Robert Mueller has dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of total exoneration in the federal probe of Russia’s 2016 election interference.
He told Congress he explicitly did not clear the president of obstructing his investigation.
The former special counsel also rejected President Trump’s assertions that the probe was a “witch hunt” and hoax.
Mr Mueller also declared Russian election interference was one of the greatest challenges to democracy he had encountered in his career.
The televised Capitol Hill appearances, Mr Mueller’s first since ending his two-year Russia probe last spring, unfolded at a moment of deep divisions in the country – with many Americans hardened in their opinions about the success of Donald Trump’s presidency and whether impeachment proceedings are necessary.
Republicans and Democrats took divergent paths in questioning Mr Mueller.
President Trump’s allies tried to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to emphasise the most incendiary findings of Mr Mueller’s 448-page report and weaken Mr Trump’s reelection prospects in ways that Mr Mueller’s book-length report did not.
But Mr Mueller appeared unwilling or unable to offer crisp sound bites that could reshape already-entrenched public opinions.
He frequently gave single-word answers to politicians’ questions, even when given opportunities to enhance allegations of obstruction of justice against the president.
He referred time again to the wording in his report or asked for questions to be repeated.
He declined to read aloud hard-hitting statements in the report when asked by Democrats to do so.
But he was unflinching on the most-critical matters.
In the opening minutes of the hearing, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked Mr Mueller about President Trump’s claims of vindication in the investigation.
“Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Mr Nadler asked.
“No,” Mr Mueller replied.
When Rep Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, asked, “Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?”
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mr Mueller flatly replied.
He gave Democrats a flicker of hope when he told Rep Ted Lieu of California that he did not charge President Trump because of a Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted.
That statement cheered Democrats who understood him to be suggesting that he would otherwise have recommended prosecution on the strength of the evidence.
But Mr Mueller later walked back that statement, saying, “We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime”.
His team, he said, “never started the process” of evaluating whether to charge the president.
Though Mr Mueller described Russian government’s efforts to interfere in American politics as among the most serious challenges to democracy he had encountered in his decades-long career, Republicans focused on his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
- Press Association