Robert Mueller Declines To Clear Trump

For the first time since being appointed Special Counsel, Robert Mueller spoke to the media regarding his report on the Russia investigation. The news was not good for the President.

It was just over two years ago that then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, who had served in a variety of Justice Department positions prior to spending more than ten years as Director of the F.B.I. under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as Special Counsel to investigate the allegations regarding Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election as well as allegations regarding potential collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign as well as obstruction of an ongoing investigation by the Trump White House.

In all that time, Mueller never appeared publicly and never commented publicly except for a spattering of brief statements from his office. When major indictments were filed by his office it was Rosenstein who came out to speak about those indictments. Mueller also did not respond publicly to the numerous statements made against him and his investigators by the President, the Administration, and the President’s supporters. All of that changed today when, in what is likely his final act as Special Counsel, Mueller came before cameras to announce that his office was closing and to explain the findings of his report in at least some respects. For the most part, Mueller said that his report speaks for itself, but in doing so he made clear that the representations that his report had cleared the President are not accurate:

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, on Wednesday declined to clear President Trump of obstruction of justice in his first public characterization of his two-year-long investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mr. Mueller said, reading from prepared notes behind a lectern at the Justice Department. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

He also said that while Justice Department policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a crime, the Constitution provides for another process to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing — a clear reference to the ability of Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.

Although his remarks closely matched statements contained in his nearly 400-page report, Mr. Mueller’s portrayal of Mr. Trump’s actions was not as benign as Attorney General William P. Barr’s characterizations. While Mr. Barr has seemed to question why the special counsel investigated the president’s behavior, Mr. Mueller stressed the gravity of that inquiry.

“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” he said.

Mr. Mueller also stressed that the evidence his team uncovered of Russia’s effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election was a threat to the nation’s political system and “deserves the attention of every American.”

He suggested that he was reluctant to testify before Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee has asked. “The report is my testimony,” he said.

He said he was grateful to Mr. Barr for releasing the vast majority of the document, and did not expect to comment on it further. He said he was closing the special counsel’s office and returning to private life.


“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mr. Mueller and his investigators wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

After Mr. Barr framed the findings, Mr. Trump declared himself vindicated. And Mr. Barr was said to be frustrated that Mr. Mueller did not make a decision about charging Mr. Trump for any of those 11 instances and instead left it to Mr. Barr.

Democratic lawmakers want to hear from Mr. Mueller directly about whether he would have recommended charges were it not for the Justice Department’s position that a sitting president could not be indicted.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, notes that Mueller essentially said that the only reason he did not indict the President is because current Justice Department policy, which has been in place for 40 years and which was reinforced in the 1990s during the investigations into President Clinton, bars the indictment of a sitting President:

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III announced Wednesday he was closing his office and offered his first public comments on the results of his work, asserting that Justice Department legal guidance prevented him from accusing President Trump of a crime and noting cryptically that the Constitution “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse the president of wrongdoing.”

Standing alone on stage in a room used for press conferences on the Justice Department’s seventh floor, Mueller reiterated much of what was detailed in his report and sought to explain his decision-making process. He noted that his team found “insufficient evidence” to accuse Trump’s campaign of conspiring with Russia to tilt the 2016 election, but emphasized they did not make a similar determination on whether the president obstructed justice.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime,” Mueller said, “we would have said so.”

In a tweet after the press conference, Trump said, “Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.”

Likely to the dismay of lawmakers, Mueller said any congressional testimony he would provide would not go beyond his 448-page report.

“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself, and the report is my testimony,” Mueller said.

It was the first time he has sought to explain his work since the release last month of his report. Mueller said he was “speaking out today because our investigation is complete.”

“We are formally closing the special counsel’s office and, as well, I am resigning from the Department of Justice to return to private life,” Mueller said.

He took no questions.

Mueller’s report said his team did not find Trump or his associates conspired with Russia to influence the election, but notably decided not to reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice.

Mueller’s team wrote that Justice Department legal guidance prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president prevented prosecutors from accusing the commander in chief of a crime even in a private report

You can read the transcript of Mueller’s statement here, or watch the video:

As noted, the President responded to Mueller’s statement in a Tweet that went public mere minutes after Mueller had left the podium:

This will become the talking point for Trump, his Administration, and his supporters going forward, but it could not be further from the truth. Not only did Mueller not clear the President of wrongdoing with respect to either collusion during the campaign or obstruction of justice during the investigation by the Trump Administration. On the first issue, the most that Mueller said, which he also said in his report, is that the investigation could not uncover evidence of collusion, not that it had concluded that no collusion took place.

As for the obstruction issue, Mueller specifically stated that if the investigators had been able to conclude that the President did not obstruct justice during the investigation then they would have said so in the report. In fact, of course, the report does not say any such thing. Instead, it says, as Mueller did today, that they were unable to bring obstruction charges against the President because they legally could not do so due to the existing Justice Department policy. That essentially means that if Trump were not currently President, he most likely would have been indicted by the Special Counsel.

What all this means, in the end, is that the ball is now in Congress’s court. They have at the very least a redacted copy of the Mueller report and are likely to get a full copy of the report in the near future. They have begun investigating not only the Russia-related matters but also other issues related to potential wrongdoing by the President such as his potential conspiracy with Michael Cohen to violate campaign finance laws, the questions surrounding the President’s apparent violations of at least the spirit of the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution, and the activities of the Trump Foundation and Trump Organization before Trump became President, which are presently apparently being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Where that leads only time will tell, but the direction to move is clear. Mueller has laid out the map, but only Congress can take the journey.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Mueller just made a fool of Dennison, Graham, Barr, and the rest who have been lying about the report for two months.
    But it will mean nothing if Democrats don’t get off their collective asses and act.
    They don’t have to Impeach…but they need to do something to explain to the country what happened. Investigate. Hold hearings. DO SOMETHING besides stand there quietly while the Trumplicans shape the narrative.
    For those of you too lazy to read the report, read this from David Frum…the man who coined “Axis of Evil” for Bush43:

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    if Trump were not currently President, he most likely would have been indicted by the Special Counsel.

    This…. x 1,000.

  3. Scott F. says:

    To be clear, Doug, when you use “Congress” in your closing paragraph you mean it is all going to fall on the House (and even then only the Democrats and Rep. Amash) to act. We know that the craven McConnell won’t allow any meaningful investigations to occur in the Senate.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    That essentially means that if Trump were not currently President, he most likely would have been indicted by the Special Counsel.

    Which agrees with the ~1000 former federal prosecutors.

    1) Yes, Trump obstructed justice, that’s just undeniable, he does it openly.
    2) If obstruction occurred then Trump cannot be cleared of collusion. You cannot obstruct your way to innocence.

    Trump is a felon. He continues to refuse to do anything to stop more Russian interference, which is an invitation to the GRU to steal more elections and makes Trump a traitor to this country. Justice for Trump would be a wall, a blindfold and a last cigarette, but I’ll settle for a cell. The fact that Republicans know all this – and they do – yet still support him makes them co-conspirators in his crimes, his treason, his subversion of the Constitution.

  5. Scott,

    FWIW, the Senate Intelligence Committee continues to investigate this matter.

  6. mattbernius says:

    That essentially means that if Trump were not currently President, he most likely would have been indicted by the Special Counsel.

    Which is what every prosecutor, including conservative ones, has said from the beginning.

    It’s important to state that Indictment != Guilt. The legal hurdle for indictment is far lower. And just because someone is indicted doesn’t mean the evidence will stand scrutiny at trial.

    But the report clearly demonstrates a preponderance of evidence to indict for obstruction.

    The only reason he wasn’t able to was DoJ policy. Anyone who pretends otherwise is being willfully ignorant.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    From Daily Kos: Mueller “just gave…Nadler and Pelosi the gift of total and complete cover for the initiation of an impeachment committee investigation….”

  8. mattbernius says:


    Which is what every prosecutor, including conservative ones, has said from the beginning.

    In fairness and transparency I should have said “every prosecutor whose position in the house/senate isn’t fundamentally tied to (or directly threatened by) Trump (should said Senator actually show any shred of honestly or consistency).”

  9. Teve says:

    Once again I turn to Wonkette for their sober, measured headlines.

    Robert Mueller Just Begged Congress To Impeach The Living F*ck Out Of Donald Trump


  10. Kathy says:

    Who’re you gonna believe? the man who headed the investigation, or the guy who hasn’t read the report?

    Sadly, we know whom Dennison’s base prefers.

    What’s the statute of limitations for obstruction? I suppose more than 4 years.

  11. Teve says:

    Norman Ornstein

    So here is a powerful take away from Mueller’s statement: the fact that Mitch McConnell is blocking the bill to protect the United States from Russian interference in future elections is one of the most unpatriotic and despicable acts imaginable from an American public official.

    Stupid people with shitty values.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    Trump himself identified the crux of the matter:

    There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent.

    That is the standard for a court of law in a criminal proceeding. I don’t know if it’s because the country is flooded with lawyers, or too many lawyer shows on TV, or what. But people lazily say “innocent until proven guilty” in situations in which it DOES NOT APPLY. Heck, it’s not even the standard for civil proceedings. It certainly should not apply when the question is whether the president is favoring a hostile foreign power for personal again. It would not apply in an impeachment proceeding as intended by the Founders, one without parties.

    I’m beginning to get real tired of Mueller’s, ‘Somebody should do something about Trump, but not me.’ routine. The GOPs in the Senate have said their standard is IOKIYAR. So what does Mueller think anybody can or should do?

    And the Ds messaging should get away from, “To be, or not to be…” and switch to ‘Those fracking GOPs in the Senate have made up their minds without hearing a shred of evidence, or even reading the report.”

    Mr. Mueller also stressed that the evidence his team uncovered of Russia’s effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election was a threat to the nation’s political system and “deserves the attention of every American.”

    And Trumpsky is doing nothing. Isn’t that in itself sufficient for grounds for Impeachment and conviction?

  13. Scott F. says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    FWIW, I used the adjective “meaningful” with investigations in that sentence deliberately. 🙂

  14. gVOR08 says:


    The only reason he wasn’t able to (indict) was DoJ policy. Anyone who pretends otherwise is being willfully ignorant.

    There’s a basic legal principle that you can pay a lawyer for almost any opinion you want. And there’s anecdotal evidence that the guy who wrote that opinion asked how the AG wanted it to go. I wish someone would find a way to challenge it in court. But in the age of Boof and Gorsuch, it’s probably a waste of time.

  15. Kathy says:

    Whoever boots Dennison out of office next year should either:

    1) Make it a priority to prosecute Trump, and to seek out the longest jail term possible, or

    2) Invite the GOP’s congressional leadership to the White house and calmly tell them “Gentlemen, due to your actions over the past four years, I am now above the law. I want you to know I aim to show as full an extent of ingratitude as only a politician can manage. Thank you for coming.”

  16. Kathy says:

    I’m wondering about two things:

    1) Will NY State prosecutors indict Mr. El Cheeto, assuming they uncover criminal activity?

    2) What universe do GOP politicos reside in, and how can we close it off from our own?

  17. PJ says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The fact that Republicans know all this – and they do – yet still support him makes them co-conspirators in his crimes, his treason, his subversion of the Constitution.

    Which is why Trump should be impeached. The Republicans in the House and Senate will still be there long after Trump is gone, I want them all (not Amash) on the record voting against impeachment. And I want Democrats, and saner Republicans, running ads against them, labeling them traitors, as long as these subservient cowards are still in Congress. Because the truth will come out and they should not be allowed to escape judgment.

  18. Teve says:

    Since we have the open threads now I try to be more careful about putting things in the appropriate place. I think the right place for this comment is here but if it’s not I’ll put it on an open thread.

    I’m not a lawyer but a friend of a friend on Facebook was a prosecutor and he just said this

    Obviously a sitting president can be indicted. This is silly. If he shot and killed someone, you think he would be allowed to just roam the streets freely, or would he be detained?

    If he was detained, the government would have to indict him (here in New York, within 5 or 6 days) or let him go.

    So unless you think the president can just go around shooting people freely and the People’s only recourse is impeachment and removal from office, then yeah, a sitting president can be constitutionally indicted.

  19. Hal_10000 says:

    Quote of the day from Benjy Sarlin:

    You know that scene in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible tells an old lady how he can’t possibly help her with her insurance claim and she definitely shouldn’t fill out this specific form and take it to this specific office

    Mueller did the right thing: he laid out the evidence in painstaking detail, indicted those he could and then put the ball in Congress’ court when it comes to Trump. Congress, of course, seems determined to hit themselves in the face with the racquet.

  20. Teve says:

    @Hal_10000: I think you’re quite right and I’ve seen a few comments today to the effect of “Mueller’s problem is he thinks other people are as honorable as he is.”

    ETA to be clear I’m not saying that this is a flaw Mueller has or that he should have done something differently.

  21. Kathy says:


    Most times when people say “you can’t” they really mean “you really shouldn’t.”

    If I say “you can’t run a red light,” well, obviously you can. That is, you can physically perform the action of feeding gas to your car’s engine and moving across an intersection even though the light is red. But you shouldn’t, because you may get a ticket, or get into an accident and wind up hurt or dead, or worse, wind up hurting or killing someone else.

    The DOJ deems the damage to the country wrought by indicting a president, or even Trump, would outweigh the benefit of carrying out justice or enforcing the law.

    I disagree. Leaving a criminal in such a powerful office is asking for trouble, more so when the individual in question is so manifestly unfit, and has demonstrated his unfitness not just one, but many times. Not to mention it delays justice, or denies it, and gives the office an aura of being above the law.

    So in this case “can’t” and “shouldn’t” are, in my estimation, both wrong.

    Mueller should come out and state in plain English: “Trump committed obstruction of justice, and I could prove it in court and convict him, but DOJ policy is such that I cannot bring an indictment. It’s now up to Congress to impeach and remove this man from office, so justice can take its course.”

    Even then, making it so a person, by virtue of their office, requires the judgment first of 218 Representatives, and then of 67 Senators, before they can even be charged with a crime they obviously committed, then that person is already way above the law.

  22. Jax says:

    One of the IG reports dropped today, as well. DOJ has declined to prosecute. I suspect the rest of them will end the same way. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

  23. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve: Shooting someone would likely be a state charge. Barr and DOJ have not said the president cannot be indicted by a state. Yet. If NY tries to file charges, I expect Barr will claim they can’t. The DOJ opinion is reportedly based on the prez being indispensable to functioning of the government and being too busy to be bothered. Those arguments would apply to a state charge. And your Facebook guy’s argument is a perfect example of just how stupid this DOJ opinion is.

  24. Jax says:

    @gVOR08: Anybody who spends as much time on Twitter and in front of a TV as this guy is definitely not too busy to face state charges. I’m 100% certain Barr will still try to protect him, though.

    Imagine the damage he could do if he really tried.

  25. Kathy says:


    Yet. If NY tries to file charges, I expect Barr will claim they can’t.

    Can Barr do anything about it? the DOJ has no jurisdiction over state courts. Granted this is not my area of expertise, but I really don’t see what he can do, other than refusing to send FBI agents to arrest Trump.

    I’m shaky here, but I don’t think the DOJ can even argue in court on behalf of El Cheeto. Isn’t that the job of the White House counsel, or of Dennison’s own lawyers? DOJ is law enforcement, after all.

    a state would have a hard time arresting a president, or even Trump. States cannot act outside their jurisdiction, and the guy is surrounded by armed guards at all times. Unless he consents to being indicted, what can you do?

    Is it too late to buy into popcorn futures?

  26. Jax says:

    @Kathy: Leads into the “state’s rights” argument quite nicely, don’t you think? They asked for it. Now let’s see if we have the rep’s who will give it to them.

  27. mattbernius says:

    In terms of analysis of Mueller’s public statement, I wanted to recommend two pieces that I think do a great analysis:

    First, from The Bulwark, Andrew Egger’s 3 takeaways:

    1. Mueller made clear that, contra William Barr’s early assertions, his office relied heavily on Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime.
    2. Mueller denied that Barr had used his redaction authority to warp the meaning of the special counsel’s report or otherwise protect the president, as many have publicly speculated.
    3. Mueller punctured a ubiquitous Trumpworld talking point about his report: That the very idea that Trump could have obstructed justice was laughable, since he had not committed the underlying crime of conspiracy.

    Full article:

    And the second is the Lawfare analysis podcast –

    One particularly interested take of the podcast was a reminder that in the case of Clinton’s impeachment, there really was not impeachment investigation that took place in Congress — only Starr’s testimony. Their feeling is that Mueller’s statement and report were designed to prevent this from being the case if and when the House moves to start an investigation.

  28. Wayne fields says:

    He doesnt want to venture into the political fray, regarding the heart of our national political society.
    Its all politics bob.
    And now that he’s a private citizen he doesnt get to hide behind his political appointment in facing querulous House.
    Id tell him to be prepared to explain report unless hes going to ignore a committee subpoena.