Robert Mueller faced questions on his 448-page report detailing contacts between US President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia at a time when Moscow was interfering in the election with hacking, and obstruction of justice.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday told a dramatic US congressional hearing he had not exonerated President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice and indicated he would have sought his indictment were it not for a Justice Department policy against bringing charges against a sitting president.
Mueller, answering questions publicly for the first time on his inquiry, also defended the integrity of his investigation as he appeared for eagerly anticipated testimony at the first of two back-to-back televised congressional hearings that carry high stakes for Trump and Democrats who are split between impeaching him or moving on to the 2020 election.
The former FBI director, who spent 22 months investigating what he concluded was Russian interference in a "sweeping and systematic fashion" in the 2016 US election to help Trump and the president’s conduct, appeared first before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Jerrold Nadler, praised Mueller and said no one, including Trump, is "above the law."
But Trump's Republican allies on the committee tried to paint Mueller’s investigation as unfair to the president, with Louie Gohmert heatedly telling him "you perpetuated injustice" and conservative congressman Guy Reschenthaler calling the manner in which the inquiry was conducted "un-American."
Opening a three-hour hearing with Mueller, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said there are themes to the hearing: "responsibility, integrity, and accountability."
Nadler said his committee has "a responsibility to address" the evidence that Mueller has uncovered in his Trump-Russia investigation.
Nadler laid out the examples from Mueller's report that committee members intend to focus on while questioning the reluctant former special counsel.
Mueller wrote in the document that he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice.
He noted Trump's directions to then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller removed and, once that was made public, orders from Trump to McGahn to deny it happened.
Nadler said, "not even the president is above the law."
Obstruction and collusion
Mueller, whose enquiry detailed extensive contacts between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia at a time when Moscow was interfering in the 2016 election with hacking and propaganda, is set to appear in separate hearings before the House of Representatives Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
Democrats, who control the House, hope his testimony will rally public support behind their own ongoing investigations of the Republican president and his administration, even as they struggle with whether to launch the impeachment process set out in the US Constitution for removing a president from office for "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Mueller is not expected to deliver any new bombshells, according to Democratic aides, but rather stick to the contents of his 448-page investigation report about the 22-month-long probe of Russian election meddling. Mueller plans to deliver an opening statement before taking questions.
Democrats hope the 74-year-old former FBI director will give the American public a compelling account of Russia's sweeping interference, the Trump campaign's readiness to accept help from Moscow and Trump's efforts to impede the Russia probe that Mueller investigated as potential obstruction of justice.
Trump, running for re-election in 2020, is hoping to move past the entire Russia issue.
"Seeing is believing in America. That report was voluminous. But most Americans didn't read it. So they'll see Mueller lay out the case," said Representative Eric Swalwell, who sits on both the Judiciary and Intelligence panels.
Mueller's appearance could also be a turning point for Democrats on the question of impeachment.
Many liberal Democrats are pushing for an impeachment enquiry against Trump, whose recent incendiary rhetoric about four congresswomen from racial minorities also has ignited a political firestorm.
Eighty-nine House Democrats – about 38 percent of them – now want an impeachment enquiry against Trump, according to a Reuters survey.
That is well short of the 218 votes needed to adopt articles of impeachment in the House, which would trigger a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump. But the number backing impeachment could swell if Mueller's testimony proves to be compelling.
"We hope Mueller's testimony will be a watershed," said Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Judiciary panel member.
The impeachment question has divided Democrats, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposing such a move as politically risky for moderate Democrats on whose future the House Democratic majority depends. Some Democrats prefer to remove Trump from office the ordinary way, by defeating him in next year's election.
Mueller, who had expressed reluctance to testify, agreed only after being subpoenaed. Mueller, a former federal prosecutor and US Marine Corps officer, is also known for favouring one-word answers at hearings and could prove too taciturn to satisfy Democrats' hopes of a forceful narrative.
"Let us listen, let us see where the facts will take us," Pelosi said of the hearings. "We'll see what happens after that."
'Going to be disappointed'
Republicans in Congress are predicting chagrin for the Democrats.
"I think they're going to be disappointed, just as they were when the Mueller report came out," said Republican Representative Tom Cole.
Mueller's report said the investigation found insufficient evidence to prove that Trump and his campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia.
The report also did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction of justice but pointedly did not exonerate him. Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee, subsequently cleared the president of obstruction of justice.
"It is so important for him to say that the investigation did not exonerate the president," said Representative Val Demings, another Democrat who sits on both panels.
Republicans are expected to raise questions with Mueller about the integrity of the origins of the Russia probe in the FBI during Democrat Barack Obama's administration and the political leanings of the special counsel's staff members. Trump has sought to portray the probe as an attempted coup.
Limiting Mueller's testimony
The Justice Department on Monday sent a letter telling Mueller to limit his testimony to merely discussing the public report, a directive that the Judiciary Committee chairman rejected as out of line.
But even if Mueller's testimony proves disappointing enough to deflate impeachment chances, Democrats expect their continuing investigations to produce revelations that could damage Trump's re-election prospects.
The heart of the Democratic strategy is to focus Mueller's testimony on several examples of potential obstruction by Trump, including his repeated efforts to get former White House counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller and then deny that he had been directed to do so.
Lawmakers will also emphasise attempts by Trump to his fired former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to redirect the Russia probe away from his 2016 campaign, and possible witness tampering in public statements seen to discourage his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen from cooperating with federal investigations.
Democrats have said the report includes shocking evidence of misconduct that would result in criminal charges against any other American. The Justice Department has a long-standing policy against bringing criminal charges against a sitting president.