Special counsel Robert Mueller stepped off the national stage on Wednesday but not before sending a very clear message to the country: Donald Trump got very, very lucky.
Mueller’s 10-ish minute statement came after a nearly two-year-long investigation into Russia’s attempted interference in the 2016 election and whether the President, or anyone close to him, had obstructed that probe. Mueller’s words on the charge of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign largely comported with the 400+ page report released by the special counsel’s office this spring, making clear that there was “insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.”
But it was Mueller’s words on the possibility that Trump had sought to obstruct the investigation where Mueller clearly wanted to leave his mark. He emphasized two things of real importance – both of which, with a bit of reading between the lines, provided a glimpse into what Mueller really thinks regarding Trump and obstruction. Here they are:
1) “If we had had confidence that the President had clearly not committed a crime, we would have said so.”
2) “Charging the President with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider.”
Let’s take those statements one by one.
The first is an echo of a key line in the Mueller report – and one that Attorney General William Barr included in his four-page summary letter sent to Congress in the immediate aftermath of the Justice Department receiving the report – that said this: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Trump ignored that line in his assessment of the report’s findings, tweeting: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!”
Remember that Mueller is someone who chooses his moments – and his words – very carefully. (He barely spoke publicly for the entirety of the special counsel investigation.) So, it’s impossible to dismiss the fact that Mueller called out specifically the report’s finding that the President had not been exonerated on obstruction. In fact, Mueller reiterated the fact that, had his office been able to exonerate Trump, they would have done that. And they did not.
That point leads to Mueller’s second critical statement. There’s been much debate as to whether Mueller would have indicted Trump on obstruction if the special counsel’s office was not governed by Justice Department precedent that said a sitting President cannot be indicted. Attorney General William Barr told a Senate committee earlier this month that Mueller “stated three times to us in that meeting, in response to our questioning, that he emphatically was not saying, but-for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would’ve found obstruction.”
It’s impossible to hear Mueller’s assertion on Wednesday that “charging the President with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider” as anything but a direct response (and rebuttal) to that claim by Barr. Mueller said flatly Wednesday that the reason that the special counsel’s office did not consider charging Trump with obstruction was because it was not an option he was allowed to consider under Justice Department precedent.
Could you reconcile the two statements – Barr’s to the Senate and Mueller’s today? Maybe. You could understand Mueller’s statement as saying his office didn’t consider charging Trump because of the OLC ruling, not that they didn’t actually charge Trump for that reason. That would make the comments by Barr and Mueller both true. And that’s possible, but man, it feels like a stretch.
Mueller knew – or at least hoped – this would be his last major moment in the klieg lights. He chose his words carefully. He emphasized certain elements of his report, particularly where he and Barr seemed to differ, purposely. He wanted to make clear where his hands were tied, why they were tied and what that tying them meant for his ability to bring a case against Trump.
What Mueller was saying Wednesday is actually better understood by what he was not saying – and what he was not saying was that the President of the United States was an innocent victim in all of this. (And Trump claimed just that in a tweet following Mueller’s statement, “Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you,” Trump tweeted.)
Mueller didn’t say there was no obstruction by the President. Mueller didn’t say he wouldn’t have charged Trump even without the guiding OLC ruling. And in so doing, he said a whole hell of a lot.