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Mueller: Charging Trump Was 'Not An Option We Could Consider'

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 3:12 pm

Updated at 4:12 p.m. ET

Special counsel Robert Mueller shut down his Russia investigation on Wednesday in an unusual appearance in which he restated his findings and made clear that he never considered it an option to charge President Trump.

"We are formally closing the special counsel's office," Mueller told reporters at the Justice Department on Wednesday morning.

In his 10-minute statement, Mueller highlighted a few portions of his roughly 400-page report, including the section on whether President Trump obstructed justice.

"If we had had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so," he said. "We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime."

Mueller emphasized that Justice Department regulations do not permit the indictment of a sitting president. Accordingly, Mueller said, he never considered it an option to seek one no matter what he had uncovered.

If Americans or members of Congress want to hold a president accountable, Mueller said, an investigation like his is not the way.

"The [Justice Department's] opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing," Mueller said.

But the special counsel defended the need for his work and said he and his office had the merit to execute it. He noted the overarching findings on Russia's interference in 2016. The attack on the election was real, Mueller said — and it required a serious investigation.

"There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American," he said.

Mueller's remarks provided a subtle riposte to Trump and other critics who have described the special counsel as "conflicted" and leading a "witch hunt" based on a conspiracy to deny Trump the presidency in 2016.

The president's allies, including Attorney General William Barr, want to turn attention now to the investigators who took part in the early part of this case and reveal more about what surveillance took place.

Trump has authorized Barr to declassify intelligence or other findings.

The president and supporters say they want to uncover what they've said might be abuse of power by the FBI and Justice Department.

Skeptics, including the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said they are worried about the administration "weaponizing" intelligence and risking the sources and methods by which it was obtained.

End to the Mueller era

Mueller's investigation ran from May 2017 to March 2019.

One of his office's mandates from the Justice Department was to investigate whether Donald Trump's campaign coordinated with Russia in its election interference efforts.

Mueller found insufficient evidence to charge anyone with such a criminal conspiracy, despite detailing dozens of connections between people in Trump's orbit and those connected with Russia.

The special counsel also investigated whether the president obstructed justice over the course of the investigation. The report explicitly said it did not "exonerate" Trump on the question of obstruction.

Trump responded shortly after Mueller finished, saying that his statement and report changes "nothing."

"There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent," Trump tweeted. "The case is closed! Thank you."

Press secretary Sarah Sanders said Mueller's statement should mark a break for Washington to put the Russia imbroglio in the past.

"After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same," she said.

House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins, R-Ga., said Washington has too much important pressing business to continue litigating the Russia investigation.

"It is time to move on from the investigation and start focusing on real solutions for the American people, like fixing the crisis at the southern border and stopping China from stealing our intellectual property, Collins said.

The White House had been notified Tuesday night that Mueller might make a statement, an official said.

Mueller himself said on Wednesday he hadn't been encouraged or discouraged by anyone from talking publicly or with respect to his decision to testify before Congress. He did not sound eager about that.

Mueller declined to answer questions from reporters after his statement Wednesday and said he did "not believe it is appropriate" for him to testify before Congress, as House Democrats have asked.

The special counsel has said what he has to say, Mueller said.

"We chose those words carefully and the work speaks for itself," he said. "The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress."

That didn't dissuade House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who said on Wednesday afternoon that he would continue to call for Mueller to appear.

"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, including any counterintelligence issues and classified matters that were not addressed in his findings," Schiff said.

The ongoing political battle

Some critics of Trump read Mueller's remarks on Wednesday as a clear message aimed down Pennsylvania Avenue: The responsibility for taking action about Trump now rests with Congress.

"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," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Precisely what that means, however, isn't clear, as disputes continue to smolder between the most anti-Trump Democrats who want impeachment proceedings and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been more hesitant.

"Nothing is off the table," Pelosi said at an event in San Francisco.

She vowed that Democrats would hold the president accountable, but Pelosi also reiterated that House committees would continue with their investigations, and that only a minority of members of the House Democratic caucus publicly calling for impeachment.

Only about 35 of 238 House Democrats support impeachment, Pelosi said, but she also acknowledged that many Americans do too. The speaker said, in general terms, that "no one is above the law — especially the president of the United States."

House Democrats have also issued a subpoena for the full, unredacted text of his report and his supporting evidence — which the Justice Department won't provide.

Barr says the grand jury material in Mueller's report must remain secret under federal regulations and has recommended more broadly that the work is protected under executive privilege.

"We appreciate that the attorney general made the report largely public," Mueller said. "I certainly do not question the attorney general's good faith in that decision."

Mueller's statement also follows an account in a new book, Siege: Trump Under Fire by Michael Wolff, that described the special counsel's office as having prepared an indictment for Trump in connection with alleged obstruction of justice — the focus of Volume II of Mueller's report.

No such indictment was ever unsealed, and Mueller's reiterated his office's process and defended his team's decision not to attempt to bring charges against the president as in keeping with the Justice Department's policy prohibiting that.

"Charging a president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider," Mueller said Wednesday.

A spokesman told NPR that the documents described in the new book don't exist.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson contributed to this report.

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