The mincing words came from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III: He had been barred by Justice Department tradition from considering any criminal charges against Trump, but that didn’t mean that he cleared the president.
But any actions will have to come from Congress — which looked, as a result, to be inching ever more deliberately toward an impeachment decision.
The takeaway from nine minutes of very carefully constructed language from Mueller was a strict underlining of conclusions in his 448-page written report. That’s it. Though the announcement Mueller would finally speak drew gasped anticipation, the results were about as frustratingly measured as chamomile tea.
In the aftermath, different sides offered interpretations of the Mueller statements. You’d think that with something so important at stake, leaders could speak plainly so there would be no misinterpretation.
So, Democrats said Mueller’s words should accelerate impeachment proceedings, however futile in the face of a loyal Republican Senate that eventually would kill any such effort. Trump said Mueller once again found no charges, and he, therefore, must be innocent, and in any case, the case is now closed. From Republicans, there was only silence, aside from the one rogue from Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash. From Attorney General William P. Barr, whose cheesy summary of the Mueller Report was itself upended, there was nothing.
Of course, there was a distinct difference in the questions being asked on Fox TV—where panelists said there was nothing new here — than on MSNBC and CNN, where they wondered aloud whether impeachment will start this month or next.
The strongest statements came from House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who said Mueller’s remarks showed Trump is lying about the findings of the Mueller Report and has been continuing obstruction of justice. In specifics, Nadler said the special counsel had supplied much of what Congress needs to act, including a finding that Mueller did not exonerate the president of obstruction and that obstruction is a serious crime and that the Constitution requires that Congress take action.
Nadler — who is pushing Speaker Nancy Pelosi now on impeachment — said that is why House committees are pursuing hearings, which Trump is ignoring. Those actions are immoral and unlawful, said Nadler, who stopped just short of saying his House committee was ready to impeach.
In remarks accompanying his resignation, Mueller made clear that he does not want to testify before Congress and that he would offer nothing beyond the written report if forced to do so. He said no one had told him whether to testify. He also said that Justice Department traditions had eliminated any possibility right from the get-go of bringing any criminal charges against a sitting president.
However, Mueller’s public appearance, however short and restricted, said more than the words themselves. His very reading of key phrases from the written report, for example, showed Trump’s defensive statements to be so much hot air. And his appearance, with just a hint of defiance, made clear that it is Congress that has the next steps.
Mueller did make clear that his investigators were convinced that Russian operatives systematically interfered in the 2016 elections, including hacking into and illegally distributing campaign materials and in impersonating campaign operatives. Mueller defended the conclusions as anything but a hoax — though he did not use that word — and as a very serious attack on the nation.
Mueller asserted that Justice Department legal guidance prevented him from accusing the president of a crime and noting that the Constitution “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse the president of wrongdoing.” He noted his office found “insufficient evidence” to accuse Trump’s campaign of conspiring with Russia to tilt the election, but emphasized they did not make a similar determination on whether Trump obstructed justice.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” said Mueller. “It would have been unfair to potentially accuse the president of having committed a crime if that could not be settled in a court.”
No "total exoneration"
However cryptic the Mueller remarks, they were oceans away from Trump’s oft-repeated “total exoneration” claims, and from Barr’s summary of conclusions that supported the president’s exoneration claim. Mueller was careful in his remarks not to criticize Barr.
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.”
That’s not what the report said, and not what Mueller said. Once again, Trump was silent about what to do about Russian interference in the election, preferring to focus solely on himself, and not wanting to acknowledge that he had Russian help.
A president, Mueller said, cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office.
Mueller said his team was still allowed to investigate Trump because it was possible others could be charged. He did not say what they might have done if the law allowed a president to be charged, but hinted that lawmakers could still pursue the matter, noting that the Constitution “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse the president of wrongdoing.”
So, it wasn’t a witch hunt, it was a serious investigation of a breach of our nation’s elections. It was not an exoneration. And Mueller felt constrained about acting from the start.
The best way to read the Mueller remarks is to point like an arrow at Congress to decide whether to act.