Special counsel Robert Mueller issued a rare and strongly worded statement on Wednesday, directly refuting the White House’s claim that his report exonerated President Donald Trump.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime,” he said during a press conference at the Justice Department.
The special counsel announced he was resigning his post following the conclusion of his office’s work, and reiterated the report’s conclusions, noting specifically that the 400-plus page document, released in April, “speaks for itself.”
“It’s important that the office’s written work speaks for itself,” he said, before outlining his office’s findings regarding Russia’s interference efforts in the 2016 election, and its investigation into allegations of obstruction by Trump and his associates.
Mueller’s report notably outlines at least 10 instances involving Trump that may have constituted obstruction of justice, though the special counsel appeared to defer to Congress to take the next step.
“The matters we investigated were of paramount importance,” he said. “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 efforts to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
Mueller’s comments directly contradict the president and his allies, who have repeatedly insisted that the document totally exonerates Trump of any wrongdoing, a faulty conclusion based largely on Attorney General William Barr’s misleading summary of the report. Though nothing Mueller stated Wednesday was new information — the special counsel mostly reiterated the findings contained in his report — his decision to say so publicly, considering his past silence on the matter, was considerably damning.
Mueller on Wednesday also refuted Barr’s previous claim that the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction had nothing to do with Justice Department regulation, which prohibits sitting presidents from being indicted.
In April, Barr spoke to reporters about his earlier summary of Mueller’s report, which effectively cleared Trump of any wrongdoing. (Mueller initially complained to Barr about that summary, saying it did not fully capture the context behind his conclusions, writing to the attorney general on at least two occasions to express his concerns.)
When asked if the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction “had anything to do with the department’s long-standing guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel on not indicting a sitting president,” Barr lied, saying,
When we met with [Mueller] … we specifically asked him about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking a position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion. And he 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.
On Wednesday, Mueller pushed back.
“Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he’s in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited,” he said. “The special counsel’s office is part of that Department of Justice. As part of regulation, it was bound by that policy. Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”
He noted that the Justice Department’s “written opinion explaining the policy makes several important points that further informed our handling of the obstruction investigation,” suggesting that it was up to Congress to take the next step.
“Those points are summarized in our report,” he added. “…The [Office of Legal Counsel] says the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing. Beyond department policy, it would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge.”
Barr has been roundly criticized for mishandling the rollout of Mueller’s report, and for acting more as the president’s defense attorney than an impartial watchdog. In addition to his inaccurate summary back in March, Barr gave a press conference in April regarding the report and testified before Congress, both times reiterating his past statements on the matter, which Mueller classified as misleading.
Trump and his allies have also claimed Mueller’s report itself exonerates the president, a point Mueller pushed back on Wednesday, repeatedly.
The special counsel also effectively declined to testify before Congress, stating, once again, that his final report “speaks for itself.”
“There’s been discussion about an appearance before Congress,” he said. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis and reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully and the work speaks for itself.”
He added, “The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which has already been made public in an appearance before Congress.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) previously requested access to the report’s underlying evidence, as well as access to a full, unredacted version of the report and classified grand jury material. Barr has rejected those requests, refusing to work with Nadler to petition a judge to release the grand jury material and stating that the report is conclusive on its own.
Mueller said this week he did not play a part in that decision, and would not be involved in it moving forward.
Trump himself reacted swiftly to Mueller’s statements Wednesday, tweeting shortly after the special counsel’s press conference, “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.”