'It is not a witch hunt.' Robert Mueller testifies on Trump and Russian election meddling in 2016

Kristine Phillips and Kevin Johnson

WASHINGTON – Former special counsel Robert Mueller used a pair of long-anticipated appearance before Congress to drive home a central finding of his investigation: Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election "is not a hoax," and is likely to be repeated. 

Taking questions for the first time about his two-year investigation, Mueller challenged President Donald Trump's persistent criticism about the inquiry that cast a shadow over much of his time in office, telling lawmakers that "it is not a witch hunt."

Mueller delivered nearly seven hours of testimony to the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees during a pair of hearings that Democrats hoped could change the trajectory of Trump's presidency, even if they delivered few revelations. At times faltering, and at times facing sharp questions from Trump's political allies, Mueller mostly offered a terse confirmation of the central findings of his inquiry. 

Mueller told lawmakers that the Russian government had sought to meddle in the 2016 election in a dramatic fashion, and that it did so with an eye toward benefiting Trump. He said Trump's campaign welcomed, even praised, that assistance, and while he said investigators did not gather sufficient evidence to prove a conspiracy, "problematic is an understatement" to describe some of Trump's conduct. 

Such interference, he warned, seems likely to continue. 

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"They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it again during the next campaign," Mueller, speaking in a soft, raspy voice, told the House Intelligence Committee. His report, he said, is a "signal" to those in power "not to let this kind of thing happen again."

Mueller also reinforced his conclusion that his investigation had "not exculpated" Trump on the question of whether he sought to had attempted to obstruct justice by thwarting the special counsel inquiry. 

As the hearing ended, Trump and his allies declared the episode closed. 

"The American people understand that this issue is over. They also understand that the case is closed," Trump's attorney, Jay Sekulow, said. Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said Mueller's testimony was a vindication for the president and that Democrats were "trying to undo the legitimate result" of the election. 

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies to House Judiciary Committee on ‘Oversight of the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.’ Mueller, who investigated alleged Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election, said in May that his report ‘speaks for itself.’

During his opening statements, Mueller, who led the FBI during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Russia's "sweeping and systematic" interference in American elections is among the most serious challenges to democracy he has seen throughout his career in law enforcement. He also said his team's investigation of efforts to obstruct the inquiry into Russia's actions "was of critical importance."

"Obstruction of justice strikes at the core of the government's effort to find the truth and to hold wrongdoers accountable," Mueller said. 

Quoted passages, terse replies

Democrats spent much of the day asking Mueller to confirm episodes detailed in his report, focusing on the president's efforts to thwart the investigation. Republicans sought to poke holes in Mueller's legal theory and air allegations of bias and wrongdoing. Both factions were eager to score points from Mueller's remarks, though many lawmakers appeared to have already made up their minds about the importance of what he might say.

Mueller, in terse answers, offered little for either side.

"The report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text," Mueller said at the start of day's first hearing, before the Judiciary committee.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said during his opening statements that the investigation revealed the president himself "knew that a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it, built Russian meddling into their strategy, and used it."

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"Worse than all the lies and the greed is the disloyalty to country," Schiff said.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the Intelligence Committee's ranking member, echoed familiar accusations that the FBI investigation that later became the special counsel probe was "marred with corruption" and bias against Trump.

“It’s time to close the curtain on the Russia hoax,” he said. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”

At times, Mueller appeared to struggle to keep up with the volley of inquiries, asking that questions be repeated, appealing for help locating citations in the report. At other times, lawmakers raised their arms to flag Mueller's attention, as the questioning moved from one end of the dais to the other. 

Asked by one lawmaker, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., whether "you did not indict Donald Trump is because of (Justice Department) opinion that you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?" Mueller replied: "That is correct." 

Mueller later clarified that answer during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, saying his team did not reach a determination on whether Trump had obstructed justice. He told another lawmaker that Justice Department rules allow the government to bring charges against a president once he leaves office, but he did not say Trump should be charged.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller arrives before testifying to the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Hopes for a blockbuster

Democrats went into the hearings betting that the spectacle of Mueller's public appearance will carry far more weight than the report. They had hoped that words from Mueller himself would be pivotal and would make the case that the president's conduct should be punishable by impeachment or a 2020 defeat. 

Republicans, who have long questioned the integrity and genesis of the Russia inquiry that they say exonerated the president, used the rare public appearance to highlight the lack of charges against Trump and the perceived political motivation behind the probe. The president and his allies have accused Democrats of trying to redo the investigation by staging a belated spectacle. 

Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, began the day with a summary of Mueller's years in public service as a Marine officer who was awarded a Purple Heart and as director of the FBI.

"Director Mueller, we have a responsibility to address the evidence you've uncovered," Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a prepared opening statement. "You recognized as much when you said, 'the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.'"

Nadler said the hearing would highlight episodes in which Trump sought to thwart Mueller's investigation. "Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with a crime. And in this nation, not even the president is above the law."

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the panel's ranking member, emphasized that Mueller's investigation did not find that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia. Trump's reaction to the investigation of him and his campaign was "understandably negative," Collins said, "but he did not shut down" the inquiry. 

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies for the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the 'Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.’

Mueller acknowledged early on his role as a reluctant witness, telling lawmakers he cannot answer questions central to ongoing investigations into the origins of the Russia inquiry and citing restrictions the Justice Department has placed on what he can and can't say. The department said in a letter to Mueller on Monday that his testimony "must remain within the boundaries" of his report and that information such as presidential communications, discussion about investigative steps and decisions made during the probe can't be disclosed.

Mueller largely rebuffed requests from Republican lawmakers to talk about their critiques of his investigation, some repeated by the president. He declined to answer questions about former British spy Christopher Steele, an FBI informant who wrote a "dossier" alleging Trump had plotted with Moscow to win the election. He sidestepped allegations of political bias, and declined to answer questions about how the FBI began investigating Trump, because he said the Justice Department, which is conducting its own review, asked him not to.

Throughout the hearing, Democratic lawmakers focused on the investigation's most damaging findings, flashing selected excerpts from Mueller's report on video screens on the walls of the hearing room in an attempt to bolster evidence that Trump had engaged in obstruction. In each case, Mueller acknowledged that underlying conduct by the president necessary to support had been identified, including an alleged "corrupt intent" by Trump. 

Mueller largely responded with one-word answers as Democratic lawmakers asked him to confirm several instances when Trump sought to limit or obstruct the investigation.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller arrives for the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the 'Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.’ Mueller, who investigated alleged Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election, said in May that his report

"No," Mueller said when asked of Trump was totally exonerated. 

"True," Mueller said when asked whether the president sought to have then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse a decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia inquiry.

"True," he said when asked if Trump had ordered White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire the special counsel. 

"Yes," when asked whether obstruction of justice warrant a lot of jail time if convicted.

Challenges to the investigation

Republicans, meanwhile, stepped up their challenges to Mueller, suggesting that the special counsel went beyond his authority by indicating that Trump could not be "exonerated" from accusations of obstruction of justice. Stacking law books on the desk in front of him, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, called on Mueller to point to a specific provision in the law that allowed him or other prosecutors to make such a determination.

"I'm not prepared to have a legal discussion in that arena," Mueller said. 

In one of the most animated exchanges of the day, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, launched a broadside on Mueller’s investigation, questioning why prosecutors did not bring charges against a Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic who helped kick-start the Russian election interference inquiry in 2016.

Mifsud first alerted Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had derogatory information on Hillary Clinton.

The Mueller report documents several false statements Mifsud made to investigators.

Jordan asked why the government choose not prosecute Mifsud,  asserting that prosecutors chose instead to focus on Papadopoulos and other Trump campaign advisers.

“I don’t agree with your characterization,” Mueller said.

Pressed to respond, Mueller said, “I can’t get into that.”

“There seems to be a lot of things that you can’t get into,” Jordan snapped.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, questioned Mueller's relationship with former FBI Director James Comey, who Trump abruptly fired in May 2017. And he suggested that Mueller failed to act quickly when he learned that two former FBI officials working on the investigation, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, had exchanged messages disparaging Trump.

Of Comey, Mueller described the former FBI director as a "friend and business associate."

Mueller said he first learned of the Strzok and Page communications in the summer of 2017 and “acted swiftly” to remove them.

Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., contended that Mueller should have been prohibited from sharing details about Trump's alleged obstruction when the special counsel chose not to make a determination that the president had committed a crime. 

"This flies in the face of American justice," said Reschenthaler, a former military lawyer. "I find this entire process un-American."

Mueller, however, contended that the report was not written with the expectation that its contents would be made public. Barr ultimately decided to release a redacted version of the report in April. 

Mueller defended his team under criticisms from Republicans that he hired a group of anti-Trump investigators. 

More: Robert Mueller, in first public remarks, says charging Trump was 'not an option we could consider'

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"We strove to hire individuals who could do the job. I've been in this business for almost 25 years. In those 25 years, I've not had an occasion once to ask about somebody's political beliefs," Mueller said.

Mueller also said that his team sought unsuccessfully to interview Trump and said a subpoena that the president was sure to fight would have significantly delayed the investigation. He acknowledged that Trump's written answers were not as meaningful as an interview would have been. 

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testifies to House Judiciary Committee on ‘Oversight of the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.’

Even before Mueller's testimony began, Trump began issuing a series of pointed – and now familiar – critiques of the former special counsel and the investigation he ran. "Why didn't Robert Mueller investigate the investigators?" Trump wrote in an early morning tweet Wednesday, repeating unproven claims that Mueller had conflicts of interest and claiming that he had been the victim of "The Greatest Witch Hunt" in history.

The president has long contended that Mueller pursued the Russia investigation because Trump did not select him to succeed Comey as FBI director, whom Trump fired. But for the first time, Mueller said Wednesday that he never interviewed for the job and only met with Trump to advise him on the search of a new director.

Mueller spent two years investigating Russian interference in the presidential election and whether Trump obstructed the inquiry that consumed Washington. Trump and his allies spent nearly as much time questioning the basis of the investigation and accusing some of the investigators of spying and treason

During his first and only other public appearance since his appointment as special counsel, Mueller did not clear Trump of criminal wrongdoing, but said charges were "not an option" because of Justice Department policy of not indicting a sitting president.

"If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that," Mueller said during a brief news conference in May.

As soon as Mueller's testimony ended, Trump, again took to Twitter to proclaim vindication, tweeting in all caps, "Truth is a force of nature!"

Contributing: Bart Jansen

More on Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation:

Trump’s aides were eager to take Russian dirt on Clinton. But it wasn’t a conspiracy, Mueller report said

Trump repeatedly tried to impede the Russia probe, Mueller report said. Was it obstruction?

Trump took steps to fire Mueller, stop probe after campaign welcomed Russian dirt on Clinton, Mueller report says

Spying, treason and politics: President Trump ups the stakes in Russia probe battle despite scant evidence

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Robert Mueller testimony on Russia, Trump: 'It is not a witch hunt'