Former special counsel Robert Mueller makes an opening statement before testifying to the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Wednesday.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller makes an opening statement before testifying to the House Judiciary Committee about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Wednesday. [Getty Images]

WATCH LIVE: Mueller Testifies On Capitol Hill About 2016 Election Interference

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“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asked the former special counsel.

“No,” Robert Mueller said.

With that exchange, Democrats made the point they’ve long sought to get across since Mueller filed his report: His findings don’t boil down to a vindication or an inoculation for President Trump, as the president claims.

Other Democrats emphasized what they called key findings from the special counsel’s investigation, including the details about Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, meeting with a Russian contact who’s been linked with Russia’s intelligence agencies — and giving him polling and other material from the Trump campaign.

But Mueller also stressed in his opening statement that he would not go beyond what he’s already said or written or beyond the guidelines the Justice Department has imposed on what he can reveal on Wednesday.

House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins, R-Ga., sought to underscore the thoroughness of Mueller’s report — and the conclusion, supported by that thoroughness, that there had been no conspiracy between Trump’s campaign in 2016 and the Russians who interfered in the election.

Later, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, told Mueller that he had failed to fulfill his responsibilities as a prosecutor by writing that he could neither charge Trump nor “exonerate him” — but exoneration is not a prosecutor’s job, Ratcliffe said.

His job is to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to bring a charge, and if not, not only must he not bring the charge, but he also must not reveal what he uncovered if there won’t be an indictment, Ratcliffe said.

“You managed to violate every principle and most sacred traditions for prosecutors,” the Texas congressman charged.

He asked Mueller to read the Justice Department policy that outlined the actions he’d taken with his investigation and his report.

“I cannot,” Mueller said, “but this is a unique situation.”

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, sought to draw Mueller out about some of the more salacious aspects of the Russia imbroglio, including the so-called Russia dossier produced by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.

But Mueller wouldn’t go there. He said that matter was being handled by others inside the Justice Department and, at one point, saying he didn’t know either the names Fusion GPS — the political intelligence committee that commissioned the Steele material — or Glenn Simpson, its founder.

Reluctant witness

The white-haired former G-man didn’t want to testify before Congress. He gave one-word or monosyllabic answers, asked members of Congress to repeat themselves, and frequently responded by saying, “I’d refer you to the report.”

Mueller said in a brief statement at the Justice Department earlier this year that his report was his testimony and that he didn’t think it would be appropriate for him to star in a big set piece event on Capitol Hill.

Democrats, however, insisted. Nadler believed it be valuable simply for more Americans to see and hear Mueller on TV describing what he found in his investigation, given that many people haven’t read his report.

Mueller documented a vast wave of interference by Russia’s government in the 2016 presidential election with the object of hurting candidate Hillary Clinton and helping Trump get elected.

The special counsel’s office also documented many contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians during that time but did not establish a criminal conspiracy related to the election.

Volume II of Mueller’s report details a number of instances that Democrats and other critics have called obstruction of justice, including attempts by Trump to remove Mueller himself — and then cover up those same efforts.

President sanguine

Trump and his aides insist they’re unconcerned about Mueller’s testimony.

The special counsel’s office closed without bringing any more criminal charges against Trump’s inner circle, and Trump has stressed that he views Mueller’s report — which explicitly does not exonerate the president — as an exoneration.

Trump’s private lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said the legal team won’t have a “war room” running to countermessage Mueller’s testimony. Trump allies inside and outside the White House say they believe the former special counsel won’t stray beyond his report.

“Bob said his report is his report,” Sekulow said. “I expect his testimony will be his report. So I don’t expect anything new.”

Trump has revisited some of his old attacks on Mueller as being “conflicted” and a “never Trumper,” but also sought to appear calm about the hearing.

The hearing started at a time when Trump often watches TV and posts on Twitter, and he offered his own commentary about the pre-gavel coverage before Mueller’s opening statement on Wednesday.

The only thing on Trump’s schedule for Wednesday is a private fundraiser later in the day in West Virginia.

The president had said he wasn’t planning to tune in to see Mueller — and then also said, “Maybe I’ll see a little bit of it.”

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith contributed to this report.

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