WASHINGTON -- Former special counsel Robert Mueller largely deferred to his written report on Russian election interference in his answers at two congressional hearings Wednesday, divulging little new information but answering "no" to the question of whether his work had "totally exonerated" the president.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller did condemn President Donald Trump's tweets touting WikiLeaks' stolen emails during the 2016 campaign, in what were his sharpest comments criticizing the President's conduct.
"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 after Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat, read Trump's tweets aloud during the House Intelligence Committee hearing, the second of two high-profile public hearings Wednesday.
Mueller also called Donald Trump Jr.'s Twitter messages exchanged with WikiLeaks "disturbing" and said they were subject to investigation.
The exchange about WikiLeaks was one of the few cases where Mueller broke new ground or shared his views outside the report during his high-profile testimony Wednesday before the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Repeatedly, he referred both Democrats and Republicans back to his report or declined to engage with them on a litany of questions, eliciting little new information.
And when he suggested to Rep. Ted Lieu Wednesday morning at the House Judiciary Committee that the special counsel's investigation did not charge Trump because of Justice Department guidelines against indicting a sitting President, he then clarified the remark at the start of the afternoon session.
"I'd like to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said and I quote, 'You didn't charge the President because of the (DOJ Office of Legal Counsel) OLC opinion.' That is not the correct way to say it," Mueller said. "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."
Still, Mueller made the point to the Judiciary panel that his investigation did not exonerate the President as Trump had repeatedly claimed — though he wouldn't agree with Democrats that Trump's actions amounted to obstruction of justice — and he staunchly defended his investigation and its team.
"Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?" asked House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat.
"It is not a witch hunt," Mueller responded.
Mueller testimony a make-or-break moment
Republicans lobbed a variety of attacks at Mueller, from his decision to document the President's actions in his report when Trump wasn't indicted to the make-up of his team. Mueller reacted angrily when GOP Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota suggested Mueller's team was politically biased.
"We strove to hire those individuals that could do the job," Mueller said. "I have been in this business for almost 25 years. And in those 25 years I have not had occasion, once, to ask somebody about their political affiliation. 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."
At the second hearing, the Intelligence Committee is questioning Mueller on Russian election interference, which was volume one of his report.
"Your 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," Schiff said in his opening statement.
Mueller's testimony Wednesday represented the most highly anticipated hearings of the Trump presidency, with the potential to reset the narrative about his two-year investigation into the President's conduct.
The former special counsel's testimony is the closest thing to a make-or-break moment as it gets for Democrats in their investigations into the President. It's a potential turning point for the House Democratic impeachment caucus that's banking Mueller can reset the conversation about the special counsel investigation and convince the public -- and skeptical Democratic colleagues -- that the House should pursue an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
Democrats have pointed to Mueller's report as a reason to take up impeachment, but he declined to engage on the question or even say the word on multiple occasions.
"Is it true that there's nothing in Volume II of the report that says the President may have engaged in impeachable conduct?" asked Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
"We have studiously kept in the center of our investigation, our mandate," Mueller responded. "And our mandate does not go to other ways of addressing conduct. Our mandate goes to what — developing the report and turning the report into the attorney general."
Mueller's style: Keep it dry
Two sources close to Mueller said Mueller was trying to be careful and trying to keep his answers as close to the report as possible, while some of the questioners are using rapid-fire or long-winded questions to try to have him depart from the report's language. Mueller's style is to try to keep it dry and not provide fodder for the ongoing political fights, which doesn't do well in this kind of hearing, the sources said.
Mueller initially declined to engage with Republicans who tried to attack him directly. After Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican accusing Mueller of having "perpetuated injustice" by running his investigation for two years, Chairman Jerry Nadler gave Mueller a chance to respond.
But Mueller deferred. "I take your question," he said, instead just moving onto the next lawmaker.
After a brief break, Mueller appeared to push back more forcefully, particularly with Republicans. He disputed a charge Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who criticized him over Christopher Steele, the author of the opposition research dossier, and disagreed with Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who suggested the special counsel's team had not "faithfully, accurately, impartially, and completely described all of the underlying evidence in the Mueller report."
"I don't think you reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us," Mueller responded.
During their questions, Democrats walked Mueller through the key passages of his report they feel highlight obstruction of justice. Democrats did the reading because Mueller's team told the committee ahead of time he would decline to read from the report, according to a congressional source involved in negotiations surrounding Mueller's appearance.
Mueller defends work of his office
Republicans aggressively sought to undercut the special counsel investigation, raising questions about his decision to write a lengthy report about the President's conduct when he did not decide to prosecute the Trump on obstruction of justice.
"Volume two of this report was not authorized under the law," charged Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican and a former prosecutor. "I agree with the chairman, this morning, when he said Donald Trump is not above the law. He's not. But he damn sure shouldn't be below the law, which is where this report puts him."
In his opening statement, Mueller defended the work that his team did.
"My staff and I carried out this assignment with that critical objective in mind: to work quietly, thoroughly, and with integrity so that the public would have full confidence in the outcome," Mueller said.
But Mueller also telegraphed that he would not engage on many of the questions both Democrats and Republicans will want him to answer, from the origins of the investigation to how he decided whether or not to prosecute the President.
"As I said on May 29: the report is my testimony. And I will stay within that text," Mueller said.
Even if there isn't a bombshell revelation, Democrats are hopeful that the recitation of the key points of Mueller's investigation and what it uncovered about the President can move the needle.
"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," Nadler said in his opening statement.
"We will follow your example, Director Mueller. We will act with integrity. We will follow the facts where they lead. We will consider all appropriate remedies. We will make our recommendation to the House when our work concludes," Nadler added. "We will do this work because there must be accountability for the conduct described in your report, especially as it relates to the President."
But if Mueller's testimony fails to shift the conversation, it could spell the beginning of the end for Democratic efforts to impeach the President.
The reluctant witness
Mueller and his team have said nearly nothing in the two years since he was appointed special counsel, preferring to let the special counsel's indictments and then the 448-page report do most of his talking. It's been six years since Mueller has been under the bright lights of a congressional hearing, and Wednesday's testimony is likely to be far more contentious, every word exponentially more scrutinized.
Some Democrats have sought to tamp down expectations ahead of the Mueller hearing, hopeful that even if he recites the report it will nonetheless have a lasting impact.
"I am fairly realistic about the degree to which any single hearing, any single witness can really move the country in a particular direction," said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat. "People are quite dug in on their views of Trump and Russia, and more generally just on their views of this President. If the racist display by the President last week wasn't enough to change attitudes, I don't know that anything Bob Muller has to say will."
Still, Democrats are cognizant that Mueller's words carry significant weight. Mueller concluded his investigation in March, and the special counsel's report was released in April. But when Mueller finally spoke in May -- emphasizing that the investigation did not exonerate Trump on obstruction and that he could not consider whether to indict Trump because of Justice Department guidelines -- it moved a sizable tranche of House Democrats to call for an impeachment inquiry.
Republicans argued that Wednesday's hearing should be the close of the Democratic investigations into the President.
"This hearing is long overdue. We've had the truth for months — no American conspired to throw our elections. What we need today is to let that truth bring us confidence and closure," said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel.
The President himself has said he may watch a "little bit" of the Mueller hearing, and he weighed in on Twitter before and during the hearing to criticize Mueller. He also claimed that Mueller had interviewed for the job of FBI director when he met with Trump in May 2017, but Mueller disputed that characterization in his testimony, saying he was advising Trump on the role.
Hearings months in the making
Mueller's testimony before Congress appeared in doubt at several points. Congressional Democrats were hopeful they would get Mueller before their committees almost as soon as he concluded his investigation -- arguing they needed Mueller to push back against what they considered Attorney General William Barr's misleading narrative about the report and his decision that the President did not commit obstruction.
At first, Democrats pushed to gain access to the full, unredacted Mueller report and underlying evidence. But after the Justice Department resisted that endeavor, they turned their sights on the special counsel.
Weeks of negotiations followed, and Democrats believed they were close to securing an agreement in May. But Mueller did not want to testify before Congress, fearing a political circus. He spoke publicly in his final week as special counsel, where he said that that he did not want to testify, telling Congress: "The report is my testimony."
But Democrats were not persuaded. They continued to publicly call for the special counsel's appearance and negotiating with Mueller. Ultimately they struck an agreement for him to appear publicly July 17 before both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees if they issued a subpoena to compel his testimony.
That still wasn't the end of the drama over Mueller. Democrats fought with the Justice Department and the special counsel's team about whether Mueller's deputies would appear in a closed session after the special counsel. Junior members of the Judiciary Committee were furious that the arrangement would not give them time to ask questions.
And so one more twist was included in the special counsel's appearance: His testimony would be delayed one week, and he would sit for an extra hour with the Judiciary Committee to allow all members to ask questions.
The deputies interview was also canceled, but Mueller still wanted his former chief of staff, Aaron Zebley, to appear with him. Just hours before Mueller was set to appear on Tuesday, yet another shift was included in the hearing: Zebley was expected to participate in some fashion as counsel to Mueller, to the protest of Republicans over the last-minute change.