Mueller testifies that Trump has not been exonerated
He also says Russian interference in 2016 election 'among the most serious' threats to US democracy
WASHINGTON: Former United States Special Counsel Robert Mueller yesterday defended the integrity of his Russia investigation during a dramatic congressional hearing and reiterated that he had not cleared President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice or, as the President has said, totally exonerated Mr Trump.
Mr Mueller appeared for an eagerly anticipated testimony at the first of two back-to-back congressional hearings that carry high stakes for Mr 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 Russian interference in the 2016 US election and Mr Trump's conduct, appeared first before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Mr Jerrold Nadler, praised Mr Mueller and said no one, including Mr Trump, is "above the law".
Mr Mueller, 74, was surrounded by news photographers as he took his place in the packed hearing room, showing little apparent emotion as he scanned the scene.
"Obstruction of justice strikes at the core of the government's efforts to find the truth and to hold wrongdoers accountable," Mr Mueller testified.
Mr Trump has claimed that the Mueller inquiry resulted in the President's "complete and total exoneration".
Asked by Mr Nadler if he had exonerated Mr Trump, Mr Mueller said, "No".
Mr Mueller, accused by Mr Trump of heading a "witch hunt" and trying to orchestrate a "coup" against the Republican President, said his inquiry was conducted in "a fair and independent manner" and that members of the special counsel's team "were of the highest integrity".
"Let me say one more thing," Mr Mueller said.
"Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government's effort to interfere with our election is among the most serious."
In a comment sure to disappoint Republicans, Mr Mueller said he would not answer questions about the origins of the Russia probe in the FBI before he was named to take over the inquiry in 2017 or about a controversial dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent.
In his opening statement, Mr Mueller reiterated that his team had decided not to make a determination on the question of obstruction.
"Based on Justice Department policy and principles of fairness, we decided we would not make a determination as to whether the President committed a crime. That was our decision then and remains our decision today," Mr Mueller said.
Mr Nadler said in his opening statement that Mr Mueller conducted the inquiry with "remarkable integrity" and was "subjected to repeated and grossly unfair personal attacks".
"Although department policy barred you from indicting the President for this conduct, you made clear that he is not exonerated. Any other person who acted in this way would have been charged with crimes. And in this nation, not even the President is above the law," Mr Nadler said.
The committee's top Republican, Mr Doug Collins, said the facts of the Mr Mueller report are that "Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The President did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts."
The hearings were still in progress as of press time. - REUTERS