Mueller tangles with GOP, but provides little new info

Former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE landed with a thud on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, offering few new details or thoughts on his 22-month investigation into whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE’s campaign conspired with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election or if Trump obstructed justice.

Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee, the ex-special counsel repeatedly asked lawmakers to repeat their questions and was reluctant at times to offer responses.

Even as GOP Reps. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump expected to tap Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as acting intel chief Trump considering Utah GOP lawmaker for top intelligence post: report  Jordan says he will support McCarthy for Speaker if majority flips next year MORE (Texas) and Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertHouse Natural Resources gives Grijalva power to subpoena Interior Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Sheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade MORE (Texas) ripped into his report and his team, Mueller for the most part refused to engage. He told Gohmert at the end of one fiery and critical monologue, “I take your question.”

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Mueller, who had been reluctant to appear at the hearing, seemed to get more comfortable as the more than three-hour hearing went on. He offered a spirited defense of his team of prosecutors in response to allegations they had political motivations for their findings.

But outside commentators characterized his testimony as uneven.

Former Obama aide and CNN political commentator David AxelrodDavid AxelrodThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders, Buttigieg set for Granite State showdown The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders, Buttigieg do battle in New Hampshire Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship MORE said that Mueller didn’t seem to be performing as well as he has in the past.

“This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then,” Axelrod said.

Mueller at one point didn’t recall that he was tapped by President Reagan to serve as U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts, instead saying former President George W. Bush had appointed him to the job.

Fox News anchor Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceFox News to host Klobuchar town hall next week Conway: Reported sexist Bloomberg remarks 'far worse' than what Trump said on 'Access Hollywood' tape Candidates make electability arguments, talk Bloomberg as focus turns to more diverse states MORE was more critical.

“I think this has been a disaster for the Democrats, and I think it’s been a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller,” he said on air early on during Mueller’s hearing. "[He] doesn’t seem to know things that are in the report.”

Mueller declined to answer a wide swath of questions: A CNN tally put the number of times he declined to answer questions at more than 100.

Still, a number of moments did stand out.

Early on in the hearing, Mueller said that his findings do not exonerate Trump, a statement that he’s made previously and is featured predominantly in his report released earlier this year.

“The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller said on Wednesday.

The importance of that statement was highlighted later, when Mueller said that he believed a president could be indicted on an obstruction of justice charge after leaving office.

At the heart of Mueller’s comments is a Department of Justice guidance that says a sitting president cannot be indicted. Mueller said it was that regulation that prevented his team from even concluding whether Trump’s conduct reached the bar needed to charge him with obstruction of justice.

At one point, he said that he did not indict Trump because of the guidance, a memo from the agency’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).

“The reason, again, that you did not indict Donald Trump is because of the OLC opinion stating you cannot indict a sitting president,” Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuDemocrats to plow ahead with Trump probes post-acquittal Trump Jr. dismisses 'likelihood' of Pelosi praying for Trump with Satan comparison Ted Lieu says he's praying for Trump after National Prayer Breakfast comments MORE (D-Calif.) said.

“That is correct,” Mueller replied, though he later appeared to walk those comments back.

Mueller addressed that exchange at the start of his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, saying he wanted to "issue a correction." 
 
"We did not reach a determination on whether the president committed a crime," he said.

Republicans pressed the ex-FBI director on the origins of the Russia probe, his relationship with former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyTrump decries lack of 'fairness' in Stone trial ahead of sentencing Blagojevich heaps praise on Trump after release from prison Free Roger Stone MORE and whether any members of his team had a political slant against Trump.

Ratcliffe, who was bumped up in the order of questioning and whose name has been floated for Trump administration jobs, pressed Mueller over whether his report violated DOJ principles by declining to exonerate the president.

“Respectfully, director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him because the bedrock principle of our justice system is presumption of innocence. It exists for everyone,” Ratcliffe said. “Everyone is entitled to it — even sitting presidents.”

Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckImmigration judges association calls for independence from DOJ Smaller companies testify against Big Tech's 'monopoly power' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday MORE (R-Colo.) similarly hit Mueller for providing evidence on obstruction of justice without making a charging decision.

“By listing the 10 factual situations and not reaching a conclusion about the merits of the case, you unfairly shifted the burden of proof to the president, forcing him to prove his innocence while denying him a legal forum to do so,” Buck said.

Mueller defended himself by labeling it a “unique situation,” as he put it to Ratcliffe.

He also told Buck that due to the DOJ guidance, “one of the tools that a prosecutor would use is not there.” 

Mueller’s visit to Capitol Hill, which also includes an Intelligence Committee hearing, is seen as a pivotal moment in the Democratic battle over impeachment. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBloomberg faces criticism for tweet showing altered debate moment Trump knocks Democrats at rally: Bloomberg 'getting pounded' Biden earns endorsement from former House impeachment manager MORE (D-Calif.) has sought to stifle calls within her party for impeachment, saying that lawmakers would be more effective in pursuing other forms of oversight than taking on the risky political maneuver.

After the Judiciary hearing, it seemed far from clear that Mueller had added momentum to the cause of pro-impeachment lawmakers.

President Trump tweeted some of Wallace’s commentary, one of several tweets he issued during the course of Mueller’s hearing that was highly critical of both the testimony and the former special counsel.