Robert Mueller denied he’d exonerated President Trump, but declined to go in for the kill

In general, Mueller was a weak witness for Democrats seeking to prosecute the case against Trump.

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In hearings before Congress on Wednesday, Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, performed largely as expected, refusing to read directly from his report and declining on numerous occasions to subscribe to political analyses offered by his inquisitors.

Yet within the very first minutes of his testimony, he had directly refuted one of the president’s chief claims about the investigation, saying that, contra Trump’s assertions, his report did not exonerate Trump on allegations of obstruction of justice.

Mueller repeated the fundamentals of the scandal, emphasising the critical take away of his report: that “the Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion”. He also confirmed Trump asked staff to falsify records relating to the investigation to protect himself, an act that could be interpreted as aligning with definitions of obstruction of justice laid out under the law.

But in general, Mueller was a weak witness for Democrats seeking to prosecute the case against Trump. Throughout the day’s hearings, he remaining characteristically cautious and by the book — with some of what looked like ground gained by Democrats early on, lost in later nuance.

Mueller had appeared to be saying in an early exchange with California Democrat Ted Lieu that he did not indict Trump because of a Justice Department opinion stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted, a comment could have been interpreted as a tacit admission that Mueller believes Trump has committed crimes that could be prosecuted after he leaves office.

By early afternoon, however, Mueller had backtracked, reiterating in an opening statement before the House Intelligence Committee what he’d said in May when he first spoke publicly about his report: that his team had expressly decided not to determine, one way or the other, whether the president should be indicted.

It’s a subtle distinction Mueller’s making, but it’s one of paramount importance. “What I wanted to clarify is the fact that we did not make any determination with regard to culpability in any way,” he said, citing standing opinions at the Office of Legal Counsel first drafted under President Nixon.

Already before the hearings began Wednesday, Trump had taken to Twitter to decry the supposed “Greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. history,” and what might be considered a kind of hopeful crystal-ball reading for the testimony ahead: “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!”

Such claims were swiftly debunked, however, by Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chair of the House judiciary committee, who kicked things off with a direct line of questioning. "Did the president refuse a request to be interviewed by you and your team?" Nadler asked in the first minutes of the hearing. When Mueller replied “yes,” Nadler quickly followed up: “And is it true that you tried for more than a year to secure an interview with the president?” Mueller responded “yes” again.
 
A similarly effective approach came from Democrat Zoe Lofgren, who prompted Mueller to reiterate the US intelligence community’s finding that Russia worked in secret to help Trump get elected. “Did your investigation find that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from one of the candidates winning?” she asked. “Yes,” Mueller replied. Asked to specify the candidate it would benefit, Mueller answered: “Trump.”

Such parsing is necessary in a political news culture where Mueller’s distaste for the political has given the president an opening to frame things for his own political gain. (Before the hearings were half over, Trump was already fundraising off of them. “Pres. Trump: There was NO COLLUSION! Let’s tell the Dems to end this WITCH HUNT by raising $2,000,000 in 24 HOURS! Contribute NOW” one text to supporters read.)

By the second set of hearings, Mueller was debunking the president’s talking points himself, saying of the investigation, “it is not a witch hunt,” and of Russian meddling, “it is not a hoax" — both obvious digs at Trump. He also stated that Russians are continuing their efforts to undermine U.S. democracy. “They’re doing it was we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

It may not have been decisive testimony Democrats had hoped, but for any careful listener the day’s hearings make a parody of the idea that Trump has been “totally exonerated”. Today that was rebuked explicitly by Mueller and implicitly by Republicans’ aggressive lines of questioning, which repeatedly strained well beyond the bounds of established fact to make a point.
 
Republican Tom McClintock dug into the conspiratorial opinions of Fox analyst Gregg Jarrett, who’s helped spread spurious counternarratives to the Mueller report about how it’s the president’s foes who’ve committed the real crimes; while Republican Jim Jordan, fell back upon talk Joseph Mifsud, the disappeared Maltese-born academic Trump allies have sought to paint as a Western intelligence plant, “citing exaggerated and at times distorted details about his life” as the Washington Post reported in June.

And while Democrats were at pains to highlight Mueller’s military record and long history of bipartisan service (he was appointed as a federal prosecutor by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s), McClintock sought to paint him as a hack. “You made a political case,” he said to Mueller. “You put it in a paper sack, lit it on fire, dropped it on our porch, rang the doorbell, and ran.”

For once Mueller wasn’t afraid to make a strong retort. He shot back: “I don’t think you’ve reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report we have in front of us."

The last line of Mueller’s report states: “In America no person is so high as to be above the law.” But on Wednesday, it seemed too many lawmakers were eager to sell it out for a political point.

Lucia Graves is a columnist and feature writer for the Guardian US. She tweets @lucia_graves.