Mueller Breaks His Silence—Without Breaking Protocol

The career G-man is bound by the rules. He made it clear that the president is bound only by Congress.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters / Alex Brandon / AP / The Atlantic

Robert Mueller isn’t letting Congress off the hook.

The special counsel on Wednesday used his first public comments in more than two years to lay out the limits of his position—both as he pursued the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, and in his ability to decide what should happen as a result of his 448-page report.

All told, the image and sound of the scripted, occasionally halting words of the former FBI director—previously seen only in B-roll footage and a limited sampling of recent photographs—sharpened the contrast between the rule-bound Mueller and a president forever seeking to shirk his constraints. Mueller’s statement was the careful explanation of the career bureaucrat, amounting to a recitation of the rules, regulations, and principles he chose to abide by. And it highlighted the inherent disadvantage he faced going up against a president committed to none of them.

If the written Mueller report was an invitation for Congress to act against the president, his 10-minute statement on Wednesday served as a reminder for Congress to reply. He never urged a specific remedy—impeachment or any other—but Mueller made clear that his work was done, that he had provided all he could. His work complete, he said he was resigning from the Department of Justice and returning to private life. One of the last remaining open questions—whether Congress will get access to the special counsel’s underlying evidence—will be decided by people other than him.

Mueller, reading a prepared statement from a lectern at the Department of Justice and taking no questions from reporters, explained more succinctly than he did in his exhaustive report why he did not—could not—pursue an indictment against the president. “Charging the president with a crime,” he said, citing long-standing Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president, “was therefore not an option we could consider.”

And he offered a warning to Democrats insisting that he testify before Congress, where they hope he’ll provide more ammunition for their argument that both Trump and Attorney General William Barr have abused the power of their office. “My report is my testimony,” Mueller declared. “I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

Mueller did allow himself one bit of commentary, one small push for a debate that has focused much more on one half of his findings than the other. “I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments—that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” he said. “That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

In the immediate future, however, the nation’s attention will likely remain on the question of impeachment—and whether Mueller’s cautious message on Wednesday will push any additional wary Democrats toward the side of beginning an inquiry.

If Mueller was reluctant to judge the president, Trump took the exit as one more constraint he had slipped. Less than an hour after Mueller left the stage, Trump’s lawyer and press secretary issued two more statements claiming the exoneration that Mueller pointedly refused to give. “The report was clear—there was no collusion, no conspiracy—and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction,” said Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary. “Special Counsel Mueller also stated that Attorney General Barr acted in good faith in his handling of the report. After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same.”

Mueller referred repeatedly to the Constitution as an overriding guide for his investigation, and principally as the basis for the legal opinion that a president cannot be charged with a crime while in office. “The opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal-justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” he noted. He chose not to explicitly identify the process—impeachment—and the institution responsible for overseeing it—Congress—but his reference to the legislative branch as the proper arbiter of potential presidential crimes was unmistakable.

Democratic leaders have been reluctant to pursue impeachment, worried about a political backlash from voters and hopeful that they will remove Trump from office on their own next year. But the dynamic has shifted in recent weeks as the president has pursued a strategy of all-out defiance of congressional subpoenas, essentially daring Democrats to pull a lever they’d rather not touch. More and more rank-and-file Democrats have come out in favor of at least initiating impeachment hearings, and the first Republican, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, joined them last week.

Mueller’s prodding for Congress to step in, subtle as it was, may push Democrats closer still. “Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies, and other wrongdoing of President Trump—and we will do so,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in response to Mueller’s statement. “No one, not even the president of the United States, is above the law.” Amash, who had offered Democrats at least a hint of the bipartisanship they were seeking, was more pointed: “The ball is in our court, Congress,” he tweeted.

Mueller took many more words to make the same point. He delivered a message to Democrats that he had pursued the president as far as the rules would allow. They might want more—his personal opinions, the weight of his testimony—but he insisted that his report, all 448 pages of it, would have to be enough. They—the constitutionally designated judge and jury of the president—would have to take it from there.