WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller said that charging President Trump with obstruction of justice was “not an option” he’d ever been able to consider due to a Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president.
In his first public remarks since launching his historic investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mueller emphasized that the investigation did not clear the president of the crime of obstruction of justice: "If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so."
The special counsel's first public words contradict Trump’s repeated assertion that the report fully exonerated him. Instead, Mueller made clear that he couldn't have slapped a charge on Trump no matter what evidence he’d uncovered. He also noted that the introduction to the obstruction section of the report “explains that under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office.”
The White House, however, stuck to its story. "The report was clear — there was no collusion, no conspiracy — and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction," Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the president tweeted: "The case is closed! Thank you."
Although the report, first released on April 18, didn’t make a determination on the obstruction charges, it did determine that the president and members of his inner circle had not entered into a criminal conspiracy in an effort to influence the 2016 election.
Mueller’s explanation of the lack of obstruction charges on Wednesday also appears at odds with an assertion by Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee who's only been in the job since February. During a press conference in April, Barr said Mueller had insisted that his decision not to charge Trump didn’t rest entirely on the Department of Justice’s legal opinion, which dates back to the early 1970s.
Yet on Wednesday, Mueller hammered home the message that the longstanding DOJ policy was central to his thinking.
“It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge,” Mueller said. “We concluded that we would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime.”
Mueller’s report had made these points already, though in lawyerly language that seemed to leave room for Trump’s supporters and critics to argue about what, exactly, Mueller had been trying to say.
A month before the release of the report in partially-redacted form, Barr announced that he’d made the determination himself that Trump had not committed the crime of obstruction of justice — despite the report’s lack of a conclusion and detailed review of potential evidence to the contrary. Barr has said that evidence was not sufficient for criminal charges, regardless of the DOJ opinion. But on Wednesday, Mueller steadfastly refused to back up Barr’s view.
Since the report's release, Democrats in Congress have clamored for Mueller to answer questions in televised hearings about his findings. They’re arguing that most Americans haven’t actually read the 400-page report he filed with Barr in late March.
While Mueller left open the possibility of appearing before Congress, he suggested that anyone looking to understand his work would need to read the report itself, and that any further testimony from him wouldn’t go much beyond reiterating what the document says.
“I’m speaking out today because our investigation is complete,” Mueller said. “I’m resigning from the department of justice to return to private life. Beyond these few remarks, it’s important that the office’s written work speaks for itself.”
Cover image: Special counsel Robert Muller speaks at the Department of Justice Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Washington, about the Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)