WASHINGTON - Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before two House panels Wednesday on Capitol Hill about his Trump-Russia investigation, telling lawmakers that he could not exonerate President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice and that the president’s claims that he had done so in his report are not correct.
"The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed," Mueller declared at the opening of congressional hearings into his investigation of Russian interference to help Trump win the 2016 election.
With his terse, one-word answers, and a sometimes stilted and halting manner, Mueller made clear his desire to avoid the partisan fray and the deep political divisions roiling Congress and the country.
He delivered neither crisp TV sound bites to fuel a Democratic impeachment push nor comfort to Republicans striving to undermine his investigation's credibility. But his comments grew more animated by the afternoon, when he sounded the alarm on future Russian election interference. He said he feared a new normal of American campaigns accepting foreign help.
His report, he said, should live on after him and his team.
"We spent substantial time assuring the integrity of the report, understanding that it would be our living message to those who come after us," Mueller said. "But it also is a signal, a flag to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don't let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years."
Trump, claiming vindication despite the renewal of serious allegations, focused on his own political fortunes rather than such broader issues.
"This was a devastating day for the Democrats," he said. "The Democrats had nothing and now they have less than nothing."
Mueller was reluctant to stray beyond his lengthy written report, but that didn't stop Republicans and Democrats from laboring to extract new details.
Trump's GOP allies tried to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated. They referred repeatedly to what they consider the improper opening of the investigation.
Mueller warned that there should be a more robust effort to guard against future election interference.
The House Judiciary Committee’s questioning of the former special counsel began earlier in the morning, followed by the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing around noon. The entire testimony lasted more than six hours.
Mueller answered a volley of questions from both Democratic and Republican congressional lawmakers.
The format of the hearing involved five-minute rounds alternating between majority and minority, where each member of Congress had five minutes to question Mueller.
Near the conclusion of the hearings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff vowed Democratic investigations into the president’s conduct will continue.
In a morning hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller bluntly dismissed Trump’s claim of “total exoneration,” saying it’s not what his 448-page Russia report said.
In an opening statement prior to Mueller’s, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said his committee has "a responsibility to address" the evidence that Mueller uncovered in his Trump-Russia investigation.
Nadler said "not even the president is above the law.“
Mueller wrote in the document that he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice, noting that Trump's direction to then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller removed and, once that was made public, orders from Trump to McGahn to deny it happened.
"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., asked.
“No,” Mueller replied.
Mueller's report said the investigation did not find sufficient evidence to establish charges of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. But the report said investigators did not clear Trump of trying to obstruct the probe. Mueller also told Congress that he explicitly did not clear the president of obstruction of justice.
The former special counsel told lawmakers that the Russian interference in the 2016 election was “among the most serious” challenges to American democracy he had encountered.
Mueller testified that the Russians believed that they would benefit from Trump winning the 2016 presidential election.
The former special counsel was asked if his investigation found the Russian government perceived a benefit if one of the candidates won.
"Yes," he said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., then asked which candidate that would be.
"It would be Trump," Mueller said.
In response to a line of questioning regarding his declination to charge Trump, Mueller affirmed that a president can be charged with crimes after leaving office.
He said Justice Department guidelines had prevented him from considering charges against Trump while he is in office. Because of the longtime Justice Department guidance that a sitting president cannot be indicted, Mueller said, “one of the tools a prosecutor would use is not there.”
“But under DOJ — under Department of Justice policy, the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice crimes after he leaves office, correct?” Nadler asked the former special counsel.
“True,” Mueller answered.
Mueller also disputed Trump’s claim that Mueller was rebuffed in a bid to fill the post of FBI director. He said he spoke with Trump about the FBI job before he was named as special counsel, but "not as a candidate."
Then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has said that while the White House invited Mueller to speak to the president about the FBI and thought about asking him to become director again, but that Mueller did not come in looking for a job.
Mueller pushed back on questions from Republicans about his prosecutors’ connections to Hillary Clinton, saying political affiliations played no part in his hiring decisions. North Dakota Republican Rep. Kelly Armstrong questioned Mueller about one of his prosecutors attending Clinton's election night party, and another who represented Clinton in a lawsuit.
Mueller strongly defended his team. He bristled at the implication that his prosecutors were compromised. He said he found some of the best prosecutors in the country to work for him.
"I have been in this business for almost 25 years, and in those 25 years I have not had the occasion to ask somebody about their political affiliation," Mueller said. "It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity."
Mueller was a reluctant witness, replying to questions with short phrases or single-word answers, often saying he would refer to the report. But in response to Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California, he gave a full-sentence defense of his special counsel’s report.
“I don’t think you will review a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us,” Mueller responded.
Mueller was also pressed as to why he hadn't investigated a "dossier" of claims that the Republicans insist helped lead to the start of the probe. He said that was not his charge. He said repeatedly that the dossier was "outside my purview."
Mueller had told the House judiciary and intelligence committees that he would decline to quote from his report on the Trump-Russia investigation during his testimony before both the panels, according to a person involved with the negotiations. The source spoke about the confidential talks only on condition of anonymity.
Mueller's refusal to read his own words proved somewhat challenging for Democrats, who called him in with the idea that he could explain his findings to the American people.
Democrats filled in the gaps by reading from the report themselves, methodically going through episodes that Mueller reviewed for obstruction of justice.
After hours testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller testified Wednesday afternoon before the House Intelligence Committee on his 448-page report, in which Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., led with an opening statement.
"Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?" Schiff asked.
"It is not a witch hunt," Mueller replied, referring to his Trump-Russia probe. Trump has repeatedly referred to the investigation as a witch hunt.
Mueller went on to warn that election interference by Russia in 2016 was not an isolated attempt. "They're doing it as we sit here," he told the congressional committee.
Mueller also condemned Trump's praise for WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. He said calling it “problematic is an understatement.” During that campaign, WikiLeaks released troves of hacked emails from the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
U.S. intelligence agencies and Mueller's investigation determined Russian government entities were responsible for the hack and furnished the embarrassing correspondence to WikiLeaks in order to support Trump's bid for the presidency.
Mueller said he hoped to send a message with his Russia probe report "to those who come after us." He said he wanted the report to be "a signal, a flag... don't let this problem continue to linger.“
Trump had said the allegations were a hoax perpetrated by Democrats. But Mueller said that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was not a hoax.
"The indictments we returned against the Russians were substantial," Mueller said.
Earlier in the House Judiciary Committee hearing, Mueller told Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., that he did not charge Trump because of a Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted. Democrats had understood him to be suggesting that he would otherwise have recommended prosecution on the strength of the evidence.
But Mueller later walked back that statement during the House Intelligence Committee hearing in the afternoon.
"We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime," he said, referring to his team, which "never started the process" of evaluating whether to charge the president.
Mueller clarified that he did not consider bringing criminal charges against Trump as part of his Russia investigation.
Mueller had made clear in his report that he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice. His report also said investigators didn't find sufficient evidence to establish charges of criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The hearing dove into ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
On that question, Mueller's report documented a trail of contacts between Russians and Trump associates - including a Trump Tower meeting at which the president's eldest son expected to receive dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., asked Mueller if he subpoenaed the president's eldest son or if he wanted to interview him.
"I'm not going to discuss that," Mueller responded.
Mueller's report on the Russia investigation, which was released in April, said Trump Jr. had "declined to be voluntarily interviewed" by the special counsel's office. There are two lines in the report following that statement that are redacted because they contain grand jury information.
Trump Jr. was a key figure in a 2016 campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in New York that captured Mueller's attention.
Meanwhile, ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, claimed a hearing with the former special counsel is "political theater" and a "Hail Mary" attempt by Democrats to convince Americans that Trump conspired with Russia to win the election.
Nunes said there were "red flags" as the Justice Department started investigating Russian contacts with Trump's campaign in 2016. Republicans have argued that the department conspired against Trump as that probe began.
Mueller, who later took over the investigation, said in his report released in April that there was no evidence that Trump's campaign conspired with Russia. But it detailed many contacts between the two.
In the morning before the hearing, Mueller was flanked by police officers in the Rayburn House Office Building as he headed toward a hearing room. Senior Mueller aide Aaron Zebley also was in the hearing room. He sat next to Mueller during the House Intelligence Committee testimony.
Mueller's investigation shadowed Trump's presidency for nearly two years and officially concluded in March, when he submitted his report.
The nation has heard the former special counsel speak only once before, for nine minutes in May, since his 2017 appointment. Prior to the hearing, Mueller expressed his reluctance to testify and said he wouldn’t go beyond what's in his report.
Democrats hoped Mueller's testimony would weaken Trump's reelection prospects in ways that Mueller's book-length report did not. Republicans were ready to defend Trump and turn their fire on Mueller and his team instead.
The hearings carried the extraordinary spectacle of a prosecutor discussing in public a criminal investigation he conducted into a sitting U.S. president.
Mueller is a former FBI director who spent 12 years parrying questions from lawmakers at oversight hearings, and decades before that as a prosecutor who asked questions of his own.
Fox TV Stations' Gabrielle Moreira contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.