Robert Mueller declares his Russia report did not exonerate President Trump
WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller said Wednesday that charging President Donald Trump with a crime was "not an option" because of federal rules, but he used his first public remarks on the Russia investigation to emphasize that he did not exonerate the president.
"If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," Mueller declared.
The special counsel's remarks stood as a pointed rebuttal to Trump's repeated claims that he was cleared and that the two-year inquiry was merely a "witch hunt." They also marked a counter to criticism, including by Attorney General William Barr, that Mueller should have reached a determination on whether the president illegally tried to obstruct the probe by taking actions such as firing his FBI director.
Mueller made clear that his team never considered indicting Trump because the Justice Department prohibits the prosecution of a sitting president.
"Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider," Mueller said. He said he believed such an action would be unconstitutional.
Mueller did not use the word 'impeachment," but said it was the job of Congress — not the criminal justice system — to hold the president accountable for any wrongdoing.
The special counsel's statement largely echoed the central points of his 448-page report, which was released last month with some redactions. But his remarks, just under 10 minutes long and delivered from a Justice Department podium, were extraordinary given that he had never before discussed or characterized his findings and had stayed mute during two years of feverish public speculation.
Mueller, a former FBI director, said Wednesday that his work was complete and he was resigning to return to private life.
His remarks underscored the unsettled resolution, and revelations of behind-the-scenes discontent, that accompanied the end of his investigation. His refusal to reach a conclusion on criminal obstruction opened the door for Barr to clear the president, who in turn has cited the attorney general's finding as proof of his innocence.
Trump, given notice Tuesday evening that Mueller would speak the next morning, watched on television. For weeks, he had been nervous about the possibility about the special counsel testifying before Congress, worried about the visual power of such a public appearance.
Shortly after Mueller concluded, the president who has repeatedly and falsely claimed that the report cleared him of obstruction of justice, tweeted a subdued yet still somewhat inaccurate reaction: "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"
While claiming victory, the tone of the president's tweet was a far cry from the refrain of "total exoneration" that has dominated his declarations.
Mueller has privately vented to Barr about the attorney general's handling of the report, while Barr has publicly said he was taken aback by the special counsel's decision to neither exonerate nor incriminate the president.
Under pressure to testify before Congress, Mueller did not rule it out. But he seemed to warn lawmakers that they would not be pulling more detail out of him. His report is his testimony, he said.
"So beyond what I have said here today and what is contained in our written work," Mueller said, "I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further about the investigation or to comment on the actions of the Justice Department or Congress."