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, telling 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.
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 Democratic 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 Donald Trump's presidency and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary.
But that didn't stop Republicans and Democrats from their own 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 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 hoped that even if his testimony did not inspire impeachment demands — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear she will not pursue impeachment, for now — 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 opinions.
Democrats were hoping for vintage Robert Mueller III, circa 2001 when he was leading the FBI after 9/11.
nstead, they saw a less forceful public presence but one still skilled enough in the ways of Washington to not fall for Republicans' leading questions or read his report aloud in a way that Democrats could exploit.
He 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, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked Mueller about Trump's claims of vindication in the investigation.
"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" Nadler asked.
"No," Mueller replied.
When Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, asked, "Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?"
"It is not a witch hunt," Mueller flatly replied.
'Sitting presidents cannot be indicted'
He gave Democrats a 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 Democrats who understood him to be suggesting that 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.
Though Mueller described Russian government's efforts to interfere in American politics as among the most serious challenges to democracy he had encountered in his decades-long career — which included steering the FBI after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — 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."
Mueller, pressed as to why he hadn't investigated a "dossier" of claims that the Republicans insist helped lead to the start of the probe, he said that was not his charge.
That was "outside my purview," he said repeatedly.
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 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, known for his taciturn nature, 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 lashed out ahead of and during the hearings, saying on Twitter that "Democrats and others" were trying to fabricate a crime and pin it on "a very innocent President." That was a continuation of the past two years during which Trump has made Mueller a regular target in an attempt to undermine his credibility.
Over the past week, Trump had begun to frequently ask confidants how he 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 the national stage, according to two Republicans close to the White House. They were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
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 illegally 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 ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
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.
Highlights from former US special counsel Mueller's testimony:
Former US Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified on Wednesday to the US House of Representatives about his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and any possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.
Rather than answer some questioners, Mueller often referred them to his report on the investigation or declined to answer.
At one point he had to correct himself after saying he would have sought to indict Trump if not for a Justice Department policy against charging a sitting president, saying his investigation did not determine whether the president had committed a crime.
Below are highlights from Mueller's testimony to the first hearing before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, followed by later testimony to the House intelligence panel.
"During the course of our investigation, we charged more than 30 defendants with committing federal crimes, including 12 officers of the Russian military. Seven defendants have been convicted or pled guilty." "First, our investigation found that the Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion.
"Second, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities. We did not address 'collusion,' which is not a legal term. Rather, we focused on whether the evidence was sufficient to charge any member of the campaign with taking part in a criminal conspiracy. It was not.
"Third, our investigation of efforts to obstruct the investigation and lie to investigators was of critical importance. Finally ... we investigated a series of actions by the president towards the investigation. Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the president committed a crime. That was our decision then and it remains our decision today."
"I do not intend to summarize or describe the results of our work in a different way in the course of my testimony today. As I said on May 29: The report is my testimony."
INDICTING A PRESIDENT
Democratic Representative Ted Lieu asked if the reason Mueller did not indict Trump was the Justice Department's longstanding policy against charging a sitting president.
Mueller replied, "That is correct," but in his appearance before the House Intelligence Committee later he corrected himself.
"We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime," he said.
That is not what the report said. The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.
Asked whether the report exonerated Trump on the question of obstruction of justice, Mueller said: "That is not what the report said.
"The president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed."
Asked if Trump wanted Mueller fired for investigating possible obstruction of justice: "That's what it says in the report, yes."
Asked if the president could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice after he leaves office, Mueller said: "True."
Democratic Representative Val Demings mentioned people who were charged with lying to Mueller's investigators and asked if there were lying witnesses who had not been indicted.
"I think there's probably a spectrum of witnesses in terms of those who are not telling the full truth and those who are outright liars," he said.
When she asked if lies by Trump campaign and administration officials had hindered his work, Mueller said: "I would generally agree with that."
ON THE STEELE DOSSIER
In his opening statement, Mueller said he could not discuss the opening of the FBI's investigation into Russia or the so-called Steele dossier.
"This is under investigation elsewhere in the Justice Department and consequently it is not within my purview ... others are investigating," he later told lawmakers.
NATURE OF THE INVESTIGATION
Republican Representative Ken Buck said Mueller's list of incidents that could be obstruction of justice was an attempt to throw "a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what would stick."
"I would not agree to that characterization at all," Mueller responded.
Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries said that in ordering Don McGahn, then the White House counsel, to fire Mueller and then lie about it, Trump had "committed an obstructive act," connected it to an official proceeding and "did so with corrupt intent," which constituted obstruction of justice.
Mueller responded: Let me just say ... I don't subscribe necessarily to the way you analyze that. I'm not saying it's out of the ballpark. But I'm not supportive of that analytical charge."
ABOUT THE MAKEUP OF HIS STAFF
"We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job," Mueller said. "... What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity."
HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE TESTIMONY APPROACH BY RUSSIA
Democratic Representative Terri Sewell brought up a 2016 meeting Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr., and campaign officials had with a Russian lawyer they had been told could furnish information about Democratic presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.
She asked Mueller whether a campaign should notify the FBI after being approached by a foreign government.
"I would think that is something they would and should do," he said.
Asked about Trump's comments on WikiLeaks, including "I love WikiLeaks," after it released emails stolen from the Clinton campaign, Mueller said: "'Problematic' is an understatement in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some ... hope or some boost to what is or should be illegal activity."
As for communication between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks, Mueller said, "Disturbing and also subject to investigation."