Trump was not exonerated by my report, Robert Mueller tells Congress

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Media captionDid the president refuse to be interviewed? Yes, says Mueller.

President Donald Trump’s claim that he was “totally exonerated” by special counsel Robert Mueller has been rejected by Mr Mueller in testimony.

Testifying before Congress, Mr Mueller said he had not exonerated the president of obstruction of justice.

In a long and slow-paced hearing, Mr Mueller repeatedly declined to stray outside of confines of his report.

He was attacked by Republicans, who claimed the president had not been afforded presumption of innocence.

Mr Mueller, who rarely appeared in public during his two years investigating the president and even more rarely issued statements, generally gave clipped answers or referred committee members back to his report.

At times he appeared to struggle to follow the proceedings, in which committee members focused on convoluted episodes detailed in the 448-page report compiled by his team.

In all, 35 people and three companies were charged by the special counsel on matters relating both directly and indirectly to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. No members of the Trump family were charged.

Early on in the session, in response to questioning by Democratic committee chair Jerold Nadler, Mr Mueller confirmed that President Trump was incorrect to claim he had been “exonerated” by the special counsel.

Mr Mueller also confirmed that the special counsel team found evidence that the Russian government had attempted to interfere in the 2016 US election and did so with the intention of benefiting then-candidate Mr Trump.

“Over the course of my career I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious,” he said.

Neither the rejection of Mr Trump’s claim to have been exonerated nor the confirmation of Russian efforts to benefit Mr Trump were new revelations, but the power of having Mr Mueller state them categorically under oath represented early successes for Democratic committee members.

As the questioning went on, Mr Mueller appeared to be uncomfortable at finding himself in the middle of a partisan political battle between Democrat and Republican members – a situation he had made clear he wanted to avoid.

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Media captionThe Mueller report – in 60 seconds

Republican members attacked the former special counsel’s decision to neither accuse nor exonerate the president of obstruction of justice. Congressman John Ratcliffe said the decision held the president to a different legal standard than the established presumption of innocence.

Mr Ratcliffe said he agreed that the president should not be above the law, “but he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where volume two of this report puts him”.

Mr Mueller began to answer that the investigation into the president was a “unique situation” but was cut off by Mr Ratcliffe. The special counsel report outlines that there is a unique set of circumstances at play, because guidelines issued by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) state that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Ted Lieu, Democratic congressman for California, asked Mr Mueller: “The reason that you did not indict the president is because of OLC guidance that says you cannot indict a sitting president, correct?”

Mr Mueller replied: “Correct.”

That appeared to go further than earlier statements in which the special counsel’s office said only that it had not concluded whether the president was guilty of a crime, and the remark may have been a misstatement by Mr Mueller.

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Media captionRepublican congressman says Mueller hired people “who hated the president”

Democratic members of the committee focused on the detail of some of 10 occasions that the special counsel identified as cases in which the president may have obstructed justice. In particular they focused on the president’s alleged attempt to have Mr Mueller fired.

President Trump’s then-White House counsel Don McGahn gave extensive evidence to the special counsel investigation, telling Mr Mueller’s team under oath that the president had asked him to fire the special counsel, but backed off after he refused.

In May, the New York Times reported that White House officials then asked Mr McGahn at least twice to state publicly that he had never believed the president obstructed justice.

For the president’s critics, the McGahn episode represents the clearest and most damning case against the president for obstruction of justice.

Mr Mueller confirmed that the special counsel’s office had requested an interview with the president but was refused, and no committee member asked why the president was not issued with a subpoena.

Mr Mueller also denied an allegation which President Trump has repeatedly made – that he was interviewed by the president for the role of FBI director, a job he had held previously for 12 years, the day before he was appointed special counsel. Mr Mueller said he had discussed recruitment for the role with the president, but was not a candidate.

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