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Why Mueller saying his probe wasn’t “curtailed” has nothing to do with obstruction

This should allay any lingering concerns that Mueller wasn’t able to carry out the investigation on its own terms. It means nothing when it comes to the obstruction of justice inquiry.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify to the House Judiciary Committee on July 24, 2019.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller arrives to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on July 24, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Wednesday that his investigation was not hindered or curtailed, reassuring anyone worried that he wasn’t able to fully carry out the inquiry.

Mueller made this assertion in response to questioning from Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. Collins, in a series of rapid-fire questions, asked the special counsel whether “your investigation [was] curtailed or stopped or hindered?”

“No,” Mueller responded.

This doesn’t undercut the evidence of obstruction of justice against President Donald Trump — intent to commit obstruction can include “corrupt conduct” that’s capable of preventing justice from being done. But there had been lingering questions about whether it had been curtailed in another way.

Mueller’s investigation lasted 22 months, and Mueller delivered his final report in March, so based on the available evidence, the special counsel’s office wrapped up on its own terms.

But because the public had little insight into the inner workings of the special counsel’s office, Mueller’s testimony should dispel any suppositions that those overseeing the investigation — including Attorney General William Barr — or any official at the Department of Justice tried to curtail or intercede in the investigation.

Barr has come under scrutiny for steering the public narrative around the report, which was very sympathetic to President Donald Trump. Barr concluded that the president did not obstruct justice when he selectively released the “principal conclusions” of the 448-page text in March that largely absolved the president — though Mueller’s report was far more complicated and said that while it didn’t conclude the president committed a crime, “it also does not exonerate him.”

But from Mueller’s testimony, Barr — along with former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and once-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker (who previously testified to this, too), who also oversaw the investigation at various points — did not restrain the probe.

This should allay any remaining Democratic fears of interference from the Justice Department.

At the same time, this doesn’t discount Mueller’s investigation into potential obstruction of justice by Trump — though Republicans are certainly going to try to use that as a talking point to defend the president. (Including Trump himself, less than a few hours after the exchange happened.) Mueller’s team succeeded in carrying out the probe, but Mueller’s report examines Trump’s attempts to shut it down, which were thwarted by his aides. Or, as the report states: “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”

But beyond the attempts at political spin, Mueller’s answer is a reassuring sign for the rule of law — that even in these hyperpartisan times, the purpose and mission of the special counsel’s office largely succeeded.

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