WASHINGTON (AP) — Robert Mueller, the taciturn lawman at the center of a polarizing American drama, bluntly dismissed President Donald Trump's claims of "total exoneration" Wednesday in the federal probe of Russia's 2016 election interference.
In congressional testimony, Mueller warned that Moscow's actions represented — and still represent — a great threat to American democracy.
Mueller's back-to-back Capitol Hill appearances, his first since wrapping his two-year Russia probe, carried the prospect of a historic climax to a rare criminal investigation into a sitting American president. But his testimony was more likely to reinforce rather than reshape hardened public opinions on impeachment and the future of Trump's presidency.
Mueller made clear his desire to avoid the partisan fray and the deep political divisions roiling Congress and the country.
He delivered neither crisp TV sound bites to fuel a Democratic impeachment push nor comfort to Republicans striving to undermine his investigation's credibility. But his comments grew more animated by the afternoon, when he sounded the alarm on future Russian election interference. He said he feared a new normal of American campaigns accepting foreign help.
He condemned Trump's praise of WikiLeaks, which released Democratic emails stolen by Russia. And he said of the interference by Russians and others: "They are doing it while we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
His report, he said, should live on after him and his team.
"We spent substantial time assuring the integrity of the report, understanding that it would be our living message to those who come after us," Mueller said. "But it also is a signal, a flag to those of us who have some responsibility in this area to exercise those responsibilities swiftly and don't let this problem continue to linger as it has over so many years.''
Trump claimed vindication for the Republican Party after Mueller's testimony.
"This was a devastating day for the Democrats," he said. "The Democrats had nothing and now they have less than nothing."
Mueller was reluctant to stray beyond his 448-page report, but that didn't stop Republicans and Democrats from laboring to extract new details.
Trump's GOP allies tried to cast the former special counsel and his prosecutors as politically motivated. They referred repeatedly to what they consider the improper opening of the investigation.
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to emphasize the most incendiary findings of Mueller's report and weaken Trump's reelection prospects. They hoped that even if Mueller's testimony did not inspire impeachment demands - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made clear that she will not pursue impeachment, for now - Mueller could still state questionable actions by the president.
The prosecutor, who endured nearly seven hours of hearings, was a less forceful public presence than the man who steered the FBI through the Sept. 11 attacks and the 12 years after that. But Mueller, 74, was nonetheless skilled enough in the ways of Washington to avoid being goaded into answering questions he didn't want to answer.
Mueller frequently gave single-word answers, even when given opportunities to crystallize allegations of obstruction of justice against the president. He referred time and again to the wording in his report. Was the president lying when he said he had no business ties to Russia? "I'm not going to go into the details of the report along those lines," Mueller said.
Did you develop any conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia? "Again," Mueller said, "I pass on answering."
But he was unflinching on the most critical matters, showing flashes of emotion.
In the opening minutes of the Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, asked about Trump's multiple claims of vindication by the investigation.
"Did you actually totally exonerate the president?" Nadler asked.
"No," Mueller replied. Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, asked, "Your investigation is not a witch hunt, is it?"
"It is not a witch hunt," Mueller flatly replied.
He gave Democrats a flicker of hope when he told Rep. Ted Lieu of California that he did not charge Trump because of a JusticeDepartment legal opinion that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted. That statement cheered Democrats who understood him to be suggesting that he might otherwise have recommended prosecution on the strength of the evidence.
But Mueller later walked back that statement, saying: "We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime." His team, he said, "never started the process" of evaluating whether to charge Trump.
Republicans focused on his conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
"Those are the facts of the Mueller report. Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts," said Rep. Doug Collins, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican.
Mueller, pressed as to why he hadn't investigated a "dossier" of claims that the Republicans insist helped lead to the start of the probe, said that was not his charge. That was "outside my purview," he said repeatedly.
Mueller mostly brushed aside Republican allegations of bias, but in a moment of apparent agitation, he said he didn't think lawmakers had ever "reviewed a report that is as thorough, as fair, as consistent as the report that we have in front of us."
And when he was pressed on the fact that multiple members of his team had made contributions to Democratic candidates, Mueller bristled at the implication his prosecutors were compromised.
"I have been in this business for almost 25 years, and in those 25 years I have not had the occasion to ask somebody about their political affiliation," Mueller said. "It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job and do the job quickly and seriously and with integrity."
Wednesday's first hearing, before the Judiciary Committee, focused on whether Trump obstructed justice by attempting to seize control of Mueller's investigation. The special counsel examined nearly a dozen episodes, including Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey and his efforts to have Mueller himself removed.
The afternoon hearing before the House intelligence committee dove into ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
On that question, Mueller's report documented a trail of contacts between Russians and Trump associates, including a Trump Tower meeting at which the president's eldest son expected to receive dirt on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
What's new, and what's not, from Robert Mueller's testimony
Robert Mueller's reluctance to stray beyond his lengthy written report Wednesday produced few, if any, revelations that might change the minds of Americans about Donald Trump's involvement in election interference or other misdeeds.
WHAT'S NEW FROM THE HEARINGS
Mueller, responding to questions from Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, reaffirmed that Russia tried to help Trump win the election, namely by stealing information from Democrats' computers. Schiff asked whether the Trump campaign "built their strategy, their messaging strategy, around those stolen documents."
Mueller responded:"Generally, that's true." "And then they lied to cover it up?" Schiff asked.
Mueller again responded:"Generally, that's true." At another point, Mueller said Trump directed staffers to falsify records connected to Mueller's investigation. Asked by Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., whether it was "fair to say" Trump "tried to protect himself by asking staff to falsify records relevant to an ongoing investigation," Mueller responded, "I would say that's generally a summary."
WHAT'S OLD NEWS
Mueller repeated that his report didn't clear ("exculpate") Trump for any acts he committed. He also said Trump could still be charged once he's out of office.
What Mueller emphasized:
Mueller said Russian election interference is one of the greatest challenges to democracy that he had encountered. Russia, he said, was "doing it as we sit here." Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Chicago asked Mueller about Trump tweets praising WikiLeaks. "How do you react to that?" Quigley asked. "Problematic is an understatement," Mueller said, "in terms of giving … some boost to what is and should be illegal activity."
How Trump responded:
He lashed out ahead of and during the hearings, saying on Twitter that "Democrats and others" were trying to fabricate a crime and pin it on "a very innocent President."
— The Associated Press and the Washington Post
How did the group of 15- and 16-year-old girls involved in a fatal crash last month obtain the alcohol that authorities said they were drinking before their car careened off the road?
Sarpy County law enforcement investigating the crash said they are hitting a critical roadblock when it comes to answering that question: Students, parents and other potential witnesses have been reluctant to talk to investigators and share what they know.
On Wednesday, the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office again urged the public to come forward with information about who provided the alcohol to the Gretna teens, four of whom were killed last month in the crash. Officials dangled a $7,500 reward for tips that may lead to an arrest for providing alcohol to minors.
“So far, we have not been getting any great leads from the community,” said Chief Deputy Sarpy County Sheriff Greg London. “We’re getting a lot of rumors and a lot of hearsay, but someone out there knows what’s going on and where that alcohol came from, and we need them to step forward.”
The crash on the night of June 17 killed driver Abigail Barth, 16, Kloe Odermatt, 16, Addisyn Pfeifer, 16, and Alex Minardi, 15. The girls were close friends who would have been juniors at Gretna High School this fall.
Their friend and classmate Roan Brandon, 15, suffered burns and a broken collarbone in the crash. She has been released from the hospital.
Accident investigators determined that Barth had a blood alcohol reading of .09. All but one girl, Pfeifer, had alcohol in their system, according to the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. None of the girls was wearing a seat belt, officials said, and the car, which crashed on Platteview Road just west of 180th Street, reached speeds of 90 mph.
An accident report released Wednesday detailed the trajectory of the eastbound 2017 Ford Fusion, which crested a hill on Platteview, hit a guardrail and rolled several times before crossing the creek, coming to rest against a tree and bursting into flames. No alcohol was found at the scene.
Contrary to rumors in Gretna, officials said the girls were not at a party prior to the crash. Officials have determined that the girls hung out in the parking lot at Gretna High School, left for a drive and intended to head to one of their houses for a sleepover. Video footage from Gretna High doesn’t show whether the group was drinking there.
The Sheriff’s Office wants to know how the girls obtained the alcohol — where it came from, who supplied it and whether it was bought at a particular store. Officials said they don’t have any evidence indicating that the girls took the alcohol from their homes or a parent’s liquor supply, but they haven’t ruled out that possibility.
Capt. Kevin Griger, the Sarpy County sheriff’s investigations commander, said investigators have identified two people of interest, both underage at the time of the crash, who may have provided the alcohol or know more about who did. Both have attorneys and have not yet talked to the Sheriff’s Office.
Brandon, the survivor, hasn’t made a statement to investigators, and her family also has retained an attorney, Griger said.
“We did hear a comment saying, ‘Why can’t we just let it be?’ ” London said. “We can’t let it be because we don’t want to be back here in six months, a year, on another fatality crash involving students. This was a terrible situation. We just don’t want it to happen again.”
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In April, a 30-year-old Kwik Shop clerk was convicted of providing alcohol to a 17-year-old Elkhorn High School student who drove drunk and died in October 2018. Two teenage boys accused of the same thing also were charged in juvenile court.
When it comes to underage drinking, London said, Sarpy County law enforcement is aggressive about tracing where the alcohol came from.
Sarpy County Crime Stoppers is offering a $7,500 reward for any information that leads to an arrest. Bob Batt, the former head of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and a retired Nebraska Furniture Mart executive, has donated $5,000 of the $7,500 to spur people to come forward. People can call Crime Stoppers at 402-592-7867 or leave an anonymous tip at apps.sarpy.com/sheriff/crimestoppers/default.html.
While investigators have interviewed two to three dozen people, some students and parents have been hesitant or unwilling to speak, even as the Gretna community has rallied to support the five families and declare themselves #GretnaStrong.
“Sharing a Facebook post, talking to a neighbor, isn’t enough,” said Chief Deputy Sarpy County Attorney Bonnie Moore. “We need actual leads, we need actual information.”
Griger said authorities are solely interested in how the girls came to possess the alcohol — not who else was drinking that night, or who stayed out past curfew.
“Put yourself in the place of those four parents that lost their daughters that night,” he said. “Would you want somebody to come forward to help the investigation?”
SAN FRANCISCO — In the small South Carolina town of Newberry, Bob's Red Mill muesli cereal is hard to come by.
That presents a challenge for resident Gregory Kelly, who can't get enough of the stuff. He'd rather not truck the 40 miles or so to Columbia to stock up on it, but he's also loath to buy it from the company's website, which he says is riddled with tracking software from Google.
Kelly grudgingly chooses to head into Columbia every so often, rather than cede his data to Google or turn over his purchase history to another online retailer. "I'm just not sure why Google needs to know what breakfast cereal I eat," the 51-year-old said.
Kelly is one of a hearty few who are taking the ultimate step to keep their files and online life safe
Facebook will pay $5 billion fine; it says FTC settlement will lead to improved privacy safeguards.
from prying eyes: turning off Google entirely. That means eschewing some of the most popular services on the web, including Gmail, Google search, Google Maps, the Chrome browser, Android mobile operating software and even YouTube.
Such never-Googlers are pushing friends and family to give up the search and advertising titan, while others are taking to social media to get the word out. Online guides have sprouted up to help consumers untangle themselves from Google.
These intrepid web users say they'd rather deal with daily inconveniences than give up more of their data. That means setting up permanent vacation responders on Gmail and telling friends to resend files or video links that don't require Google software. More than that, it takes a lot of discipline.
People like Kelly are trying to build barriers to Google and other tech giants largely because of increasing concerns about massive data collection. A series of privacy scandals showing how these companies collect and use consumer data has raised alarm bells for many people about how much they've traded for customization and targeted ads. For example, a Washington Post investigation last month found more than 11,000 requests for tracking cookies in just one week of web use on Google's Chrome browser.
As a result, more consumers are taking measures to wrest greater control of their personal data, like deleting Facebook and its photo-sharing app Instagram. About 15% of U.S. households' primary shoppers never shop on Amazon, according to Kantar ShopperScape data. Some Amazon Echo and Google voice-activated speakers have landed in the trash. And some consumers are saving photos and other personal documents to external hard drives rather than on Google or Apple's clouds.
Brands are jumping on the trend, advertising what they say are superior privacy controls. At the CES 2019 tech conference this year, Apple promised in a billboard above Las Vegas that "What Happens on Your iPhone, Stays on Your iPhone," though many apps siphon data from the phones and track users. And DuckDuckGo, a privacy-oriented search engine, said daily average searches have grown to 42.4 million, from 23.5 million a year earlier — although still a fraction of Google's.
Over the past few months, Jim Lantz of Spokane, Washington, has been systematically eliminating Google products from his online life, spurred by reports of how the Silicon Valley company collects and distributes customer data. That has included scanning lengthy privacy agreements and researching websites' legal statements.
"It's quite the challenge figuring out what they own," said the wholesale sales manager.
"I don't want to give up every ounce of myself over to Google," he said. "At least I can make it hard for them."
Joshua Greenbaum of Berkeley, California, said he pays about $100 per year to use Microsoft Office 365 software that he says has better privacy protections than Google's. The 61-year tech consultant started scaling back his Google usage a couple years ago when advertisements began appearing in his Gmail account.
All that consumer data is precisely the reason big tech companies are in the crosshairs of the Justice Department. Broader antitrust concerns led the Justice Department this week to announce that it has opened an investigation into major tech companies.
Users say that it's difficult to eliminate using Google completely. Greenbaum still maintains a Gmail account "for spam," he said, and finds that YouTube is all but unavoidable if he wants to watch videos online.
For him, "the improvement is mostly in the category of self-righteousness," he said.
The latest study on revitalizing the historic heart of north Omaha has a catchy name — Forever North — and is taking unusual steps to involve north Omahans in the process.
That’s because city planners and several people in the community think North 24th Street and surrounding neighborhoods could finally come back in a big way. They want to know what people from the area would like to see happen there, especially with housing and transportation. And then they want to develop strategies to make those things become reality.
A neighborhood planner for the city is keeping open-door office hours three afternoons a week in North 24th Street cultural centers, talking with people about the study and gathering their views. Manuel Cook works at The Union for Contemporary Art on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, and at the Great Plains Black History Museum on Saturdays.
Urban planners are leading twice-weekly “place assessment workshops,” in which the public is invited to make detailed observations about a variety of locales within the area, and to say what they would like to see happen there.
A survey is being circulated online and in the neighborhoods that asks people to express what types of residential buildings would be good fits for the neighborhood, what should be done with vacant lots and how people could be attracted to the area.
The city and people from the neighborhood hosted a block party on North 24th Saturday night to gather people to talk about their neighborhoods with each other, planners and leaders on a stakeholders committee.
People from north Omaha’s Malcolm X Memorial Foundation center started going door-to-door Tuesday to seek opinions.
And two community design workshops are scheduled during the coming Native Omaha Days. Consultants and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency will work with people to “define the direction for housing along North 24th Street.” The workshops are scheduled for 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 30 and 31, at The Union for Contemporary Art, 2423 N. 24th St.
“I can see the City of Omaha is going out and really engaging the community, and now the community has a responsibility” to give their opinions and insights, said LaVonya Goodwin, a businesswoman and nonprofit leader who’s on a community stakeholder committee of Forever North. “We’re trying to use every method we can to connect to the people who this will affect the most.”
Cook said Forever North isn’t starting over but seeks to build on previous efforts such as the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan, which was adopted by the City Planning Department in 2011.
Among other things, that plan identified the potential for North 24th Street to become a new arts and entertainment district.
Forever North is looking at an area that stretches from Cuming Street to Ames Avenue, between 20th Street and the North Freeway, with 24th Street as the center of it all. The study is focused on housing and “multi-modal transportation,” such as bikes and buses in addition to cars.
Positive developments have happened along North 24th Street recently, such as the $2.4 million Fair Deal Village Marketplace, The Union for Contemporary Art and the under-construction Heart Ministry Center, in addition to apartments and town houses built a few years ago. New businesses have opened, including restaurants, a coffee shop and a little place that serves shaved ice, The Cooler Sno-Balls.
“There’s tangible proof of positive change and investment,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin sees new energy, with entrepreneurs and artists coming in and people already there.
She and her husband, Dan Goodwin, own Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop and head up the Global Leadership Group, a nonprofit seeking to restore North 24th Street to vibrancy. She’s also a leader in an effort to form a North 24th Street business improvement district.
“There’s not just an energy, but tangible work that’s happened,” Goodwin said. “People are collaborating on multiple levels. … It’s happening. I’m excited.”
The optimism was palpable at Saturday night’s block party. Damion Sayers hosted a cookout on the newly paved parking lot of his business, Transitions Barber and Beauty, 3318 N. 24th St. A native of north Omaha, Sayers has had his business on North 24th St. for 12 years.
“It has been nothing but positive,” he said.
Sayers, a second-cousin to Gale and Roger Sayers, loves the history and sense of community in the area. He and a couple other barbers in the area have started a literacy effort, “Building Brains in the Barbershop.”
Despite the fact that many plans and prospective redevelopments have come to naught in north Omaha, Sayers feels good about the Forever North Study.
“It’s been great, and honestly, I can see it being positive for the future,” he said.
The study is being paid for with a $100,000 mini-grant of state funds through the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency’s Heartland 2050 effort, plus $25,000 from the City of Omaha.
City planners applied for the grant thinking it could give a boost to a part of the city that seems like it might finally be primed to take off again, and to make sure that the people currently living there benefit from the redevelopment.
“The feeling is that it’s only going to take one substantial project to get things going,” Cook said. “This area has the potential where it can shift and grow and really be the best part of Omaha.”
He’s heard a lot of concerns from the neighborhood about the potential for gentrification. People worry that people in the area could be displaced by increasing housing prices and rising property taxes.
Those concerns are being heard and need to be addressed, he said, possibly through variety of housing types and policies.
“You want to protect the integrity and culture of the area,” Cook said.
Jeff Spiehs, community relations manager for MAPA, said planners have been hearing that people want a variety of housing types, including affordable rental housing, senior housing, and single-family, owner-occupied homes.
“The people have been saying we’ve been studied enough,” Spiehs said. “We want this to be a project that’s action-oriented.”
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