Mueller denies probe cleared Trump, hands baton to Congress

2019-05-30 13:24
Robert Mueller.

Robert Mueller. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Robert Mueller said on Wednesday his two-year Russia investigation had not exonerated Donald Trump, but that he lacked the power to charge a sitting president - passing the baton to Congress where a growing chorus is clamoring for impeachment.

Making his first statement on the high-stakes probe into Moscow's interference in the 2016 election, the special counsel said he could not state that Trump committed no crime, having detailed at least 10 possible acts of obstruction by the president.

That oblique conclusion had left the American public confused when Mueller's summary findings were first released in March, allowing Trump to declare full exoneration.

Mueller sought to clarify on Wednesday that he had been bound by longstanding Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, no matter how strong the evidence.

"If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," he stressed.

Mueller said the case was now in the hands of Congress, where his statement immediately stoked fresh Democratic calls to open impeachment proceedings.

But Trump, who has assailed the Russia investigation as a treasonous "witch hunt" and a "hoax", declared the case over.

Trump declares 'case closed'

"Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent," he tweeted minutes after Mueller finished speaking.

"The case is closed! Thank you."

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren was one of half a dozen White House hopefuls who seized upon Mueller's remarks to urge Congress to impeach Trump.

"Mueller leaves no doubt," she tweeted. "The Constitution leaves it up to Congress to act - and that's impeachment."

But the Democratic leader in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, remained cautious about launching the politically fraught process 18 months before the next presidential election.

"The Congress will continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy. The American people must have the truth," she said, avoiding any mention of impeachment.

Obstruction question 'critical'

Mueller's brief, nationally televised statement came as he announced he was stepping down as special counsel and retiring from public service.

Mueller's 448-page report, finally released in redacted form on April 18, said it did not find evidence Trump's campaign conspired with Russian election meddling. But Mueller declined to rule whether Trump himself had committed a crime of obstruction.

The taciturn 74-year-old, long one of the most respected members of the Washington Justice establishment, explained that from the start of the investigation, charging Trump with any federal crime "was not an option that we could consider".

"It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge."

"Those were the principles under which we operated, and from them we concluded that we would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime."

Mueller emphasised however that the obstruction probe was a "critical" side of the investigation.

Given the Justice Department rule against charging a president, he said, it was up to Congress to follow up.

"The constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing," he said.

Pressure to impeach

A former director of the FBI, Mueller was rarely seen and never heard from as he conducted the Russia investigation in utter secrecy after being named to lead it on May 17, 2017.

His appointment stunned Trump, who, White House witnesses told investigators, numerous times sought ways to undermine or fire Mueller.

The Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee, which would manage an impeachment effort, has subpoenaed key Mueller probe witnesses, including former White House attorney Don McGahn and former top Trump aide Hope Hicks.

The White House has blocked McGahn's testimony, and could do the same for others.

Democrats are also battling with the Justice Department to gain access to an unredacted copy of the Mueller report as well as underlying documents and evidence.

Some argue that, by not allowing witnesses to appear and not handing over all the Mueller files, the White House is again obstructing justice.

Mueller meanwhile said he was adverse to testifying himself, saying the report speaks for the investigation.

"I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak about this matter," he said. "I am making that decision myself - no one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter."

He wrapped up by reiterating what he called "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."

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