Mueller says Russia report did not exonerate Trump

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Former special prosecutor Robert Mueller said US President Donald Trump engaged in multiple acts that had the potential to exert undue influence over investigations into Russian election interference. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Former special counsel Robert Mueller made clear on Wednesday (July 24) that his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election did not exonerate President Donald Trump, contradicting the president's repeated claims to the contrary.

Mr Mueller testified before Congress in the first of two highly anticipated hearings that marked the first time he was answering questions about the investigation, which resulted in more than 30 defendants being charged with federal crimes.

The morning hearing centred on whether Mr Trump had obstructed justice, while the afternoon hearing will focus on Russian election interference.

House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, a Democrat, noted that Mr Trump had repeatedly claimed that the Mueller report "found there was no obstruction and completely and totally exonerated him".

Mr Nadler, a Democrat, asked: "That is not what your report said, is it?"

"Correct. That is not what the report said," replied Mr Mueller. He later added: "The finding indicates that the President was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed."

Mr Mueller's statement was not new and had been laid out in the 448-page report released in April. But the exchange set the tone for the morning testimony, with Democrats seeking to elicit answers from Mr Mueller that could form the basis of impeachment hearings against the President, while Republicans sought to show that Mr Trump had been subjected to a witch hunt.

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Mr Mueller had earlier made clear that his answers would not go beyond his report.

In his opening statement, he also said that he would be unable to answer questions about the opening of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Russia investigation which occurred months before his appointment. The topic is of keen interest to Republicans who argue that the probe began improperly.

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Mr Mueller said it would be inappropriate for him as a prosecutor to comment in any way that could affect the ongoing review by the Department of Justice.

He also reiterated the report's point that his team did not address "collusion", which was 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," he said.

Mr Mueller explained that charging Mr Trump had not been on the cards due to a longstanding Justice Department legal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. But he agreed with Mr Nadler that the report did not conclude that Mr Trump could not be indicted.

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Said Mr Nadler in his opening statement: "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."

Mr Trump has made "no collusion, no obstruction" one of his unofficial slogans and most recently uttered the statement in a series of agitated tweets hours before Mr Mueller took the stand.

Republicans argued that Mr Mueller's investigation and Democrats were not giving Mr Trump the presumption of innocence.

Mr Doug Collins of Georgia, the most senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said in his opening statement that the President's innocence had been established early on, yet the public narrative surrounding the investigation assumed his guilt.

"Those are the facts of the Mueller report. Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts," said Mr Collins.

In one of the hearing's more heated moments, Republican Louie Gohmert of Texas said that Mr Mueller had "perpetuated injustice" by running the investigation for two years, despite knowing that Mr Trump did not conspire with Russia and was innocent.

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But Mr Mueller, who often spoke slowly and repeatedly asked Congressmen to repeat their rapid-fire questions, declined to respond. Instead, he only replied: "I take your question."

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