Washington • Former special counsel Robert Mueller early Wednesday began his public testimony before the first of two congressional panels about his investigation of President Donald Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
"The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed," the former special counsel told the House Judiciary Committee.
Asked by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y, of whether the president could potentially be indicted after leaving office, Mueller responded, "True."
In the first back-and-forth, Nadler, the committee chairman, listed basic yes-or-no questions - or inquiries that could be answered in a few words - to get Mueller to confirm that he did not exonerate Trump.
"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" the New York Democrat asked.
"No," Mueller said.
"Does that say there was no obstruction?" Nadler said, reading an excerpt from the report where Mueller's team discussed they could not "exonerate" Trump on the matter.
Mueller went on to talk about Justice Department rules that say a sitting president cannot be indicted.
"The report did not conclude that he did not commit of obstruction of justice," Nadler asked again.
"That is correct," Mueller said.
The president has repeatedly claimed the report showed there was "no collusion" and "no obstruction."
Mueller also confirmed that Trump refused to be interviewed by his team.
But Mueller was careful not to be drawn into a statement that Trump committed obstruction of justice. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., questioned Mueller about the elements of an obstructive act under criminal law, in an apparent effort to get Mueller to agree with the congressman's own analysis that Trump had done so, particularly when he tried to get Mueller fired.
Mueller agreed that Trump understood he was being investigated, and that he viewed the special counsel's inquiry as detrimental to his interests. But he wouldn't sign onto Jeffries' conclusions that Trump had engaged in all the conduct that one must in order to be charged with obstruction.
"I don't subscribe to the way you analyzed that," Mueller said at the end of Jeffries' questioning. "I'm not saying it's out of the ballpark," he added. "But I'm not supportive of that analytical charge."
The hearing began shortly after 8:30 a.m. Eastern time. Mueller entered the hearing room accompanied by two of his deputies, Andrew Goldstein and James Quarles, who sat behind him.
In his opening statement Nadler praised Mueller's long career of public service, seeking to preempt expected GOP attacks on the war hero-turned-FBI director who has found himself in Trump's crosshairs.
"Your career… is a model of responsibility," Nadler told Mueller, listing his accomplishments as a decorated Marine officer who received a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star while fighting the Vietnam, then led the FBI following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
Nadler said Mueller returned to public service to take up the Russia investigation and "conducted that investigation with remarkable integrity," never commenting on his work in public, "even when you were subjected to repeated and grossly unfair personal attacks."
The committee's top Republican opened by arguing that President Trump is innocent of any wrongdoing, and promised the GOP would look into "how baseless gossip," as he put it, formed the foundation of the special counsel's report.
"The report concludes no one in the president's campaign colluded, collaborated or conspired with the Russians," Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. said. He also argued that while Trump had an "understandably negative" view of Mueller's probe, and could have shut it down, he "did not use his authority to close the investigation" because he "knew he was innocent."
Later, Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, an old nemesis of Mueller's, spent his five minutes on the attack. First, he got Mueller to concede that he and fired former FBI director James Comey "were friends." Then, he tried to suggest that the FBI investigation of the president was politically biased from the beginning.
As Gohmert's tempo quickened and frequently cut off Mueller's attempted answers, the former special counsel asked in frustration, "May I finish?"
Gohmert barreled forward, arguing that, rather than obstruct justice, Trump set out to defend himself from Trump-hating prosecutors and agents.
"What he's doing is not obstructing justice. He is pursing justice and the fact that you ran it out two years means you perpetuated injustice," Gohmert said.
During his questioning, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., who served as a lawyer in the Navy and later as a judge in Pennsylvania, accused Mueller of including only "the very worst" information about President Trump even though he knew that Trump would not be indicted and that the report would be made public.
"Not true," Mueller replied, in a rare moment of pushback against Republican attacks on his team's integrity.
Mueller said that the team "strove to put in exculpatory evidence" about Trump's conduct. Mueller said the team had to make choices about what to include. He agreed that prosecutors would generally avoid putting damaging information about a person who wasn't being charged. But, he added, "most cases are not done in the context of the president."
In one of the most notable moments of the hearing, Mueller seemed to contradict himself and his report with what appeared to be a bombshell admission to Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. Asked if the reason he "did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president."
"That is correct," Mueller said.
That suggestion - that but for Justice Department regulations, Mueller would have indicted Trump - seemed a critical departure from what Mueller wrote in his report, which is that he never addressed the question of whether the president could be indicted because Justice Department regulations prevented him from doing so.
Indeed, Mueller opened his House Intelligence Committee testimony in the afternoon with a notable correction to a statement he made earlier, suggesting his team would have charged Trump if not for Justice Department legal guidance that prohibits the indictment of sitting presidents.
The suggestion came during an exchange with Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., on the House Judiciary Committee. Mueller was asked if the reason he "did not indict Donald Trump is because of OLC opinion stating that you cannot indict a sitting president."
"That is correct," Mueller said.
That seemed to contradict what Mueller wrote in his report and what Mueller's office had said previously, though Mueller passed an opportunity to clean it up at the earlier hearing. At the Intelligence Committee hearing, though, he returned to that moment.
"That is not the correct way to say it," he said of Lieu's description, adding later, "We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.
Weighing in on Mueller's testimony, a few of the Democratic presidential candidates said his investigation should push lawmakers toward impeachment.
Asked about Mueller saying Trump was not exonerated, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said: "That was clear in reading his report... the Constitution is clear: Nobody is above the law. And that means that Congress should bring impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States."
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said: "There is more than enough in that report to view it as an impeachment referral," said Buttigieg, "But we know that the Senate won't act. I'm focusing on what I can do, which is to defeat this president."
In his prepared opening statement, Mueller reiterated that he plans to stay "within the text" of his 448-page report and provided a list of questions he won't be able to answer.
"In writing the report, we stated the results of our investigation with precision. We scrutinized every word," Mueller said. "I do not intend to summarize or describe the results of our work in a different way in the course of my testimony today."
Likely to the disappointment of Republicans, he said he would be "unable to address questions about the opening of the FBI's Russia investigation, which occurred months before my appointment, or matters related to the so-called 'Steele Dossier.'" Conservatives have focused much of their ire on that document - an opposition research product funded by the Clinton campaign that made lurid and unproven allegations against Trump and played a role in the early portion of the Russia investigation.
Likely to the dismay of Democrats, Mueller also said he would "not comment on the actions of the attorney general or of Congress."
Mueller noted that court rules or judicial orders limit the disclosure of some information, and that the Justice Department had asserted "privileges concerning investigative information and decisions, ongoing matters within the Justice Department, and deliberations within our office."
"These are Justice Department privileges that I will respect," Mueller said.
In advance of the hearings, Trump lashed out at Democrats, claiming they have tried to "illegally fabricate a crime" of obstruction of Mueller's probe.
In his first tweet Wednesday, Trump questioned why Mueller is not investigating the FBI and others behind an investigation that he termed an "illegal and treasonous attack on our country." He claimed to be "a very innocent President."
Trump told reporters this week that he plans to watch "a little bit" of the hearings. Trump has nothing on his public schedule Wednesday until 4:10 p.m., when he plans to head to West Virginia for a fundraising reception.
Mueller will also testify later Wednesday the House Intelligence Committee.
The day before Mueller's testimony, prosecutors secured a conviction at trial in a case that grew out of the special counsel probe. Bijan Rafiekian, former national security adviser Michael Flynn's former partner in a consulting firm, was found guilty of illegally lobbying for Turkey and conspiring to cover it up.
Flynn, who pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe to lying about his contacts with Russians, cooperated against his ex-colleague and acknowledged making false statements about the Turkey project. The trial highlighted some of those falsehoods and omissions, including that an op-ed Flynn wrote on Election Day had nothing to do with his paid contract to advocate for Turkish interests.
But just before the trial, Flynn refused to say he lied, maintaining he never read forms filed with the Justice Department before signing them and only realized in hindsight that they were inaccurate. He was not called to testify, prompting a defense attorney for Rafiekian to say Flynn "got a pass."
Flynn will now be sentenced in the District of Columbia federal court. The impact of Rafiekian's trial and conviction is still unclear.
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The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Karoun Demirjian, Rachael Bade, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Shane Harris, Devlin Barrett, John Wagner and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.