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.