WASHINGTON - Former special counsel Robert Mueller offered little beyond the already-published findings of his investigation into Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice in his testimony to Congress on Wednesday (July 24), both denying Democrats fodder with which to push for impeachment and directly contradicting President Donald Trump on several counts.
But he cut above partisan politics to warn that Russia’s systematic and sweeping intervention in the 2016 election remained a threat for 2020, saying: "It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
Many more countries are developing the capability to replicate what the Russians had done, added Mr Mueller, who was FBI director from 2001 to 2013.
The conduct of presidential campaign teams regarding foreign assistance was one of the few areas on which Mr Mueller spoke more freely.
Mr Mueller said that calling Mr Trump’s praise for WikiLeaks “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." The organisation published material on the Clinton campaign in 2016 which originated from Russian hackers.
Said House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff: "From your testimony today, I'd gather that you believe that knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do.”
Unprompted, Mr Mueller replied: "And a crime, given certain circumstances.”
In response to Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont, who asked if the Trump campaign had set a new standard for not reporting foreign election interference attempts to the authorities, Mr Mueller said: “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is."
Mr Mueller’s testimony in Wednesday’s pair of hearings was mostly constrained from the get-go as he refused to address matters beyond the scope of the report, under the terms he set out before agreeing to testify before Congress.
Mr Mueller’s often halting speech, slow responses and frequent requests for Congressmen to repeat their questions over the course of more than six hours of testimony drew concern and criticism from commentators.
Political consultant David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter: “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.”
Democrats scored early points as Mr Mueller rejected Mr Trump’s claims that the report “totally exonerated him”, undermining the President’s often repeated catchphrase that Mr Mueller had found “no collusion, no obstruction”.
The hearings saw him defend the integrity and impartiality of his investigation as Republicans sought to cast doubt on the impartiality of the Mueller investigation, arguing that it was biased against Mr Trump.
Republican Michael Turner of Ohio said that Mr Mueller’s statement about exoneration was misleading and meaningless because Mr Mueller, as a prosecutor, could no more exonerate Mr Trump than declare him guilty.
Others argued that by detailing the Trump campaign’s questionable activities but refusing to charge or exonerate him, Mr Mueller had denied Mr Trump the presumption of innocence.
Said Mr John Ratcliffe of Texas: “It was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Trump’s innocence because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence—everyone is entitled to it, including a sitting president, and because of a presumption of innocence, a prosecutor never, ever needs to determine it.”
In the afternoon hearing centering on Russian election interference and the Trump campaign’s links with Russian agents, Mr Mueller told Congress that his investigation “was not a witch hunt”, a charge frequently levelled by Mr Trump.
Neither, he said unequivocally, was the Russian intervention a “hoax”.
Republicans, who want to close the book on the Russia probe, also called into question the motives behind Wednesday’s pair of hearings.
Mr Devin Nunes, the highest-ranked Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in his opening statement that any evidence of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia was “like the Loch Ness Monster - (Democrats) insist it's there, even if no one can find it.”
He said of the hearings: “This is political theater, it’s a Hail Mary attempt to convince the American people that collusion is real and that it's concealed in the report.”
Mr Mueller also studiously avoided questions regarding grounds to impeach Mr Trump, an issue over which Democrats are split.
Republican Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who accused Democrats of wanting Mr Mueller to tell them to impeach the President, asked if his report recommended impeachment.
Said Mr Johnson: “It does not conclude that impeachment would be appropriate here, right?”
Replied Mr Mueller: “I'm not going to talk about that issue.”
Mr Trump spent the afternoon hearing retweeting tweets of support, while White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the morning hearing’s “three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats. Expect more of the same in the second half.”
Mr Trump, at least, appeared satisfied by the hearing. He tweeted at its conclusion: “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!”