WASHINGTON - Believing a two-year shadow over the White House at last has been lifted, President Donald Trump seized on Robert Mueller's testimony before Congress on Wednesday as a clear-cut victory, mocking the former special counsel's findings and performance.
After claiming in advance that he might not watch the day's proceedings, Trump blasted "the phony cloud" created by the investigation and declared "there was no defense to this ridiculous hoax, this witch hunt."
"This has been a very bad thing for our country," Trump told reporters upon leaving the White House shortly after Mueller concluded his testimony. He declared that it was an "embarrassment and waste of time."
Trump tweeted and retweeted more than two dozen times during Mueller's testimony about his investigation into the president and the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. As it ended, Trump tweeted: "TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!"
And, like some of his most visible surrogates including his eldest son, Trump fixated on Mueller's performance, noting his lack of familiarity with some aspects of the investigation and accusing him of playing favorites.
"The performance was obviously not very good. He had a lot of problems," Trump said. "This was a devastating day for Democrats."
Even as the testimony was still underway, Republicans took a victory lap.
Rudy Giuliani, blasted Mueller's frequent stumbles and calls for questions to be repeated, tweeting that the former FBI director was "being destroyed on credibility, knowledge, competence and numerous `ahs,' pauses and excuses like `beyond my purview."'
Mueller's nationally televised appearance on Capitol Hill was long anticipated as a potential inflection point for the presidency, one that could galvanize more House Democrats toward impeachment or help dispel the investigatory cloud that has shadowed the White House for more than two years. Ever mindful of the need to spin powerful televised images, Trump and his fellow Republicans unleashed a barrage of tweets and statements that continued a pattern of attacks in which Trump has made baseless claims about Mueller's probe and its findings.
Before Mueller even took his seat to testify, the president had tweeted nine times about the investigation, making clear that he had his mind focused squarely on the proceedings unfolding at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
"So Democrats and others can illegally fabricate a crime, try pinning it on a very innocent President, and when he fights back against this illegal and treasonous attack on our Country, they call It Obstruction?" Trump wrote in one early tweet. "Wrong! Why didn't Robert Mueller investigate the investigators?"
In fact, the Mueller report did not declare there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Nor did the special counsel's report exonerate Trump on the question of whether he obstructed justice.
Trump also revived a baseless charge that Mueller was "highly conflicted." Mueller, a longtime Republican, was cleared by the Justice Department's ethics experts to lead the Russia investigation.
Trump over the last week had been speculating with confidants about how the hearings would go. And while he expressed no worry that Mueller would reveal anything damaging, Trump was irritated that the former special counsel was being given the national stage, according to two Republicans close to the White House. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Wary of Americans being captivated by finally hearing Mueller speak at length, Trump seethed to one adviser that he was annoyed Democrats would be given a tool to ramp up their investigations -- and that cable networks would have new footage of Mueller to play on loop.
Though the probe did not result in charges of criminal conspiracy or obstruction, there has been growing concern among those close to the president that Mueller's appearance could push undecided or reluctant Democrats toward impeachment.
The president had a light schedule Wednesday morning and afternoon during Mueller's testimony. He headed to West Virginia later in the day for a closed evening fundraiser.
Lemire reported from New York.
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