Mueller emphasizes that he didn’t clear Trump
‘If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,’ the special counsel said.
Special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday said he did not want to testify before Congress about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, setting up a potential clash with House Democrats.
But Mueller also sparked a new round of impeachment calls after stressing, this time in person, that he could not clear President Donald Trump of obstruction charges.
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His remarks were the first time the public had heard from Mueller after two years, 199 criminal charges and 37 indictments. Mueller, who said on Wednesday that he was resigning and closing down the special counsel’s office, delivered the statement more than two months after he submitted his 448-page final report on the 22-month Russia investigation.
“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner. I am making that decision myself,” Mueller said in remarks on camera at the Justice Department.
“Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report,” he added. “The report is my testimony.”
But Mueller — inadvertently or not — seemed to hand off to Congress the issue of whether the president should be held accountable for attempting to obstruct the Russia probe. Mueller’s report lays out several instances of attempts to stymie federal investigators without saying whether those actions rose to the level of a crime.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” he noted. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
In explaining his decision, Mueller seemed to nod to Congress’s power to launch impeachment proceedings.
“The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” said Mueller, who did not take questions.
The rare statement came amid negotiations between Mueller’s team and the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees for him to testify publicly about his findings — talks that have faltered in recent weeks as Mueller has sought clarity from the Justice Department on the boundaries of his would-be testimony.
Mueller’s remarks will likely now put the onus on House Democrats to decide whether they want to subpoena Mueller to talk, a move that would put the two sides on a legal collision course.
Democrats sent mixed signals about their plans after Mueller spoke. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Mueller “needs to testify before Congress,” but House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler was more cagey.
“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we needed to hear today,” he said at an afternoon press conference.
Several Democrats said on Wednesday that Mueller was effectively handing things off to Congress, raising anew the specter of impeachment. Nadler, who was given a heads up before Mueller’s statement, said in a statement afterward that it now “falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump — and we will do so.” But pressed specifically about impeachment at his press conference, Nadler would only say that “all options are on the table and nothing should be ruled out.”
Others were more direct.
Justin Amash, the lone Republican lawmaker advocating for launching impeachment proceedings, tweeted: “The ball is in our court, Congress.”
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Most Republicans appeared unmoved, however. “It is time to move on from the investigation and start focusing on real solutions for the American people,” said Republican Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
The White House was notified on Tuesday night that Mueller might make a statement on Wednesday and was not caught off-guard by the announcement. President Donald Trump monitored the comments from the White House, and tweeted later that “nothing changes” as a result of Mueller’s comments.
“There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you,” he tweeted.
Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow said Mueller’s announcement “puts a period on a two-year investigation that produced no findings of collusion or obstruction against the President.”
Sekulow’s statement contrasts with what Mueller actually said on Wednesday, when he again outlined the findings that were out in two separate volumes of his final report. The first section outlined the campaign’s contacts with Russia but determined “that there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy” between the two sides, Mueller said. The second section discussed Trump’s efforts to interfere in the Russia investigation but declined to either indict or exonerate Trump on possible obstruction of justice charges.
Mueller said that because of longstanding DOJ policy that a sitting president could not be indicted, it was “not an option” to charge Trump. But Mueller alluded to “a process other than the criminal justice system” that the Constitution provides to accuse a president of “wrongdoing.”
It was a signal many Democrats took to mean the impeachment process. Indeed, Mueller also said that one reason his team did not charge Trump was because it would be “unfair” to accuse the president of a crime “when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge.” Impeachment proceedings would offer both sides a chance to make their arguments in Congress, and render a decision.
Some lawmakers even changed their stance on impeachment after hearing Mueller’s remarks.
“Robert Mueller’s statement makes it clear: Congress has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately,” tweeted Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is running for president.
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Others called the statement an impeachment referral in all but name.
“This is as close to an impeachment referral as you could get under the circumstances,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is also vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Wednesday’s statement caps a back-and-forth between Mueller and his boss, Attorney General Bill Barr, who handled the initial presentation of Mueller’s report.
Justice Department officials confirmed to POLITICO last month that Mueller wrote a letter to Barr in March complaining that a four-page memo Barr wrote characterizing Mueller’s primary findings “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the Russia investigation.
Mueller sent the letter to Barr on March 27, three days after Barr issued his four-page summary. The missive cited “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.”
Mueller appeared to back away from that language on Wednesday. He said he “certainly” does not question Barr’s “good faith” in deciding to make most of the full report public all at once rather than heeding Mueller’s request to release certain portions of the report immediately after the investigation concluded.
“We conducted an independent criminal investigation and reported the results to the attorney general, as required by department regulations,” Mueller said. “The attorney general then concluded that it was appropriate to provide our report to Congress and to the American people.”
More Coverage: Full transcript of Mueller’s statement on the Russia investigation| Mueller’s full statement on the Russia investigation| I Watched 20 Hours of Robert Mueller Testifying. Here’s What Congress Would Be In For.