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Mueller contradicts Trump in long-awaited testimony to Congress

The former special counsel remained sphinx-like throughout the hearing, refusing to be drawn into questions from both sides.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller, left, with former deputy special counsel Aaron Zebley, listens during a hearing before Congress on July 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images
Former special counsel Robert Mueller, left, with former deputy special counsel Aaron Zebley, listens during a hearing before Congress on July 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

In long-awaited testimony to Congress, former special counsel Robert Mueller contradicted President Donald Trump, confirming that his investigation did not exonerate the president.

“And what about total exoneration,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) asked Mueller, echoing a claim Trump and his allies have repeated often. “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?”

“No,” Mueller responded succinctly.

“Now, in fact, your report expressly states that it does not exonerate the president?” Nadler continued.

“It does,” Mueller confirmed.

Mueller’s answers Wednesday echo comments in the final report of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump acted to obstruct that investigation.

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“[W]hile this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mueller wrote on page two, volume two of his report, released in April.

It also undercut the “no collusion, no obstruction” talking point Trump and his allies have leaned on since Mueller completed his investigation.

That didn’t stop Republican press shops on Capitol Hill from continuing to push out that message even as Mueller undercut it in his sworn testimony:

Mueller testified Wednesday morning in a House Judiciary Committee hearing before a separate afternoon session with the House Intelligence Committee — a marathon of testimony that dominated cable news coverage and had politics enthusiasts in Washington and across the country glued to their screens.

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The goal of Democratic House members was to get Mueller on the record in front of cameras. As Republican and Democratic committee members alternated questioning him in five minute intervals, Democrats used their time to read the most damning sections of the final report and asking Mueller to confirm its contents.

Meanwhile, Republicans used their time to try to undermine Mueller and his report, trotting out a long-held narrative that the former special counsel’s investigation was conceived in sin, begun by partisan officials at the Justice Department who wanted to unseat Trump and undermine democracy.

Amid it all, Mueller remained stoic and inscrutable, frustrating attempts by both sides to draw him toward their respective positions.

[I]f somebody knows they did not conspire with anybody from Russia to affect the election and they see the big Justice Department with people that hate that person coming after them, and then a special counsel appointed who hires [a] dozen or more people that hate that person, and he knows he is innocent, he is not corruptly acting in order to see that justice is done,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), said at the end of his allotted time for questions. “What he is doing is not obstructing justice, he is pursuing justice. And the fact that you ran it out two years means you perpetuated injustice.”

Nadler gaveled Gohmert into silence as he ran over his time and directed Mueller to answer the question, as the hearing room paused to hear the former special counsel’s response to the Texas congressman’s extended monologue.

“I take your question,” Mueller said to chuckles from the hearing room.

Even before Mueller was sworn in Wednesday, there were hints that his testimony — like his report — would be less incendiary than either side hoped.

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At a surprise press conference at the Justice Department in May, Mueller said any public testimony he gave “would not go beyond our report.” The Justice Department has told Mueller to stick to his word on that, citing executive privilege and law-enforcement privilege that it said exempts some of Mueller’s investigative findings from disclosure to Congress.

Mueller said in his opening statement that he would honor those privilege determinations by the Justice Department, and that he would not entertain questions about the origins of the Russia investigation before he was appointed special counsel.

Even Democratic attempts to get Mueller to repeat parts of his report’s findings for the television cameras, or to elaborate on those findings, were largely for naught. As Democratic members read Mueller sections of the report, one after the other, he responded with the occasional “yes” or “that’s correct” but primarily referred members of the committee back to his report.

The former special counsel was more forthcoming at the beginning of his afternoon testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, fielding a rapid succession of true-or-false questions from the chair, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).

It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller said bluntly of his investigation, disputing Trump’s go-to refrains.

“When the president said the Russian interference [in the 2016 election] was a hoax, that was false, wasn’t it?” Schiff pressed on.

“True,” Mueller responded.

At the same time, Mueller walked back one of his answers from the morning hearing. Rep. Ted Lieu had asked the former special counsel if he would have indicted Trump for obstruction of justice if it were not for an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that precludes criminal indictments against a sitting president.

“That is correct,” Mueller had answered at the time, causing some to speculate that the former special counsel was going well beyond his report and testifying that the OLC memo was all that had kept him from charging the president of the United States with a felony.

Mueller deflated those theories before taking questions Wednesday afternoon.

“That is not the correct way to say it,” Mueller said of his previous response to Lieu. “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.”

This story has been updated to include former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday afternoon before the House Intelligence Committee.