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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump painted former special counsel Robert Muller's testimony before Congress as a win on Wednesday, calling it "a great day for me" and brushing off questions about the fact that Mueller did not explicitly clear him of wrongdoing.
"He didn't have the right to exonerate," Trump told reporters as he was leaving the White House en route to a fundraiser in West Virginia, despite his repeated prior claims that the report represented "total exoneration."
"That was something where he totally folded, because he never had the right to exonerate," said Trump.
The president said Mueller did "very poorly" during his testimony, adding that “in all fairness, he had nothing to work with.”
When asked by NBC News if he was concerned about the potential of being indicted once he was out of office — a topic that caused some confusion during the testimony — Trump did not offer an answer, instead calling the reporter "fake news."
Trump thanked Republicans for their performance during the pair of Mueller hearings on Wednesday, applauding them as "incredible warriors" who defended the country.
“In the end, they didn’t get away with it,” Trump said of Democrats.
Trump had watched — and tweeted sharp commentary on — Mueller's testimony from the White House residence throughout the day, with a source saying a "dicey" Trump-world reaction earlier in the day had given way to an "upbeat and vindicated" presidential mood as the pair of hearings wrapped up.
"TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE!" Trump tweeted as the testimony drew to a close. At the White House, he met with Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who had earlier questioned Mueller during his testimony, a source close to the congressman confirmed.
It was a marked shift from the president's seething Twitter tone as the day began, when he accused Democrats of trying to "illegally fabricate a crime" and pin it on a "very innocent President," calling the investigation "an illegal and treasonous attack on our Country," and again questioned Mueller's impartiality, adding "NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!"
Trump even questioned why Mueller didn't investigate himself as part of his probe.
Throughout the day of hearings, the president tweeted quotes from Fox News coverage and supporters, including Fox anchor Chris Wallace's assessment early that the proceedings were "a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller." He also retweeted Tom Fitton, head of the conservative group Judicial Watch, who characterized oversight proceedings as a "coup cabal" and another conservative who described Mueller as "cower[ing]" and "refus[ing] to answer important questions."
As the second session of questioning began, Trump tweeted that he "would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing," stating that "[n]ow, after 3 hours, Mueller has to subject himself to #ShiftySchiff," referencing House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
"[A]n Embarrassment to our Country!," Trump wrote.
Download the NBC News app for full coverage of Mueller's testimony.
Conservative allies of the president's had seized on early pieces of Mueller's testimony that they said had vindicated the president and reflected poorly on the former special counsel. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, for example, pointed to the portions of testimony where Mueller repeated that the investigation did not establish sufficient evidence of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“This morning’s testimony exposed the troubling deficiencies of the Special Counsel’s investigation," Jay Sekulow, counsel to the president, said in a statement after the first session of Mueller's testimony. "The testimony revealed that this probe was conducted by a small group of politically biased prosecutors who, as hard as they tried, we’re unable to establish either obstruction, conspiracy, or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia." White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, also weighing in during the midday break between sessions, said in a statement that "the last three hours have been an epic embarrassment for the Democrats."
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, in a statement released after Mueller's testimony ended, said the "spectacle has always been about the Democrats trying to undo the legitimate result of the 2016 election and today they again failed miserably," echoing the president in calling the investigation a "witch hunt": "it is now even more apparent that Democrats are completely consumed with their hatred of the President and their obsession with overturning the will of the people who elected him."
The president's allies downplayed the impact of Mueller's acknowledgment that his report does not “totally exonerate” Trump.
Trump kicked off the day by again fuming on Twitter over the news that one of Mueller's longtime aides, Aaron Zebley, was set to appear alongside him during his Wednesday testimony to the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.
In a Tuesday statement, Mueller spokesman Jim Popkin cited Zebley's "day-to-day oversight of the investigations" as a reason for his presence.
"It was NEVER agreed that Robert Mueller could use one of his many Democrat Never Trumper lawyers to sit next to him and help him with his answers," Trump wrote Wednesday morning, ahead of the testimony. "This was specifically NOT agreed to, and I would NEVER have agreed to it. The Greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. history, by far!"
The president, whose public schedule was clear throughout Mueller's planned testimony, had said earlier that he had no plans to watch the former special counsel's appearance and that he might watch "a little bit" of it.