Mueller, in First Comments on Russia Inquiry, Declines to Clear Trump

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, on Wednesday declined to clear President Trump of obstruction of justice in his first public characterization of his two-year-long investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mr. Mueller said, reading from prepared notes behind a lectern at the Justice Department. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”

He also said that while Justice Department policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a crime, the Constitution provides for another process to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing — a clear reference to the ability of Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.

Although his remarks closely matched statements contained in his more than 400-page report, Mr. Mueller’s portrayal of Mr. Trump’s actions was not as benign as Attorney General William P. Barr’s characterizations. While Mr. Barr has seemed to question why the special counsel investigated the president’s behavior, Mr. Mueller stressed the gravity of that inquiry.

“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” he said.

Mr. Mueller also stressed that the evidence his team uncovered of Russia’s effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election was a threat to the nation’s political system and “deserves the attention of every American.”

He suggested that he was reluctant to testify before Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee has asked. “The report is my testimony,” he said.

He said he was grateful to Mr. Barr for releasing the vast majority of the document, and did not expect to comment on it further. He said he was closing the special counsel’s office and returning to private life.

The White House was notified late Tuesday that Mr. Mueller would be making a statement, a senior White House official said. Mr. Barr was in Alaska meeting with tribal leaders and federal and local officials.

Mr. Mueller has been at the center of a fight between the Trump administration and House Democrats, who want to hear from him about his nearly two-year investigation into Russia’s election interference, possible coordination with the Trump campaign and whether President Trump obstructed justice. The special counsel team concluded that there was no conspiracy by the Trump campaign to coordinate with Russia’s campaign of sabotage.

After Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report was released with redactions in April, House Democrats have sought the entire text and underlying evidence. Mr. Trump has said he would block all subpoenas from Democrats, stymieing their oversight efforts on a variety of issues, including whether he obstructed justice. Some Democrats and one Republican, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, have begun calling for an impeachment inquiry.

Mr. Mueller objected to the portrayal of the special counsel’s findings provided by Mr. Barr. In particular, Mr. Mueller disputed Mr. Barr’s characterization that the report’s conclusions cleared the president from charges of obstruction of justice. In the report, Mr. Mueller detailed 11 instances in which prosecutors investigated whether the president was deliberately trying to obstruct the investigation.

[As special counsel, Mr. Mueller kept such a low profile he seemed almost invisible.]

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mr. Mueller and his investigators wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”

After Mr. Barr framed the findings, Mr. Trump declared himself vindicated. And Mr. Barr was said to be frustrated that Mr. Mueller did not make a decision about charging Mr. Trump for any of those 11 instances and instead left it to Mr. Barr.

Democratic lawmakers want to hear from Mr. Mueller directly about whether he would have recommended charges were it not for the Justice Department’s position that a sitting president could not be indicted.

Mr. Trump announced last week that he was delegating extraordinary powers to Mr. Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia inquiry and declassify documents from American intelligence agencies. The move prompted concerns among Democrats and current and former national security officials about the politicization of intelligence, such as the administration declassifying only materials that support Mr. Trump’s view that the investigators illegally opened the inquiry.

The debate over whether Mr. Mueller would testify to Congress started even before the report was released. And Mr. Trump has vacillated on whether House Democrats could question Mr. Mueller while he was an employee of the Justice Department.

The House Judiciary Committee has recommended that Mr. Barr be held in contempt of Congress for his refusal to release the entire report and underlying evidence. Portions of the report were redacted to protect secret grand jury information, privacy and open investigations.

Per: The New York Times

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