Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress “broke the lie” Donald Trump has been telling and potentially cleared the path to impeachment, House judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler said on Sunday.
That does not mean, however, that an attempt to remove Trump from office is set to begin.
Adam Schiff, chair of the intelligence committee, said that “for the purposes of the law and constitution, where we are now is most accurately described as preliminary to a judicial proceeding”.
Nadler, a New York Democrat, was defending the decision to call former special counsel Mueller before Congress, amid controversy over the impact and value of his appearances before the judiciary and intelligence panels.
“I think it was very important that he testified,” Nadler told ABC’s This Week, “because he … broke the lie that the president and the attorney general have been saying to the American people.
“Since his report was issued the attorney general and the president have misrepresented that report, lied to the American people about it, said the report found no collusion, no obstruction and totally exonerated the president.
I wish Mueller had testified in more narrative fashion, that the words didn’t need to be coaxed from him as muchAdam Schiff
“All those three statements are lies. It was very important for Mueller to get up there and say just that.”
In his testimony, Mueller did not go beyond the contents of his 448-page report into Russian election interference, links between Trump and Moscow and possible obstruction of justice by the president.
Mueller had resisted the call to testify and observers noted the 74-year-old former FBI director’s halting and reluctant demeanour. On Saturday the Washington Post went so far as to report that “some lawmakers are privately wondering whether there was some truth to … rumours” that Mueller “might not be as sharp as he once was”.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment but Trump did not hesitate to crow about “the greatest display of ineptitude [and] incompetence that the Halls of Congress have ever seen”.
Schiff told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday he wished Mueller “had testified in more narrative fashion, that the words didn’t need to be coaxed from him as much as they did”.
Mueller submitted his report in March and it was published in redacted form in April, after attorney general William Barr issued a summary of its contents which Democrats said was misleading. He did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Trump and Moscow but did lay out 11 instances of possible obstruction of justice by the president or his campaign.
Trump has claimed complete exoneration – as he did in tweets on Saturday in which he urged equal focus on supposed misdeeds by Democrats and FBI agents.
Mueller stated both on paper and in person on Capitol Hill that he did not exonerate the president on questions of obstruction of justice.
The White House has blocked attempts to call witnesses to testify, moves House Democrats say are unconstitutional, given their mandated oversight role.
The result is a rolling battle for public opinion.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney fired his own shot on Sunday, telling CBS’s Face the Nation that part of the president’s motivation for a controversial attack on the House oversight chairman was that Elijah Cummings “is spending all of his time on this impeachment inquiry which we all know is going nowhere”.
The president lied repeatedly to the American people and to investigators and conducted a corrupt cover-upJerrold Nadler
In turn, Nadler made clear Democrats believe Mueller’s testimony had PR value.
“The hearing was an inflection point,” he told CNN’s State of the Union. “It showed quite clearly that the report did not exonerate the president, that it found that the Russian government interfered in the campaign, they tried to interfere in our election and the Trump campaign welcomed that assistance and co-operated.
“And then the president lied repeatedly to the American people and to investigators and conducted a corrupt cover-up with at least five criminally indictable acts of obstruction of justice.”
As Mueller repeatedly pointed out, a Department of Justice opinion holds that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The special counsel also stressed that he was not saying he would have indicted Trump but for the opinion’s existence.
Nonetheless, Nadler told CNN, “these are very serious offences against the rule of law and we now have to get further evidence and put it before the American people as we consider articles of impeachment in the committee.”
Nadler repeated his view that Trump “utterly deserves” to be removed.
On Friday, in a suit that mentioned the word impeachment 76 times, the judiciary committee petitioned in court for access to evidence collected by Mueller.
Nadler said such evidence might include material on possible wrongdoing by Trump outside the Russia inquiry, for example under the emoluments clause of the constitution which is meant to guard against personal gain from public office.
Schiff told NBC: “Right now the most important thing is to obtain the grand jury material, to see the evidence.”
Around 100 Democrats in the House, less than half the caucus, have come out in support of impeachment.
Nadler rejected a claim by California Democrat Jackie Speier that if impeachment has not begun by September it will be too late, given the proximity of the 2020 election.
As well as the near-guarantee that impeachment would fail in the Republican-held Senate, Democratic leaders are wary of galvanising Trump supporters.
Schiff said he worried “about the message of taking an impeachment case to trial, losing that case, having the president acquitted, and then having an adjudication that this conduct is not impeachable.
“But the jury that I’m most worried about, not the Senate because I think that’s a preordained conclusion, is the American people. Can we make the case to the American people? And I want to make sure that that’s true before we go down this path because it’s going to occupy a year of the nation’s time. I want to make sure that’s the right decision.”