WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump declared the Russia meddling and obstruction probe a "big hoax" on Wednesday (Jul 24) as Democrats reaped precious little new ammunition for impeachment in marathon testimony to Congress by investigation leader Robert Mueller.
Mueller said during his hotly-anticipated appearance that he had not exonerated Trump of obstruction allegations, but once again declined to accuse the US president of a crime or recommend that Congress do so.
Answering questions on his investigation for the first time, a shaky-voiced, sometimes uncertain Mueller would not go beyond the facts set out in his final investigation report and refused dozens of times to answer questions from both Democrats and Republicans.
Mueller's report, made public in April, outlined a pattern of attempted cooperation between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia which didn't rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy - and at least 10 instances of alleged interference in the probe by Trump.
But the former FBI director denied Democrats seeking an impeachment effort their number one goal, an unequivocal statement on national television that Trump had criminally obstructed justice.
Republicans quickly declared the Russia investigation over and Trump said it was "a very big day" for himself and the country.
"There was no defence to this ridiculous hoax," he told reporters.
"This whole thing has been three years of embarrassment and a waste of time for our country."
"The Democrats lost so big today," he added.
TRUMP 'NOT EXCULPATED'
The marathon day of nationally-televised hearings did little to resolve the outcome of Mueller's 22-month investigation, which outraged and at times shook the White House, as indictments came down for six former Trump aids and associates, five of whom were convicted.
It came with both parties stepping up campaigning ahead of the November 2020 presidential and congressional elections, with Trump determined to repeat his stunning upset victory of 2016.
The former special counsel started his testimony with a statement that suggested he might be ready to address Trump's personal attacks on him and his investigators as conducting a politically driven "witch hunt."
"The president was not exculpated from the acts that he allegedly committed," Mueller flatly told the House Judiciary Committee.
He explained that he could not have charged Trump because Justice Department rules prohibited him from indicting a sitting president.
And he later added that Trump could theoretically be indicted after he leaves office.
But beyond that, the 74-year-old veteran prosecutor had little to add, failing to clear up the confusion left among the American public about the conclusions of his dense report.
He answered many questions by directing lawmakers to the document, while at times appearing to forget or to be unfamiliar with details contained within.
While in his opening statement he called Russian election meddling a "most serious" threat to US democracy, he balked at more dramatic statements, describing as only "disturbing" and "problematic" some of the best-known incidents of attempted or actual collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
DEMS STILL WEIGH IMPEACHMENT
The Democrats, who declined last week to advance an impeachment motion launched from within their own ranks, said Mueller's testimony added to arguments for removing the president and that they would continue to seek information that could advance the case.
"We are fighting the president in the courts" for records and testimony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said following Mueller's appearance.
"If we have a case for impeachment, that's the place that we will have to go," Pelosi said. "We want to have the strongest possible case to make a decision."
But Republicans insisted that Mueller's testimony should bring an end to the investigation.
"The American people understand that this issue is over. They also understand that the case is closed," said Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow in a statement.