(Bloomberg) — Special Counsel Robert Mueller said Wednesday that he couldn’t reach a conclusion on whether Donald Trump obstructed justice, as he stopped short of delivering a full exoneration of the president.
“If we had had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime we would have said so,” Mueller said in his first public remarks in the two years since he was named special counsel. He defended his investigation, as he announced that he was closing his office and stepping down.
Mueller sent a clear signal to House Democrats who have demanded his testimony that he won’t provide any information that hasn’t already been made public. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond this report,” he said.
The special counsel also said he found “insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy” on election interference.
Soon after, Trump tweeted: “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.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders added in a statement, “After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same.”
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who has been negotiating with Mueller on testifying to his panel, said that “the Constitution points to Congress to take action to hold the president accountable.”
“Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump — and we will do so,” Nadler said in a statement.
Read Special Counsel Mueller’s Full Statement
Mueller’s remarks came amid fierce partisan disputes over the 448-page report he completed two months ago on Russian interference in the 2016 election, any links to the Trump campaign and whether Trump sought to obstruct justice. Mueller underscored that Justice Department policy prevented him from considering criminal charges against Trump.
“Under long-standing department policy a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional,” he said. “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”
That appears to contradict what Attorney General William Barr said publicly, when he disputed that Mueller’s decision not to charge Trump was based on the Justice Department policy, written by its Office of Legal Counsel.
Barr told reporters on April 18 that Mueller “made it very clear several times that that was not his position. He was not saying that but for the OLC opinion he would have found a crime,” he added. “He made it clear that he had not made the determination that there was a crime.”
Mueller’s report, with some redactions, was released by Barr on April 18 — but only after he issued summaries that Democrats said were tilted to favor Trump. Barr said Mueller reached no conclusion on obstruction of justice by Trump so he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made their own finding that there wasn’t evidence to make a criminal case against the president. The summaries led to Trump’s frequent tweets that Mueller found “NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION!”
Mueller complained about Barr’s summaries in a letter to the attorney general in March that later was made public.
“The summary letter the department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. Barr dismissed the complaint as “a bit snitty” in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mueller has been in negotiations with the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee, which wants to question him over his findings. The veteran prosecutor and former FBI director has balked at testifying in public, saying he doesn’t want to be dragged into a political fight, according to people who asked not to be identified discussing the continuing negotiations. Among the options Mueller has raised is making a public statement before taking questions from lawmakers behind closed doors.
While the special counsel’s probe has been closed, he had remained in his post as a Justice Department employee. His final report included notice that he referred 14 investigations to various U.S. attorneys, most of which still remain secret.
Democrats have said they want to know more about Mueller’s findings concerning Trump, particularly whether he tried to obstruct the investigation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has resisted calls from some members of her party to open impeachment proceedings against the president.
Several Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020 have called for impeachment, and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Senate Judiciary panel, joined that group Wednesday. “Robert Mueller’s statement makes it clear: Congress has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately,” he said on Twitter.
Republicans have their own set of questions, mostly related to the origins of the Russia probe that they say was tainted by anti-Trump bias among some FBI agents and Justice Department officials. Barr has opened his own review into the origins of the Russia investigation.
Mueller took the opportunity to defend his investigation in the face of heightened attacks by Trump and his allies to discredit a probe Trump regularly calls a partisan “witch hunt.” The special counsel said the efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 election deserved the Justice Department’s attention, were of “paramount importance” and “deserve the attention of every American.”
He also defended the investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice, saying “it was critical for us to obtain full and accurate information from every person we questioned. When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators it strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrong doers accountable.”
Trump has repeatedly accused Mueller’ staff of being “angry Democrats.” Mueller rebutted that, too, calling his attorneys and investigators individuals of the “highest integrity.”
Mueller’s investigation exposed a “sweeping and systematic” operation by the Russian government to interfere in the election, including making multiple contacts with officials associated with Trump’s presidential campaign. Barr released a redacted version of the report on April 18.
Although the investigation didn’t establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government, Mueller “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” according to his report.
“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report said.
Mueller also chronicled at least 10 instances in which Trump acted to obstruct the investigation, only to be stymied in some efforts by the refusal of his aides to carry out his orders.
“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,” according to the report. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
–With assistance from Billy House and Josh Wingrove.
To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at email@example.com;Shannon Pettypiece in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at email@example.com, Larry Liebert
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