In Brief Public Statement Robert Mueller Very Definitely Does Not Let Trump Off The Hook

“Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say
so long”

If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

The Special Counsel says a lot in a very short period of time. Mueller, at the Justice Department, begins and ends his 10-minute statement talking about Russia, specifically two different clandestine operations to interfere in the 2016 election. (Here’s a link to video of his entire statement. And here’s a link to a text version.) In fact, he seems to want his central message to be today that Russia interfered a lot, and not enough is being done by the U.S. government to fix it, and make sure they don’t get a free pass to repeat in 2020. While Mueller is very cool and on an even keel throughout, the fact that he book-ended his statement reminding people that a full 1/2 of his 448 page final report was about documenting Russian interference is in one way highly significant; in another way not significant at all.

Here’s Mueller talking about Russia:

Fast forward to the end of Mueller’s comments, and he closes by saying:

I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments: That there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

But of course, politicians, and the media, and people on Twitter, and the public in general, and Trump, won’t refocus on the Russia part of the report. And the truly shocking conclusions about organized campaign interference by Russia will continue to be lost in all the brou-ha-ha about possible obstruction by Trump, and the exponential brou-ha-ha Trump’s creating by egging his Attorney General Bill Barr on to investigate the investigators. (Mueller also delivered a full-throated endorsement of basically everyone who worked on his investigation, which was as close as he came to a direct rebuke of any of the harangues the President has directed at people on the Mueller team, and others involved at the Justice Department and F.B.I.)

That’s on top of the fact that, as we’ve mentioned before, it’s not really in the Trump Administration’s best interests to combat Russian interference, especially if they’re confident Russia’s efforts will be 100% in support of Trump. Also, the Department of Homeland Security seems singularly focused on the Southern Border these days, even though putting a wall up against election interference is also their job. (Although if Trump’s trade war with China continues into next year, and China decides to use its hacking resources against Trump, it could set up a very interesting and absurd battle that should never be allowed to happen and headed off now.)

No, what everyone’s going to focus on is Mueller’s pointed comment that we referred to at the top of this piece:

If we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

And his explanation of why he ultimately did not bring obstruction charges against Trump. To paraphrase: he couldn’t, even if he wanted to.

Here’s that part of Mueller’s statement, which is very much worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already (click on the photo to watch):

It’s a little confusing, so we also transcribed part of it, so you don’t have to keep watching it over and over, which is what we found ourselves doing. Text in bold is our emphasis:

Mueller: “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime. The introduction to the Volume II of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing department policy, a president can not be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that too is prohibited. The Special Counsel’s Office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider. The department’s written opinion explaining the policy makes several important points that further informed our handling of the obstruction investigation. Those points are summarized in our report, and I will describe two of them for you. First, the opinion explicitly explicitly permits the investigation of a sitting president because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available. Among other things, that evidence could be used if there were co-conspirators who could be charged now. And second, the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing. And beyond department policy, we were guided by principles of fairness. It would be unfair to potentially — it would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge. So that was Justice Department policy. Those were the principles under which we operated, and from them, we concluded that we would — would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime.”

“Would”. Which Mueller repeats for emphasis. Not could. Make of that what you want.

Before we move on, we also want to point out that as comprehensive as his explanation may be, Mueller still does not adequately explain why he gave up on doing a one-on-one sit down with the President, which he describes in his report as “vital”. Settling instead for written answers, most of which were along the lines of what Mueller, in his report, charitably calls “a lack of recollection”. Responses that Mueller, also in his report, calls inadequate. But it’s pretty clear at this point we’re never going to get a good answer to that, so let’s move on

To some, Mueller’s extended explanation above will appear to be a green light for Congress to pursue its investigation of Trump, and maybe even initiate impeachment proceedings. (And frankly, that door was opened in the report as well, but not as cleanly as Mueller today.)

At the same time, Mueller tried to make it clear that if that does happen, that if the investigation of the President does continue in Congress, he wants no part of it. Mueller explaining he feels his report “speaks for himself”, and if called before Congress all he’d be able to do is repeat what’s already in the report.

O.K. Fine. Let him come before Congress and repeat himself. Because often hearing a person say something out loud—especially someone with as much gravitas as Mueller—has a much different, and much more indelible impact than words on 448 pieces of paper.