(Bloomberg) -- Democrats approached Robert Mueller’s testimony with a list of goals that they largely failed to accomplish.
Some wanted the former special counsel to read damning portions of his report aloud for a live television audience, which he declined to do. Others hoped for fresh details on possible obstruction of justice by Donald Trump, but Mueller didn’t offer any.
Mueller’s long-awaited appearance Wednesday for more than five hours before two House committees fell short of Democrats’ predictions that he’d jump-start their stalled investigations into President Trump and perhaps even propel a move to impeach him. Afterward, some insisted there’s still plenty to be mined from the facts laid out by their star witness.
“Today is a watershed day in telling those facts to the American people,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York told reporters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has resisted calls to open impeachment proceedings, called it “a historic day” and “the crossing of a threshold.”
Republicans seized on Mueller’s shaky performance and his insistence on clinging closely to the findings in his 448-page final report, leaving them the opportunity to lob accusations of anti-Trump bias against the former FBI director and his team that he rebutted only occasionally.
“This was a very big day for our country,” Trump told reporters at the White House, “It’s very simple: nothing was done wrong, it was all a big hoax.” He added, “I think Robert Mueller did a horrible job.”
After the Judiciary Committee’s morning hearing, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement calling it “an epic embarrassment for the Democrats.” The president tweeted links to two video clips -- one in which Mueller said his investigation wasn’t curtailed and another in which he said he wasn’t familiar with Fusion GPS, the company well-known for commissioning a dossier of unsubstantiated allegations against Trump.
“The American people were already losing the momentum for anything they were doing,” Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel said of the Democrats’ investigations, which have been stymied by the White House’s refusal to allow testimony by current and former administration officials or to provide documents.
Still, Democrats scored some points in questioning Mueller.
Before the Judiciary Committee, Representative Val Demings of Florida asked Mueller if “lies by Trump campaign officials and administration officials impeded your investigation.” Mueller replied: “I would generally agree with that.”
Nadler asked, “Did you actually totally exonerate the president” as Trump has claimed. “No,” Mueller replied.
And Democratic Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama asked whether 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. The Trump campaign made no such report to authorities.
In testimony before the Intelligence Committee, Mueller appealed for “much more” to be done to counter Russian interference, and he criticized Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks in 2016.
‘Cone of Silence’
Pelosi, Nadler and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff stuck to their previous stance that they want to continue pursuing as strong as case against Trump as possible -- through committee investigations and court actions -- before deciding whether to open an impeachment inquiry.
“There’s a cone of silence in the White House that is engaged in a massive cover-up and the obstruction of justice,” Pelosi said. “Those obstruction of justice charges, as has been demonstrated today in the hearing, could be indictable offenses by anybody else not the president of the United States -- and the president when he’s no longer president.”Read more: Mueller Breaks Silence in Least Satisfying Way for Lawmakers
But Republicans derided Mueller as unable to answer basic questions, and Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a close Trump ally, even tweeted that “this guy didn’t run the investigation. His team of Resistance Democrats did.”
As Republicans wielded their accusations that the Russia investigation was an anti-Trump conspiracy, Mueller remained largely silent. He declined to answer any of their questions about the origin of the initial investigation, which opened months before Mueller became special counsel, or about the unsubstantiated dossier of allegations about Trump. In both cases, he cited an ongoing investigations by the Justice Department and its inspector general.
He 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, a Republican, fought back when asked about Trump’s frequent contention that his team was made of ‘angry Democrats” who supported Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years,” Mueller said. “In those 25 years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. 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.”
(Updates with Pelosi comments starting in fourth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Chris Strohm and Steven T. Dennis.
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