Mueller, for his part, has been criticized for the passages in his final report that decline to “exonerate” the president, which his critics have seen as little different from Comey’s commentary about Clinton’s conduct. But there is a clear difference between the two cases. Mueller’s comments on the limits of his charge arose from a legal source that introduced, as far as he was concerned, serious complications into his legal assessment of the president’s conduct.
Read: James Comey’s “duty of candor” was his undoing
Mueller read Office of Legal Counsel opinions on presidential immunities to disallow a prosecutorial judgment as well as a prosecution, and after laying out the evidence of Trump’s obstructive actions, he decided to stress that nothing in his failure to reach a conclusion constituted an exoneration. It may have been an awkward move, but it remained within the realm of legal presentation—a fair distance from any Comey-like statement such as, “While I cannot find that the president committed a crime, his actions were reckless, inconsistent with the norms governing the relationship between his office and the Department of Justice and reflected poorly on his judgment.”
Mueller was averse to leaks, or to any public comment whatsoever, and when he did speak publicly about his report, it was largely with the aim of emphasizing that he would speak no more. Mueller seems likely to remain silent. Comey has gone on speaking tours, has tweeted his views about the administration, and has written a book and periodic opinion pieces for editorial pages. (And, of course, he had more to discuss by the time he left office: His conflict with President Donald Trump. Even there, Comey chose to take matters into his own hands, and, once gone from the administration, he leaked memos he’d prepared as FBI director to induce the appointment of a special counsel.)
But despite these very different approaches, by the time Comey wrapped up the Clinton investigation and Mueller signed off on his report on Russian electoral interference and presidential obstruction, they ended up at much the same place: targets of immense frustration. Comey was maligned by Democrats for inflicting political injury on Clinton, then by Republicans for what they saw as his pursuit of a lawless, underhanded vendetta against Trump; in both cases, the criticism was largely that, for reasons of misguided ethical zeal or unbounded vanity, he had ignored legal limits and crashed through norms.
Mueller’s sin was often described in very much the opposite way: as the pulling of his punches, reflected in the confusing, half-in and half-out analysis of possible obstruction of justice. The New York Times editors who had praised him as “one of the few people with the experience, stature and reputation to see the job through” when he was appointed suggested this week that “as the foremost expert on the president’s questionable doings, with expertise earned on the taxpayer’s dime,” he had proved too fearful that he would “endanger [his] own image by expressing a forthright view of those doings, even if the future of the Republic might be at stake.”