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Robert Mueller’s first-ever public statement on the Trump-Russia investigation, explained

What the special counsel said — and didn’t say.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller leaves after speaking on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, at the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, on May 29, 2019.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller leaves after speaking on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, at the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, on May 29, 2019.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

At long last, special counsel Robert Mueller spoke — and he gave a summary of his report’s conclusions that was starkly different, less friendly to Trump, and more accurate than what Attorney General William Barr has been offering.

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said Wednesday morning. However, he went on to explain, Justice Department policy prevents the indictment of a sitting president. So, he said, “charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.” And for that and other reasons, he decided not to say one way or the other whether he thought Trump committed a crime.

This makes a stark contrast to Barr’s own conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump with an obstruction of justice offense — and to Trump’s own “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra.

Essentially, Mueller is saying that he concluded that he wasn’t even allowed to consider charging the president with a crime. And he’s also saying that he doesn’t have “confidence” that Trump “clearly did not commit a crime.” So, you know ... connect the dots, I guess?

Mueller clearly knew that his statement — the first time he’s spoken publicly about the probe since his appointment in 2017 — would get enormous attention, considering his previous silence. It comes amid renewed chatter about Trump’s potential impeachment among some Democrats (and one Republican) in the House of Representatives and calls for the special counsel to testify.

But Mueller made clear he does not want to testify — and if he is called, he won’t say much.

“Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report,” he said. “It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully and the work speaks for itself.” He continued: “The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

So on one hand, Mueller appears to be trying to put a more accurate summary of his conclusions in public view. On the other hand, he’s clearly attempting to bring his own role in this saga to a close; he made no explicit criticisms of Barr and made clear he has no intention of doing so. And he did not call on Congress to act or anything of the sort.

Mueller thinks Russian interference was very real — and won’t go so far as to say there was “no collusion”

The special counsel began by emphasizing the key topic he was appointed to investigate: Russian interference with the 2016 election — which, according to his indictments’ allegations and in contrast to Trump’s frequent skepticism, was very real.

“As alleged by the grand jury in an indictment, Russian intelligence officers who were part of the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system,” Mueller said. They allegedly used “sophisticated cyber technique to hack into computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign,” stole private information and then released it. These releases, Mueller said, “were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.” These include the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta’s email accounts.

Mueller also briefly mentioned the indictment of “a private Russian entity engaged in a social media operation where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to interfere in the election.” This is the Internet Research Agency case.

Mueller went on to say in his statement that his report includes “a discussion of the Trump campaign’s response to this activity” — “as well as our conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.”

This conspicuously does not go so far as Barr’s statement that “there was in fact no collusion” between Trump associates and Russia. Mueller will only say there was “insufficient evidence” to charge such a conspiracy. He is not opining on whether it did or did not happen. (Such an approach is common for prosecutors.)

Mueller also obliquely addressed the charges he filed against several Trump associates for lying to investigators or Congress, which Trump’s allies have dismissed as mere process crimes.

“The matters we investigated were of paramount importance. It was critical for us to obtain full and accurate information from every person we questioned,” Mueller said. “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” He didn’t name George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, or others, but this statement appears to describe why he charged them.

At the very close of his statement, Mueller summed up all this again “by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.”

“That allegation deserves the attention of every American,” he added.

On obstruction, Mueller continued to imply Trump wasn’t innocent without quite saying it

In between, Mueller went on to describe Volume II of his report, which described the obstruction of justice investigation into the president himself.

The report chronicles how Trump fired the FBI director, tried repeatedly to push out other Justice Department officials, tried to shut down the Russia and Flynn probes, tried to fire Mueller, praised witnesses who didn’t cooperate with Mueller, and attacked a loyalist who did.

Again, though, Mueller repeated the odd pair of statements he made in that report.

  • Mueller decided not to “make a determination as to whether the President did commit a crime,” he said.
  • But, he continued, “if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.” And, well, he didn’t say that.

The special counsel then attempted to explain the odd balance he struck.

Under “long-standing Department [of Justice] policy, a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office.” His office is bound by that policy, he said. So he couldn’t even “consider” charging Trump with a crime.

He then went on to make a few more points:

  1. That investigating the president is permissible to “preserve evidence” and to explore the possibility of “co-conspirators” who could be charged.
  2. That, per a Justice Department’s opinion, “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” As in: this is Congress’s job.
  3. Finally, in a point that is more sympathetic to Trump, Mueller thought it would simply be “unfair” to accuse Trump of a crime “when there can be no court resolution of an actual charge.”

So, he made his infamous decision not to outright say whether Trump committed an obstruction office. The suggestion is that he wasn’t prevented from making that decision by higher-ups — rather, he owns it. “That is the office’s final position and we will not comment on any other conclusions or hypotheticals about the president,” he said.

But again, there is that lingering line stating that “if he had confidence” that Trump “clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.” (The report includes a similar line.) So Mueller conspicuously declined to clear Trump. And that is very much not a finding of “no obstruction.”

He just won’t say what it is a finding of.

Mueller really does not want to testify

The other takeaway from Mueller’s statement is that he very much does not want to testify before Congress, as members of both parties have recently requested, and amid newfound chatter over the potential of an impeachment inquiry.

“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak about this matter,” Mueller said. He clarified: “I am making that decision myself. No one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter.” Again: he’s not being muzzled.

Congress could, of course, subpoena Mueller. But he implied that if they were to do so, he still would refuse to say much. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report,” he insisted.

Many members of Congress and the public will likely find that to be an unsatisfying answer. Even if Mueller doesn’t want to comment further or reveal more about the investigations into people who weren’t charged, his decision-making about the obstruction probe is a precedent-setting policy matter that arguably deserves transparency and review.

But Mueller sent a very clear message that, in his view, he’s done, and he intends to return to “private life.”

The statement also did not give off the sense that Mueller thought there was a nefarious cover-up going on involving William Barr.

The special counsel did describe one disagreement he had with the attorney general, but said he doesn’t question Barr’s “good faith.”

“At one point in time I requested that certain portions of the report be released,” 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.”

So that, it appears, is that. Mueller has issued his findings, said his piece, and the political system will have to decide what to do with it.

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