Having completed his work as special counsel, Robert Mueller resigned from the Justice Department today and returned to private life. But before exiting the public stage, Mueller took several minutes to emphasize a handful of points he seemed eager for the public to know.That, in and of itself, was no small development – and not just because Americans never heard the special counsel utter a public word during his lengthy investigation. Mueller had the option of simply issuing a written statement announcing his departure. He also could’ve delivered perfunctory remarks, thanking his team and professional staff, before walking away.
But he didn’t. Mueller carefully chose some key areas of interest for the public to better understand. That makes his choices that much more important.
He began by emphasizing a point that Donald Trump has repeatedly denied.
“As alleged by the grand jury in an indictment, Russian intelligence officers, who were part of the Russian military, launched a concerted attack on our political system.”
He added that obstruction of justice is a serious matter.
“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 wrongdoers accountable.”
Mueller soon after addressed the investigation into obstruction of justice, highlighting the fact that he and his team did not exonerate the president.
“As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”
He then made it abundantly clear that Trump wasn’t charged, not because he’s innocent, but because the special counsel’s office lacked the legal authority to indict him.
“We did not … make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime. The introduction to volume two of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing Department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office…. 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.”
He added soon after that, according to the DOJ, “[T]he Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
It sure did seem as if Mueller was saying Trump could have – and perhaps would have – been charged if he weren’t a sitting president.
If you’ve read the Mueller report, none of these individual assertions stood out as new – because they weren’t. On the contrary, they were familiar because we’ve read them in the redacted document.
But that doesn’t make them unimportant. There is, for example, a qualitative difference between reading findings on the page and hearing a special counsel declare them on camera for the American public.
More important, though, is the fact that Mueller specifically framed the evidence in a way that told us exactly what he considers important.
And in this case, what Mueller considers important is the fact that Russia attacked our elections; obstruction of justice is a serious crime; Trump hasn’t been cleared; and Trump wasn’t indicted because he can’t be indicted while in office.
As for the road ahead, there’s been considerable interest in recent weeks in Mueller’s possible congressional testimony, but he added this morning that he does not want or expect that to happen:
“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak about this matter. I am making that decision myself – no one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter.
“There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself.
“The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
Whether lawmakers find this satisfactory remains to be seen, though the subtext of his remarks wasn’t altogether subtle: Mueller’s done and he expects Congress to take it from here.