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Mueller Day falls flat

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal 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.

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“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 PelosiOn The Money: Inflation jumps at fastest pace since 2008 | Biden 'encouraged' on bipartisan infrastructure deal Overnight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response Biden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure 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 RatcliffeTrump alumni launch America First Policy Institute Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge Former Trump officials eye bids for political office 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 NadlerMcGahn to sit for closed-door interview with House Democrats, ending long legal battle House to consider anti-Asian hate crimes bill, protections for pregnant workers this month A historic moment to truly honor mothers 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.”

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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. LieuAsian American lawmakers say State's 'assignment restrictions' discriminate Democrats, activists blast Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Lawmakers praise Biden for expected recognition of Armenian Genocide 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 QuigleyLobbying world Business groups issue both praise and criticism on COVID relief bill's passage On The Money: Biden signals he'll move forward on COVID-19 relief without GOP | Economy adds 49K jobs in January | Minimum wage push sparks Democratic divisions 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 ComeyThe FBI should turn off the FARA faucet Barr threatened to resign over Trump attempts to fire Wray: report 'Fox News Sunday' to mark 25 years on air 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.