Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress on Wednesday, emphasizing that his investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 election was “not a witchhunt” and that his report did not exonerate President Donald Trump of wrongdoing.
Though Mueller largely avoided giving expansive answers, instead sticking to one-word responses or directing lawmakers back to his report, one area he openly discussed was Russia’s continued attempts to attack the U.S. election system, stressing it “was not a hoax.”
“It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here," Mueller testified about Russia’s continued cyberattacks. “And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
Mueller testified before two panels, the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, in back-to-back hearings that spanned a total of about seven hours . Here are highlights from his testimony:
Here’s a recap of the key moments from both hearings:
Mueller admitted that he and his team tried for months to get Trump to agree to live questioning, but said they ultimately allowed the president to answer written questions in the interest of time.
"We negotiated with him for a little over a year ... had little success in negotiating to get the interview,” Mueller said. “We decided we did not want to exercise subpoena powers because of the necessity of expediting the end of the investigation.”
Asked by Rep. Will Hurd (R., Texas) how to protect the United States from what Russia did during the 2016 election, Mueller said he’d support legislation that would allow intelligence agencies to work together “aggressively, and early” to ward off future foreign attacks.
“Many more countries are developing the capability to replicate what the Russians have done,” Mueller said, adding that Russia was continuing its cyberattacks against America “as we sit here.”
Mueller said Trump’s praise of WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign was “problematic."
“Well, problematic is an understatement, in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope, or some boost, to what is and should be illegal activity," Mueller said.
Brad Wenstrup (R., Ohio) used his line of questioning to indicate that Democrats have overstated some accusations related to the report — such as, that Trump is a Russian agent.
Mueller agreed with Wenstrup that the president is not an agent for Russia. But Mueller did not agree with the congressman’s assertion there was no evidence former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio) used part of his time to complain to Mueller about the headlines his testimony where creating, pointing to a CNN chyron that read, “Mueller: Trump was not exonerated.”
Mueller largely avoided responding to Turner’s line of questioning.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, asked Mueller direct questions about the president’s Moscow Tower deal, documents hacked by Kremlin intelligence officials, and Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and got simple but definitive responses back from Mueller.
During his opening statement to the Intelligence Committee, Mueller corrected an exchange he had earlier with Rep. Ted Lieu (D., Calif.) about the reasons the investigation didn’t charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
In the exchange, Mueller appeared to signal the only reason he didn’t charge Trump was due to an opinion from the Offices of Legal Counsel that states a sitting president cannot be indicted.
“That is not the correct way to say it,” Mueller said of his earlier testimony. “As we say in the report, and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime."
In his opening statement, Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, pointed out that Mueller’s investigation “determined that the Trump campaign — including Trump himself — knew that a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it, built Russian meddling into their strategy, and used it."
Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the committee’s ranking member and one of the president’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, took a different tact, accusing Mueller of perpetuating a “conspiracy theory” with the intention of taking down Trump.
Mueller told Rep. Val Demings (D., Fla.) that some witnesses were not truthful when interviewed by the special counsel’s office.
“I think there are probably a spectrum of witnesses in terms of those who are not telling the full truth and those that are outright liars,” Mueller said.
Demings asked if it would be accurate to say that “lies by Trump campaign officials and administration officials impeded your investigation.”
“I would generally agree with that,” Mueller said.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.), asked Mueller if he would co-sign a letter signed by more than 1,000 former federal prosecutors claiming Trump would have been charged with obstruction of justice if he were not the president.
Swalwell quoted the letter as saying: “All of this conduct — trying to control and impede the investigation against the President by leveraging his authority over others — is similar to conduct we have seen charged against other public officials and people in powerful positions.”
Swalwell: “Are they wrong?”
Mueller: “They have a different case.”
Swalwell: “Do you want to sign that letter, Director Mueller?”
Mueller: “They have a different case.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat who represents Delaware County, was the first member of the committee to ask Mueller about WikiLeaks, which published hacked emails from key Democratic National Committee staff members during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mueller confirmed that Trump denied having any discussions about WikiLeaks prior to the email dump, despite his former personal attorney Michael Cohen testifying that the president discussed them with longtime aide Roger Stone. Mueller also confirmed to Scanlon that some witnesses said Trump "privately sought information about future WikiLeaks releases.”
Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican who represents the 14th District in western Pennsylvania, called Mueller’s actions during the investigation “un-American” and claimed the special counsel knowingly put damaging evidence in the report even though he had no intention of charging the president.
Mueller denied Reschenthaler’s claim.
Despite Mueller testifying that his investigation did not exonerate Trump, the president’s 2020 campaign sent out a fundraising email proclaiming “TOTAL EXONERATION!” during the hearing.
During his line of questioning, Ken Buck (R., Colo.) questioned Mueller’s motives to investigate Trump when the president could not be charged with a crime, due to an often-cited opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel.
Buck appeared surprised when Mueller revealed Trump could face charges of obstruction of justice after he leaves office.
Here’s their interaction:
Buck: “Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?”
Buck: “You believe you could charge the president with obstruction of justice after he left office?”
During the first break of today’s questioning, here is a round-up of what political pundits and reporters are saying about Mueller’s performance.
David Axelrod, CNN analyst and former Obama senior advisor: “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.”
Chris Wallace, Fox News Sunday anchor: “I think that this has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller … It raises questions as to the degree to which he was actually in charge and control of this report."
Manu Raju, CNN congressional correspondent: “Mueller having a hard time following the questions on first pass. Asking members to often repeat their questions. In his defense, the questions can be long and meandering, though it comes across as if he’s uncertain.”
Jon Favreau, Pod Save America host and former Obama staffer: “I sort of think this hearing is going exactly how Mueller warned us it would go when he said that his report was his testimony, he wouldn’t be going beyond that, so he didn’t want to testify.”
Carol Leonnig, Washington Post reporter: “People who have long admired and known Robert Mueller, are concerned about his visible struggle this morning to answer detailed, rapid-fire questions.”
Mueller stood by the findings of the report when asked by Rep. Ted Deutch (D., Fla.) why Trump attempted to have Mueller removed as special counsel during his investigation.
Here is the exchange:
Deutch: “The president wanted to fire you because you were investigating him for obstruction of justice. Isn’t that correct?”
Mueller: “That’s what it says in the report, yes. And I stand by the report.”
For the first time, Mueller publicly refuted the president’s claim that he sought out and was interviewed for the FBI director position vacated after James Comey was fired, which Republicans claim would have been a conflict of interest.
Mueller, responding to a question from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), testified that he spoke to Trump about the position, but “not as a candidate.”
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning, prior to the start of the hearing, that there are “numerous witnesses to the interview,” including Vice President Mike Pence.
Gohmert entered a scathing opinion piece into the congressional record at the start of the hearing that was initially published on the conservative site Hannity.com.
Gohmert, an outspoken Trump supporter and long-time Tea Party member, used his hearing time to attack Mueller’s ethics, rail against his friendship with former FBI director James Comey, and to defend the president. He concluded by yelling, ”You perpetuate injustice!” before his time expired.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R., Texas), who is reportedly being considered as a replacement to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, spent his five minutes railing against Mueller and defending the president, but his rant left little time for the Republican to ask many questions.
Ratcliffe was trying to make the point that Trump was held to an unfair standard due to Mueller’s decision to specify that his report did not exonerate the president because his innocence was not conclusively determined.
“The president isn’t above the law, but he certainly isn’t below it, either. He deserves the same presumption of innocence as every American,” Ratcliffe said.
Despite not asking many questions, Ratcliffe received some plaudits from Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney at the Southern District of New York who was fired by Trump in 2017.
Mueller confirmed that his investigation did not exonerate Trump, as the president has repeatedly claimed.
Here is the exchange with Nadler:
Nadler: You are actually unable to conclude the president did not commit obstruction of justice, is that correct?
Mueller: Well, we at the outset determined that when it came to the president’s culpability we needed to go forward only after taking into account the OLC opinion that indicated that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Nadler: So the report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice? Is that correct?
Mueller: That is correct.
Nadler: And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?
Nadler: Now, in fact your report expressly states it does not exonerate the president?
Mueller: It does.
Mueller opened his testimony by noting his appearance before Congress is “unusual” given his role a prosecutor, once again stating his testimony would be “limited” to the scope of his report. He also said he would not address certain topics due to “ongoing matters,” such as the so-called Steele dossier and the details of the FBI’s decision to open an investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, which occurred before he was name special counsel.
Mueller also contradicted Trump’s repeated assertion that the investigation found there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
“We did not address collusion, which is not a legal term,” Mueller said.
Republican Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.) the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, defended Trump’s combative actions and comments during the special counsel’s investigation in his opening statement.
“The president’s attitude towards the investigation was understandably negative, yet the president did not use his authority to close the investigation. He asked his lawyer if Mr. Mueller had conflicts that disqualified Mr. Mueller from the job, but he did not shut down the investigation," Collins said. “The president knew he was innocent."
House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D., N.Y.) kicked off today’s hearings by applauding Mueller’s long record of public service and the detailed work of the special counsel’s office during its investigation.
“For 22 months, you never commented in public about your work – even when you were subjected to repeated and grossly unfair personal attacks. Instead, your indictments spoke for you, and in astonishing detail,” Nadler said. “Although Department policy barred you from indicting the President for this conduct, you made clear that he is not exonerated. Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with a crime. And in this nation, not even the president is above the law.”
Trump, who has nothing on his public schedule until 4 p.m., took to Twitter early Wednesday morning to lash out once again at Mueller and his investigation, which the president has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.”
Trump also once again complained about the late inclusion of Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s longtime aide and deputy who was granted permission to help the special counsel with questions. As fact checkers have pointed out, there is no public evidence Zebley is a “Never Trumper" and the committees don’t require Trump’s consent to proceed.