“We decided we would not make a decision on whether the president committed a crime,” Mueller said in his opening statement before the House Judiciary Committee. Under questioning, though, Mueller acknowledged it’s possible Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice once he leaves office.
Constrained by Justice Department guidelines and his determination not to go beyond the findings in his 448-page final report, Mueller’s impact was further undermined by his performance. The 74-year-old former FBI director spoke haltingly at times, asking members to repeat their questions, stumbling over his wording and having difficulty finding passages in his report.
“The last three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement after the first of two hearings.
In the morning, the Judiciary Committee focused on whether Trump obstructed justice. The panel’s Democratic chairman, Jerrold Nadler, said “any other person who acted this way would have been charged with crimes.”
In the afternoon, the Intelligence Committee examined Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, and whether those around Trump conspired in it. Mueller found multiple contacts between people in the Trump campaign and Russians but said in his report that he didn’t find evidence to conclude they conspired in election meddling.
‘Disloyalty to Country’
Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told Mueller it’s “a story about disloyalty to country, about greed and about lies. Your investigation determined that the Trump campaign — including Trump himself — knew that a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it, built Russian meddling into their strategy, and used it.”
Democratic Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama asked Mueller if a campaign should tell authorities about an offer of help from a foreign power, a reference to a Trump Tower meeting taken by Donald Trump Jr. and others in his father’s campaign with Russians who offered political dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“I would think that’s something they would and should do,” Mueller said. No such contact was made by Trump’s campaign.
In response to questions over more than three hours before the Judiciary panel, Mueller confirmed a number of facts — including that Trump refused his requests for an in-person interview, that Donald Trump Jr. declined to be interviewed and that the special counsel didn’t exonerate the president on obstruction of justice.
When Republican Representative Ken Buck of Colorado asked if the president could be charged with obstruction after leaving office, Mueller said “yes.”
Republicans dismissed the day’s hearings as “the last gasp of the Russian collusion-conspiracy theory,” as Representative Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, said.
Republicans excoriated Mueller for his refusal to discuss early decisions in the Russia probe — which they say was tainted by anti-Trump bias before he took over. Mueller also said he wouldn’t address decisions made by Attorney General William Barr, who made his own finding that Trump didn’t obstruct justice.
Read More: Mueller Appears Halting and Quiet in Long-Anticipated Hearing
Representative Doug Collins, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, said in his opening statement that “Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts.”
On whether Trump obstructed Mueller’s probe, Collins said, “He did not shut down the investigation. The president knew he was innocent.”
Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, said in a statement after the Judiciary hearing that the testimony “revealed that this probe was conducted by a small group of politically biased prosecutors who, as hard as they tried, were unable to establish either obstruction, conspiracy, or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.”
Mueller didn’t defend himself or his investigation when Republican Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, a former U.S. attorney, tore into him as having violated “every principle and the most sacred traditions” of prosecutors by including in his report “potential crimes that were not charged.”
But Mueller firmly responded “no way” when Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas asked if he knew that Peter Strzok had “animus” toward Trump when he put the FBI agent on his team. Mueller said “I acted swiftly” to remove Strzok once he learned that he and an FBI lawyer exchanged texts during the 2016 campaign saying Trump shouldn’t be allowed to become president.
He also snapped back when asked about the contention that key members of his team were Democrats supportive of Trump’s rival Clinton. “I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation.” He said “what I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job, and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”
Millions of Americans were expected to watch the event on live television. Even Trump — who dismissed the hearings as a desperate move by Democrats because Mueller’s team found “no collusion, no obstruction” — acknowledged this week that “probably, I’ll see a little” of it.
The president betrayed deeper concern about the hearing in an early morning storm of tweets on Wednesday attacking Mueller and his team. He denounced Mueller as “highly conflicted” and said the Republican led a team of “Democrat Never Trumper lawyers.”
But as the hearing went on, Trump cited tweets from Fox News personalities that criticized Mueller’s performance and defended the president’s case that there was “no collusion, no obstruction” and the president said sardonically, “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing.”
Donald J. Trump
I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing. Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff – an Embarrassment to our Country!
Sent via Twitter for iPhone.
View original tweet.
The day’s sessions unfolded in a setting with some history: the House Judiciary Committee’s main hearing room, where impeachment proceedings unfolded for Presidents Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
Still, even beforehand some Democrats sought to lower expectations that Mueller’s appearance would have much influence on public opinion.
“People are pretty dug-in on not just Trump and Russia, but just dug-in on this president,” Schiff, the Intelligence panel’s chairman, said Tuesday.