Special counsel Robert Mueller delivered a valedictory statement Wednesday before he resigned from his two-year investigation into President Trump, saying he could not exonerate the president of criminal wrongdoing.
Though he’d said as much in his 448-page report, hearing it from the mouth of the man who spent two years investigating Mr. Trump was a dam-break moment for many Democrats on Capitol Hill and on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, who said Mr. Mueller’s statement was an invitation to begin impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
In a nine-minute statement from the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington Mr. Mueller said his work was done, he was shutting down the special counsel’s office and would resist calls to testify to Congress or speak publicly, saying his 448-page report spoke for itself.
But it was his summary that rekindled the impeachment fire for many Democrats.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mr. Mueller said. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
Yet he did make such a determination on one aspect of his investigation, saying there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude the president or his team conspired with Russia to subvert the 2016 election. But when it came to whether the president obstructed justice in trying to stymy investigations into the election, Mr. Mueller said they didn’t attempt to reach a conclusion because of the department’s policy.
“We concluded that we would not reach a determination, one way or the other, about whether the president committed a crime,” he said.
The seemingly contradictory statements fueled diametrically opposed reactions from the president’s supporters and his political opponents.
A host of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates said it’s time to pursue impeachment, though those lawmakers who would actually spearhead an inquiry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, were more circumspect, saying they will continue to pursue their ongoing investigations.
“It falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing,” the congressman said, adding that impeachment remains an option down the road.
“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report,” the president tweeted. “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, echoed the president’s sentiments.
“Today’s statement by Mr. Mueller reinforces the findings of his report. And as for me, the case is over,” the top Trump ally said. “Mr. Mueller has decided to move on and let the report speak for itself. Congress should follow his lead.”
The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, urged his colleagues on the left to back off their impeachment hunt.
“Relitigating the 2016 election and reinvestigating the special counsel’s findings will only further divide our country,” Mr. Collins said.
It’s not yet clear what role Mr. Mueller will play as Democrats do proceed on Capitol Hill.
He pointedly signaled his resistance to testifying. He said Wednesday’s statement was the only time he planned to speak about his investigation and if he called, his comments would likely disappoint lawmakers.
“Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report,” he said.
Mr. Nadler, who had been among those demanding Mr. Mueller appear publicly, begged off when asked if he still wants to hold that hearing.
“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we needed to hear today,” the chairman said.
But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and intelligence committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, said they still want to hear more from the special counsel.
Mr. Schiff said there are important counterintelligence matters, which Mr. Mueller could detail for Congress, related to his findings of Russian attempts to interfere in the election.
“While I understand his reluctance to answer hypotheticals or deviate from the carefully worded conclusions he drew on his charging decisions, there are, nevertheless, a great many questions he can answer that go beyond the report,” the congressman said.
The decision of whether to pursue impeachment remains deeply divisive among Democrats.
Key figures including House Oversight Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson said after Mr. Mueller’s report that impeachment is ripe.
“I support impeachment. The president has egregiously obstructed justice,” the Mississippi congressman tweeted.
Impeachment can happen through a majority vote in the House. But convicting the president requires a trial by the Senate, and support of two-thirds of senators is needed to remove him from office.
Given GOP control of the upper chamber, that’s not likely yet, Mrs. Pelosi said.
She also downplayed the amount of support for impeachment, saying it was 38 lawmakers out of 235 Democrats in the chamber. Only one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash, has publicly backed impeachment.
“Nothing is off the table. But we do want to make such a compelling case, such an iron-clad case that even the Republican Senate, which at the time seems to be not an objective jury, will be convinced,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
He stood alone at the lectern — in contrast to Attorney General William P. Barr, who in announcing the release of the report last month was flanked by then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan.
Mr. Mueller cited a Justice Department regulation as the reason he couldn’t pursue charges against Mr. Trump, undercutting claims by Mr. Barr that the president’s actions didn’t amount to obstruction.
“The Attorney General has previously stated that the Special Counsel repeatedly affirmed that he was not saying that, but for the OLC opinion, he would have found the President obstructed justice. The Special Counsel’s report and his statement today made clear that the office concluded it would not reach a determination — one way or the other — about whether the President committed a crime,” they said.
“There is no conflict between these statements,” the statement continued.
Mr. Mueller did try to ease some of the apparent tension between himself and Mr. Barr stemming from decisions surrounding the release of the report.
Mr. Mueller said he had fought for Mr. Barr to release broad summaries of the special counsel’s findings, but Mr. Barr withheld those, saying his goal was to get the full report out, in redacted form, as quickly as possible.
“At one point in time I requested that certain portions of the report be released,” Mr. Mueller said. “The attorney general preferred to make the entire report public all at once. We appreciate that the attorney general made the report largely public. I do not question the attorney general’s good faith in that decision”
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