller said.

Volume II of Mueller's report details a number of instances that Democrats and other critics have called obstruction of justice, including attempts by Trump to remove Mueller himself — and then cover up those efforts.

President sanguine

Trump and his aides insisted they were unconcerned about Mueller's testimony.

The special counsel's office closed without bringing any more criminal charges against Trump's inner circle, and Trump has stressed that he views Mueller's report — which explicitly does not exonerate the president — as an exoneration.

Trump's private lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said ahead of the hearing that the legal team wouldn't have a "war room" running to countermessage Mueller's testimony. Trump allies inside and outside the White House said they believed the former special counsel wouldn't stray beyond his report, but still faulted Mueller's comments.

"This morning's testimony exposed the troubling deficiencies of the special counsel's investigation," Sekulow said Wednesday.

"The testimony revealed that this probe was conducted by a small group of politically biased prosecutors who, as hard as they tried, we're unable to establish either obstruction, conspiracy, or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia."

Trump has revisited some of his old attacks on Mueller as being "conflicted" and a "never Trumper," but he also sought to appear calm about the hearings beforehand.

All the same, the president offered his own commentary about the pre-gavel coverage before Mueller's opening statement on Wednesday: "NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!"

The only thing on Trump's schedule for Wednesday is a private fundraiser later in the day in West Virginia.

The president had said he wasn't planning to tune in to see Mueller — and then also said, "Maybe I'll see a little bit of it."

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith contributed to this report.

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