Mueller Day falls flat

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE’s highly anticipated testimony landed with a thud on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as the former special counsel offered few new details or thoughts on a 22-month investigation that has shadowed President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE’s White House.

Trump and Republicans declared victory after the back-to-back hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees covered live by the TV networks for just under seven hours.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I thought we had a very good day today,” Trump told reporters at the White House following the conclusion of the second hearing. “This was a very big day for our country. This was a very big day for the Republican Party ... could say it was a great day for me.” 

At a press conference Wednesday evening, Democratic leaders insisted that the hearings helped to illuminate more facts within Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and what some in the party see as obstruction of justice by Trump. Mueller’s report did not reach a conclusion on that question.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGiuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union MORE (D-Calif.) said that she wasn’t ready to decide whether to begin impeachment proceedings after Mueller’s hearing, pointing to several ongoing lawsuits over congressional subpoenas for Trump’s private records.

She said she wants to have as much information about Trump as possible before considering impeachment.

“If we go down that path, we should go the strongest possible way,” Pelosi said.

A packed committee room watched closely as Mueller frustrated lawmakers in both parties at times by refusing to answer questions. A CNN tally put the number of times he declined to answer questions during his first hearing at more than 100.

Throughout the day, Democrats struggled to drag out more than one-word answers from Mueller.

“I wouldn’t accept that characterization,” Mueller repeatedly replied to Democrats’ dramatic descriptions of events laid out in his report, such as whether the deletion of text messages and witness tampering made it difficult for his team to fully assess the extent of Russia’s election interference.

Republicans attacked Mueller for writing in his report that it did not exonerate Trump, saying that he strayed away from Justice Department guidelines with the phrasing.

“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,” said Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeHere are the key players to watch at impeachment hearing Documents show Ukraine knew by August that aid was being withheld: NYT Five takeaways from US envoy's explosive testimony MORE (R-Texas). “Everyone is entitled to it — even sitting presidents.”

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

The GOP also sought to attack Mueller’s team, repeating an argument from Trump that it leaned Democratic. Some of Mueller’s most vigorous moments came when he defended his legal team.

“We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job,” he told Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) during the Judiciary hearing. “I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years and in those 25 years I have not had occasion, once, to ask anyone about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the ability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”

Mueller repeatedly asked lawmakers to repeat their questions, seemingly struggling to hear them. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members As impeachment goes public, forget 'conventional wisdom' What this 'impeachment' is really about — and it's not the Constitution MORE (D-N.Y.) had to ask Mueller more than once to speak directly into his microphone, and Mueller a few times tripped over his words.

Under friendly questioning from one Democrat, Mueller didn’t recall that he was tapped by President Reagan to serve as U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, instead saying, “I think that was President Bush.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Mueller, who had been reluctant to testify to Congress, seemed to get more comfortable the further the testimony progressed and was notably more at ease during the second hearing of the day as he recounted Russia’s active measures to interfere in the 2016 election.

Early on in first 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.

Later, Mueller said 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 this 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. LieuWyden urges FCC to secure 5G networks against cyber threats Democrat hits White House spokeswoman after Trump appointee changes testimony PETA asks DOJ to stop conducting training that harms animals 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.

The possibility of a post-presidency indictment was later raised by Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleySondland emerges as key target after Vindman testimony In testimony, Dems see an ambassador scorned, while GOP defends Trump Ex-Ukraine ambassador arrives to give testimony MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee who has come out in favor of starting impeachment proceedings.

Quigley asked Mueller about the possibility of the statute of limitations running out for federal crimes like obstruction of justice — those crimes can only be pursued for five years after they take place, and if he secures a second term, Trump could remain president well after that clock runs out.

The Democrat asked Mueller if “a president who serves a second term is therefore, under the policy, above the law.”

“I’m not certain I would agree with that conclusion,” Mueller replied.

Republicans pressed the ex-FBI director on the origins of the Russia probe and his relationship with former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyThere are poor ideas, bad ones and Facebook's Libra Trump has considered firing official who reported whistleblower complaint to Congress: report Broadcast, cable news networks to preempt regular programming for Trump impeachment coverage MORE.

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

Still, he appeared to give a thinly veiled nod to Congress that it is lawmakers’ responsibility to put the information laid out in his report to rest, and soon.

“[The report] is also a signal — a flag — to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don’t let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years,” Mueller said.

Olivia Beavers contributed.