Mueller tangles with GOP, but provides little new info

Former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump 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 TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax 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, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (Texas) and Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertLive coverage: Witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Live coverage: House holds first public impeachment hearing 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 AxelrodBoth sides have reason to want speedy Trump impeachment trial Gary Cohn says he's 'concerned' no one is left in White House to stand up to Trump Tucker Carlson: Obama has not backed Biden because Michelle Obama could run 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) WallaceImpeachment puts spotlight on Georgia Republican eyeing Senate Fox's Cavuto reads mean letters urging him to stay away after Trump criticism Trump gives shoutout to Doug Collins ahead of next phase of impeachment hearings 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. LieuVideo of Princess Anne shrugging as Queen greets Trump goes viral Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings 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 Comey'Project Guardian' is the effective gun law change we need Saagar Enjeti: Hillary Clinton still blames her failures on Bernie Sanders The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley 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 BuckThe House must act now on USMCA to build on the ecomomy's success Wave of GOP retirements threatens 2020 comeback With budget deal, Congress again fails to hold spending in check 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 PelosiPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump Democrats open door to repealing ObamaCare tax in spending talks Sunday talk shows: Lawmakers gear up ahead of Monday's House Judiciary hearing 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.