Mueller finally speaks: “charging the president was not an option we could consider”

In brief remarks, the Special Counsel reiterated his position that his investigation did not exonerate the president of any wrongdoing.

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In a rare public statement – his first and only since he was appointed to investigate election interference into the 2016 campaign two years ago – Special Counsel Bob Mueller addressed the nation from the press briefing room at the Department of Justice to say that the report “speak[s] for itself.”

Announcing his resignation and the shuttering of the Special Counsel’s office, Mueller emphasised that “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Crucially, underscoring what many analysts have said, Mueller reiterated that his investigation “did not exonerate” the president of any crime. “Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he’s in office. That is unconstitutional,” Mueller said. “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”

In what many will see as a reiteration of the report’s invitation to Congress to impeach, Mueller said that “the constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a president of wrongdoing.”

This, which is essentially a repeat of the legal argument he laid out in the full report, can be seen as a rebuke to the administration’s line that the report was a “complete and total exoneration” of the president.

Reiterating his words from the report, Mueller said again that if he “had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” but added that, due to the constitutional bars against doing so, “we did not … make a determination as to whether the President did commit a crime.”

Mueller, who spoke with the same circumspect style in which he writes, didn’t go further in his public statement today than in the report itself. And he said that any Congressional testimony would be the same. “There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress,” he said. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. 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. And the report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

The problem here is that Mueller is applying a legal thought framework to what is ultimately a political exercise. Trumpworld will not find anything in Mueller’s statement that prevents them from continuing to claim “no collusion!” – as he said himself, Mueller did not make a determination as to whether President Trump committed a crime.

The fact that Mueller made the legal decision, based on the long-standing Department of Justice policy of not indicting a sitting president, to not make that determination means however that his findings are now a political football.

Mueller’s position is vague enough that the next step – which would be impeachment proceedings – represents a difficult political decision for the Democrats. Unlike Mueller, the Democrats have to factor in the political costs of a possible impeachment. Will it help them or hurt them in 2020?

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.