WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller stressed on Wednesday in a rare press conference that under Department of Justice policy, his office did not consider it an option to charge President Trump with a crime as the special counsel’s team completed their investigation.
Mueller spoke for about 10 minutes Wednesday morning from a podium at the Justice Department, marking his first public appearance since launching a two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime,” he said, reiterating a key finding from his 448-page report.
Mueller said he was abiding by longstanding Justice Department policy, where “a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office… Charging a president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider.”
House Democrats weighing how to proceed in their investigations of a defiant administration took Mueller’s comments as a clear signal that they alone now have the authority to probe Trump’s actions.
“Special Counsel #Mueller’s statement today confirms both the evidence of obstruction by the President and the critical role of Congress under the Constitution going forward,” House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Mueller’s public appearance “adds new urgency” to the matter, “putting it front & center before Congress & the American people. He’s asking us to do what he wasn’t allowed to — hold the president accountable.”
Mueller mainly restated the contents of his written report Wednesday, but his remarks energized some in Congress who are clamoring to begin an impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) wrote after Mueller’s speech that “It’s clear now that Congress must hold hearings on the findings of the Special Counsel, including the witnesses who gave testimony to investigators. It’s time to officially start Impeachment Hearings.”
Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette wrote, “He said only Congress can hold the president accountable. That’s why we need to begin our impeachment inquiry NOW.”
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the lone congressional Republican so far to push for impeachment, said of Mueller’s comments that “The ball is in our court, Congress.”
Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer tweeted that “Special Counsel Mueller makes it clear that his investigation did not ‘exonerate’ Trump, and directly contradicts [Attorney General William] Barr’s public statements.” Beyer went one step further than most congressional Democrats saying “Barr should resign, and Congress should open an impeachment inquiry into the President’s potentially criminal acts.”
Other lawmakers still want Mueller to testify before Congress, although the special counsel made it clear that he is closing up shop and doesn’t plan to offer much more information — even if brought to the witness stand.
“I am speaking out today because our investigation is complete; the attorney general has made the report on our investigation largely public,” Mueller said. “We are formally closing the special counsel’s office and as well I’m resigning from the Department of Justice to return to private life.” He took no questions after his remarks.
Any congressional testimony he would offer “would not go beyond our report,” Mueller emphasized. “We will not comment on any other conclusions or hypotheticals about the president.”
He also noted that his office isn’t involved in conversations about congressional access to the evidence underlying his report, which lawmakers are seeking to obtain.
“While Mueller’s report confirmed Russian interference in our 2016 election and did not exonerate Trump from obstruction; there are still many questions left unanswered,” Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said afterward. “Mueller should testify before Congress. The American people deserve the whole truth.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) agreed. “Mueller needs to testify before Congress,” he wrote.
Michigan’s freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib turned the conversation again toward impeachment, saying in a statement Wednesday that “There are two things to take away from Robert Mueller’s statement today: President Trump was NOT cleared of wrongdoing in this investigation and we must fulfill our Constitutional responsibility as Congress to investigate this President through an impeachment inquiry.”
“Robert Mueller said it himself, ‘The Constitution requires a process outside the criminal justice system to accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,’” Tlaib continued. “That process is impeachment.”
Trump and his GOP allies, meanwhile, sustained their defense of the president.
“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 wrote on Twitter shortly after Mueller’s appearance.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) slammed Mueller’s purported lack of transparency in a tweet. “If @realDonaldTrump doesn’t take a question for a few weeks, the media claims democracy is on life support,” Gaetz wrote. “Robert #Mueller took 22 months to do the investigation. Followed by a 9 minute drive-by obstruction allegation. And then does not take a SINGLE QUESTION.”