WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Republicans had had “a very good day” with the appearance of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller before Congress to testify on the Russia probe, adding that the hearings proved to be a “disaster” for Democrats.
“We had a very good day today,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn before departing for a political rally in West Virginia, lambasting yet again Mueller’s independent two-year investigation into Russian election meddling and calling it a “witch hunt.”
“There was no defense to this ridiculous hoax,” Trump said, adding “So this was a very big day for our country. This was a very big day for the Republican Party. And you could say it was a great day for me.”
He called Mueller’s performance before two House committees “horrible,” although the former special counsel – who before that was head of the FBI – in his seven hours of nationally-televised congressional testimony strongly denied the president’s repeated claim that the in-depth investigation was a “witch hunt” pushed by anti-Trump Democrats.
“He had a lot of problems,” Trump said of Mueller’s testimony. “But what he showed more than anything else is that this whole thing has been three years of embarrassment and waste of time for our country.”
“This has been a disaster for the Democrats,” he stated.
The former special counsel who investigated alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and possible coordination between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign reiterated during his testimony before lawmakers on Wednesday that he did not exonerate the president of obstruction of justice.
Mueller also said Trump could face charges after leaving office.
In much-anticipated televised hearings under oath before the Judiciary and Intelligence committees of the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives, Mueller responded with a brief “no” when asked by the chairman of the Judiciary panel, Democrat Jerrold Nadler, whether his investigation had exonerated Trump of any crime.
“The president was not exculpated for the acts he allegedly committed,” Mueller said. He also responded “yes” when asked by a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee if Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice after leaving the White House.
Those remarks contradict Trump’s repeated contention in recent months that Mueller and his team had completely cleared him of both collusion and obstruction.
The 74-year-old Mueller, who began his investigation in May 2017 after being appointed special counsel by then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, delivered a final report on his findings to the US Justice Department in March of this year. The Justice Department subsequently released a redacted version to the public a month later and prior to his testimony on Wednesday advised Mueller not to divulge redacted portions of the report.
Mueller concluded that the Kremlin had meddled in the election to help Trump defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton but found insufficient evidence that Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government to influence the election process.
Mueller also stated in the report that he did not make a determination on whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice, noting that US Justice Department policy prevents a sitting president from being charged with a federal crime.
The report, however, stated that if Mueller and his team had conclusively concluded that Trump had not committed obstruction of justice they would have said so.
Wednesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee marked the first time Mueller had taken questions from lawmakers about the Russia investigation.
In his remarks, however, he refused to stray from the contents of his report; in fact, a tally by US television network CNN found that he declined to answer questions from lawmakers on 110 occasions and referred them to his report 39 times.
“It is unusual for a prosecutor to testify about a criminal investigation and given my role as a prosecutor there are reasons why my testimony will be limited,” Mueller said in his opening remarks to the House Judiciary panel.
In that regard, the former FBI director refused to answer questions about the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence probe into alleged Trump-Russia collusion, an investigation it opened in July 2016.
Mueller, who inherited that investigation, in particular told the committee that he could not answer questions about matters relating to the controversial “Steele dossier.”
That report was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, who had been hired by Trump’s political enemies to look into the then-Republican presidential candidate’s ties to Russia and help derail his bid for the White House.
Mueller’s report described as “unverified” the allegations contained in the dossier, which said the Trump campaign may have conspired with Moscow and that Russian intelligence had footage of Trump taking part in lewd acts in a Moscow hotel room and could blackmail him.
Republicans in Congress published a memo early last year alleging that the FBI and the Justice Department engaged in improper surveillance in the Russia-Trump investigation, including using the Steele dossier to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) probable cause order authorizing electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a US citizen who served as a volunteer adviser to the Trump campaign.
Steele’s research was partially funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee via the law firm Perkins Coie and research firm Fusion GPS, the memo noted.
Yet the memo said that neither the initial application for the FISA warrant in October 2016 (shortly before the US presidential election) nor any of its subsequent renewals “disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials.”
The memo also said that Steele was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected.”
Democrats later released a counter-memo that said the Republican memo was filled with incomplete information and misleading.
During one of the most tense moments of Mueller’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, he was asked by Republican lawmaker Jim Sensenbrenner why he did not refer any of his findings to the House for possible impeachment.
Mueller responded that a determination on whether Trump should be impeached was not part of his mandate and that that decision would have to be made by House lawmakers.
While Republicans unsuccessfully sought answers to questions about the origins of the Russia probe, Democrats fulfilled their objective of having Mueller reiterate the conclusions of his report to a national audience.
Their hope is that Mueller’s testimony can influence public opinion ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
While Mueller was testifying, Trump took to Twitter and cited the commentary of journalists from conservative television network Fox News.
In one tweet, Trump cited Fox News’ Chris Wallace as saying, “This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.”
Hours before the hearings began, Trump questioned Mueller’s objectivity on Twitter and said that a day before being named special counsel he had been interviewed for the position of FBI director and been turned down.
During his testimony, Mueller said he had attended a meeting at the White House about the FBI in May 2017 in the wake of the firing of that agency’s director, James Comey. But he said did not attend the meeting as a candidate.
Mueller’s investigation led to 34 indictments (including of 26 Russian nationals), among them Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen; and his first White House national security adviser, Michael Flynn.