Robert Mueller denied Wednesday that Donald Trump had been exonerated of obstructing his two-year investigation into Russian election meddling but -- in his first testimony before Congress on the probe -- he again declined to accuse the US president of a crime. In high-stakes testimony, a shaky-voiced Mueller appeared uncertain as Democrats and Republicans peppered him with questions about the investigation, repeatedly asking lawmakers to respect themselves or restate their query. The 74-year-old former FBI chief and veteran prosecutor also repeatedly referred lawmakers to the report, and said he would not go beyond its text in his hotly anticipated appearances before two Democrat-led House committees.
But his answers made clear he took issue with Trump's claim that the April report had exonerated him from charges of obstruction of justice. "The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated from the acts that he allegedly committed," Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee.
The former special counsel emphasised that Russia did interfere with the 2016 election and did so to bolster Trump's campaign against his rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton -- contrary to Trump's repeated denials. But he also said that neither the president nor others of his campaign were charged over cooperation with Russians because the investigation lacked sufficient support for conspiracy charges.
"We found insufficient evidence of the president's culpability," he told the panel. In his first appearance on the Hill, Mueller supplied little new support for tentative Democratic efforts to launch an impeachment effort against Trump.
Mueller, who has a strong reputation for straight-shooting and personal rectitude, looked aged and unsteady as he took questions for the first time since closing his investigation. Much of the American public remains unclear about his finding on whether Trump criminally obstructed justice and whether his campaign colluded with Russians.
His 448-page report catalogues extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, including attempts to cooperate or collude -- neither of which is a specific crime. The report also laid out in detail 10 instances when Trump allegedly tried to obstruct the investigation.
But Mueller said he was prevented from recommending charges against Trump because Justice Department rules prohibited him from lodging criminal charges against a sitting president. In their questioning, Democrats detailed multiple instances from the report where Trump's actions in 2017, including seeking to fire Mueller himself, appeared to meet the standard for obstruction of justice charges.
While the former FBI chief agreed with their descriptions of the behaviour, he repeatedly resisted pressure to say outright that the president committed obstruction. "The president cannot be charged with a crime," Mueller told the panel, citing Department of Justice rules.
And he left Democratic lawmakers frustrated by saying he did "not necessarily subscribe" to the conclusion on presidential obstruction that they were pointing to.
Mueller's evasiveness and curt answers seemed likely to thwart efforts by Democrats to further tar Trump's political reputation/ Moreover, Mueller's own image as a hard-headed, disciplined prosecutor suffered when he appeared to not recall some parts of the investigation and details from the voluminous report. "I'll leave the answer to our report," he said several times.
"I'm not familiar with that," he also told lawmakers asking for details. "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," said Democratic strategist David Axelrod.
Trump, who since 2017 has labelled the Mueller investigation a politically motivated witch hunt, appeared to be following the hearing privately in the White House Wednesday despite earlier claims that he would not watch the broadcast. "'Mueller was asked whether or not the investigation was impeded in any way, and he said no,'" Trump tweeted, citing a Fox News host.
"In other words, there was NO OBSTRUCTION." He also gleefully quoted Fox anchor Chris Wallace on Twitter as calling the hearing "a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller."