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Mueller dismisses Trump's claims of Russia probe exoneration

WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller on Wednesday bluntly dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of total exoneration in the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference. He told Congress he explicitly did not clear the president of obstructing his investigation. The former special counsel also rejected Trump’s assertions that the probe was a “witch hunt” and hoax.

Yet, Mueller’s testimony sent the clearest signal yet that impeachment might be slipping out of reach for Democrats and that the ultimate verdict on Trump will be rendered by voters in the 2020 election.

In hours of sometimes halting and stilted testimony, unfolding at a moment of deep division in the country, Mueller also condemned Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks, which released Democrat emails stolen by Russia. He declared Russian election interference one of the greatest challenges to democracy that he had encountered in his career.

Russia, he said, was “doing it as we sit here.”

Mueller’s reluctance at the televised Capitol Hill hearings to stray beyond his lengthy written report, and his reliance on terse, one-word answers, produced few, if any, new revelations to move Americans who may be hardened in their opinions about the success of Trump’s presidency and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary.

But that didn’t sway Democrats and Republicans from their divergent paths to question Mueller.

Trump’s GOP allies tried to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated. They referred repeatedly to what they consider to be the improper opening of the investigation.

Democrats, meanwhile, sought to emphasize the most incendiary findings of Mueller’s 448-page report and weaken Trump’s reelection prospects in ways that Mueller’s book-length report did not.

They had hoped that, even if his testimony did not inspire impeachment demands, Mueller could nonetheless unambiguously spell out questionable, norm-shattering actions by the president.

Yet Mueller appeared unwilling or unable to offer crisp sound bites that could reshape public opinion.

Much was riding on his appearance, coming months after the release of his report in April. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is weighing liberal calls for impeachment against her own instincts for a more measured approach investigating the Trump administration and laying out the findings.

Activists on the party’s left flank have been impatient with what they see as Pelosi’s slow-walking of impeachment — but they’ve also been deferential to her strategy. More than 85 House Democrats have called for Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings, and more lawmakers were expected to add their names after Mueller’s testimony.

Yet, even though Democrats hold the House majority, they’re far from the 218 votes that would be needed to approve articles of impeachment. With Republicans controlling the Senate, many Democrats warn that moving forward with impeachment is a political dead end.

At Wednesday’s hearings, Democrats were hoping for vintage Robert Mueller III, circa 2001, when he was leading the FBI after 9/11. Instead, they saw a less-forceful public presence, hard of hearing at times, hesitant to answer many of the questions, but one still skilled enough in the ways of Washington to not read his report in a way Democrats could exploit.

When Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., asked if Mueller would read a certain section from the report, Mueller turned the tables: “I’m happy to have you read it.”

Mueller frequently gave single- word answers to questions, even when given opportunities to crystallize allegations of obstruction of justice against the president. He referred time again to the wording in his report.

But he was unflinching on the most-critical matters.

In the opening minutes of the hearing, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., asked Mueller about Trump’s claims of vindication in the investigation.

“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Nadler asked.

“No,” Mueller replied.

When House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked, “Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it,” Mueller flatly replied, “It is not a witch hunt.”

He gave Democrats a brief flicker of hope when he told Rep. Ted Lieu of California that he did not charge Trump because of a Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted.

That statement cheered the Democrats, who believed him to be suggesting he would otherwise have recommended prosecution on the strength of the evidence. But Mueller later walked back that statement, saying, “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.” His team, he said, “never started the process” of evaluating whether to charge the president.

Although Mueller described Russian government efforts to interfere in American politics as among the most serious challenges to democracy he had encountered in his decades-long career, Republicans focused on his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“Those are the facts of the Mueller report: Russia meddled in the 2016 election,” said Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts.”

When pressed on why he had not investigated the so-called Steele dossier, which Republicans say led to the start of the probe, Mueller said that was not his charge.

That was “outside my purview,” he said.

Mueller mostly brushed aside Republican allegations of bias but, in a moment of apparent agitation, he said he didn’t think lawmakers had ever “reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us.”

And when he was pressed on the fact that multiple members of his team had made contributions to Democratic political candidates, Mueller bristled at the implication that his prosecutors were compromised.

“I have been in this business for almost 25 years and, in those 25 years, I have not had the occasion to ask somebody about their political affiliation,” Mueller said. “It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity.”

Mueller had warned that he would not stray beyond what had already been revealed in his report. And the Justice Department instructed him to stay strictly within those parameters, giving him a formal directive to point to if he faced questions he did not want to answer.

Trump derided Mueller’s appearance — “disaster,” he tweeted — and started fundraising off it. The president’s reelection campaign set a $2 million goal over 24 hours, it said, to counter those trying to “TRICK the American People into believing their LIES.”

He lashed out ahead of and during the hearings, saying on Twitter that “Democrats and others” are trying to fabricate a crime and pin it on “a very innocent President.”

The president’s allies joined in. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Mueller’s appearance “sad.” Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, said the hearing was the “last gasp” of the Democrats’ investigation of the president.

“It’s time for the curtain to close on the Russia hoax,” Nunes said. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”

Over the past week, Trump had begun to frequently ask confidants how they thought the hearing would go, and while he expressed no worry that Mueller would reveal anything damaging, he was irritated that the former special counsel was being given a national stage, according to two Republicans close to the White House.

Long aware of the power of televised images, Trump seethed to one adviser that he was annoyed Democrats would be given a tool to ramp up their investigations — and that the cable news networks would now have new footage of Mueller to play endlessly.

Publicly, Trump this week feigned indifference to Mueller’s testimony, telling reporters, “I’m not going to be watching — probably — maybe I’ll see a little bit of it.”

Mueller is a former FBI director who spent 12 years parrying questions from lawmakers at oversight hearings and, decades before that, as a prosecutor who asked questions of his own. He resisted efforts to goad him into saying anything he did not want to say. He repeatedly told lawmakers to refer to his report for answers to specific questions.

Wednesday’s first hearing, before the Judiciary Committee, focused on whether the president obstructed justice by attempting to seize control of Mueller’s investigation.

The special counsel examined nearly a dozen episodes, including Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and his efforts to have Mueller himself removed.

The afternoon hearing before the House Intelligence Committee dove into reported ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

On that question, Mueller’s report documented a trail of contacts between Russians and Trump associates — including a Trump Tower meeting at which the president’s eldest son expected to receive dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro

and Jonathan Lemire contributed

to this report.

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