Mueller clarifies he did not exonerate Trump, defends investigation

In daylong testimony, former special counsel says a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Donald Trump (L) and Robert Mueller (R) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Donald Trump (L) and Robert Mueller (R)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WASHINGTON – Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election did not exonerate President Donald Trump from wrongdoing.
Speaking for more than five hours before two different House committees, Mueller made clear that in principle, a president could be indicted after leaving the White House, but not during his term.
“The Russian government interfered in our election in a sweeping and systematic fashion,” he said in his opening remarks at the House Judicial Committee.
“Second, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities. We did not address ‘collusion,’ which is not a legal term. Rather, we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.
“Third, our investigation of efforts to obstruct the investigation and lie to investigators 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 refused to talk about the prospects of impeachment. When asked by Rep. Mike Johnson why the report does not recommend impeachment, Mueller responded: “I’m not going to talk about that issue.”
Muller, 74, made it clear that he would answer only questions within the scope of his report. He avoided answering dozens of questions, often referring the members of Congress to the original report. “The report is my testimony,” he said. “And I will stay within that text.”
He added that according to the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel’s guidance, a sitting president could not be indicted.
“We determined that when it came to the president’s culpability, we needed to go forward only after taking into account the OLC opinion that indicated that a president, sitting president, cannot be indicted,” Mueller said. “The OLC opinion says that the prosecutor, while he cannot bring a charge against a sitting president, nonetheless he can continue the investigation to see if there are other persons drawn into the conspiracy.”
Asked if that was the reason he decided not to prosecute the president, Mueller clarified that “we made a decision not to decide whether to prosecute.”
The former special counsel pushed back against Trump’s comments that Mueller is biased since he was interested in replacing James Comey as the FBI director, days before deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein appointed him as special counsel.
“My understanding, I was not applying for the job,” said Mueller. “I was asked to give my input about what it would take to do the job, which triggered the interview you are talking about. I interviewed with the president, and it was about the job but not about me applying for the job.”
Trump rejected Mueller’s version.
“It has been reported that Robert Mueller is saying that he did not apply and interview for the job of FBI Director (and get turned down) the day before he was wrongfully appointed Special Counsel,” Trump tweeted. “Hope he doesn’t say that under oath in that we have numerous witnesses to the interview, including the Vice President of the United States!”
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham dismissed Muller’s testimony and tweeted: “The last three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats. Expect more of the same in the second half.”
The president himself tweeted, sarcastically: “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing. Now, after 3 hours, Robert Mueller has to subject himself to an embarrassment to our Country!”
Mueller later testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee and pushed back against the president’s characterization of the report as a “witch hunt” and of trying to orchestrate a “coup” against the Republican president. Mueller 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.”
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller added.