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Rep. Doug Collins defends Trump as Mueller hearing on Russia investigation begins
Doug Collins statement
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, gives his opening statement as former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 24, 2019 in Washington. - photo by Associated Press

The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, defended President Donald Trump as the committee conducted a hearing Wednesday with former special counsel Robert Mueller.

Mueller is testifying before the House Judiciary Committee and the House intelligence committee about his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Mueller's investigation shadowed Donald Trump's presidency for nearly two years and officially concluded in March, when he submitted his 448-page report.

The nation has heard the former special counsel speak only once, for nine minutes in May, since his 2017 appointment.

Mueller has expressed his reluctance to testify and said he won't go beyond what's in his report.

Trump has called Mueller's investigation a "witch hunt."

Collins said "the president knew he was innocent" and did not shut down Mueller's probe, even though he had the authority to do so.

“The president’s attitude towards the investigation was understandably negative, yet the president did not use his authority to close the investigation,” Collins said in a statement. “He asked his lawyer if Mr. Mueller had conflicts that disqualified Mr. Mueller from the job, but he did not shut down the investigation.”

Mueller's report released in April said that he could not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice. It also said there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump's campaign and Russia.

Collins said Russia meddled in the 2016 election but "the president did not conspire with Russians." He said "nothing we hear today will change those facts."

Collins said Republicans will also question the origins of Mueller's investigation.

“One element of this story remains: the beginnings of the FBI investigation into the president. I look forward to Mr. Mueller’s testimony about what he found during his review of the origins of this investigation,” Collins said. “In addition, the inspector general continues to review how baseless gossip can be used to launch an FBI investigation against a private American citizen, and, eventually, a president.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said his committee has "a responsibility to address" the evidence that Mueller has uncovered in his Trump-Russia investigation.

Opening the three-hour hearing with Mueller, Nadler said there are themes to the hearing: "responsibility, integrity and accountability."

Nadler laid out the examples from Mueller's report that committee members intend to focus on while questioning the reluctant former special counsel.

He noted Trump's directions to then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to have Mueller removed and, once that was made public, orders from Trump to McGahn to deny it happened.

Nadler said "not even the president is above the law."

But Collins also said that everyone should be presumed innocent and guaranteed due process.

“If we carry anything away today, it must be that we increase our vigilance against foreign election interference while we ensure our government officials don’t weaponize their power against the constitutional rights guaranteed to every United States citizen,” Collins said.

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