WASHINGTON: Former US Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday defended the integrity of his Russia investigation during a dramatic congressional hearing and reiterated that he had not cleared President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice or, as the president has said, totally exonerated Trump.
Mueller, answering questions publicly for the first time on his inquiry, appeared for eagerly anticipated testimony at the first of two back-to-back televised congressional hearings that carry high stakes for Trump and Democrats who are split between impeaching him or moving on to the 2020 election.
The former FBI director, who spent 22 months investigating what he concluded was Russian interference in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” in the 2016 US election to help Trump and the president’s conduct, appeared first before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
Mueller’s 448-page report, released in redacted form on April 18, did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice in a series of actions aimed at impeding the inquiry, but pointedly did not exonerate him.
Democratic Representative Ted Lieu asked Mueller if the reason he did not bring a criminal indictment against Trump was the Justice Department’s longstanding policy against bringing criminal charges against a sitting president.
“That is correct,” Mueller said.
The committee’s Democratic chairman, Jerrold Nadler, praised Mueller and said no one, including Trump, is “above the law.” But Republicans tried to paint Mueller’s investigation as unfair to Trump, with conservative congressman Louie Gohmert heatedly telling him “you perpetuated injustice.”
Trump has claimed that the Mueller inquiry resulted in the president’s “complete and total exoneration.”
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked Mueller.
“No,” Mueller replied.
Mueller, accused by Trump of heading a “witch hunt” and trying to orchestrate a “coup” against the Republican president, said his inquiry was conducted in “a fair and independent manner” and that members of the special counsel’s team “were of the highest integrity.” Trump has accused Mueller of having conflicts of interest. Mueller noted that Justice Department ethics officials confirmed he had no such conflicts.
“Let me say one more thing,” Mueller said. “Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere with our election is among the most serious.”
The interrogation of Mueller, a reluctant witness who appeared only after being subpoenaed, afforded an opportunity for Americans, who may not have pored over the lengthy and sometimes dense report, to hear his conclusions in a highly charged hearing scheduled by Democrats, with Trump running for re-election in 2020.
‘A LITTLE FAST’
Mueller, 74, was surrounded by news photographers as he took his place in the packed hearing room, showing little apparent emotion as he scanned the scene. Mueller faced a series of rapid-fire questions from lawmakers in both parties, several times asking them to repeat their questions and often referring them to the text of the report itself. Some Republicans interrupted Mueller as he was trying to answer questions.
“That went a little fast for me,” Mueller told Doug Collins, the committee’s top Republican, at one point.
Mueller avoided being drawn into arguments with Republicans who hammered away at his inquiry, often frustrating lawmakers with responses such as “I am not going to get into that.”
“And if I can finish,” Mueller told Republican Matt Gaetz after the congressman interrupted him.
In a comment sure to disappoint Republicans, Mueller said he would not answer questions about the origins of the Russia probe in the FBI before he was named to take over the inquiry in 2017 or about a controversial dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent. Republicans have tried to portray the investigation as a politically motivated attack on Trump cooked up by Democrats and various enemies. — Reuters