WASHINGTON – The special counsel who investigated alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and possible coordination between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s campaign said on Wednesday that he never contemplated charging the current occupant of the White House with a crime because of Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president, shifting the responsibility to Congress to pursue the matter.
“Charging the president with a crime was not, therefore, an option we could consider,” Robert Mueller told a press conference at the Department of Justice, taking no questions from reporters after delivering his first public remarks since ending the Russia probe in April.
Mueller’s statement, in which he offered nothing new and nothing beyond what was contained in his report, was hailed by Trump, who tweeted minutes after the special counsel spoke: “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.”
Mueller said the first volume of his report, addressing the allegations of Russian meddling, concluded that while Moscow did engage in “systematic efforts” to interfere with the electoral process, there was “insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy” between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
The former FBI director then turned to the second volume of the report, which focuses on possible obstruction of justice by the president and his aides in the form of attempts to derail the investigation.
Regarding obstruction, Mueller said: “if we had 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.
The special counsel, who resigned effective Wednesday, stressed that it was not a question of being unable to make such a determination.
Rather, Mueller said, he and his team were bound by the long-standing Justice Department policy that “a president cannot be charged with a federal crime when he is president. It is not constitutional.”
“It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of an actual charge,” he said, noting that the “Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a president of wrongdoing.”
While some in Congress want to hear testimony from Mueller about the probe, the special counsel said that he does wish to appear before lawmakers or discuss the investigation in any other forum.
“I hope and expect this will be the only time I will speak to you in this manner,” he said.
“It’s important the office’s written work speaks for itself,” Mueller said of the report, which he delivered in March to Attorney General William Barr.
Mueller was emphatic that he had nothing to add to the findings stated in the report, a redacted version of which was made public last month.
Lawmakers have the right to compel Mueller’s testimony via subpoena.
The decision on whether to launch impeachment proceedings or take other action against the president is now in Congress’s hands, but Democrats are divided about the possible political implications such a move would have on their chances in the 2020 elections.
After Mueller spoke, Democratic House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a statement saying that “Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the President, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump – and we will do so.”
“No one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law,” Nadler added, going on to say that “All options are on the table, and nothing should be ruled out.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat, insisted last week that “nobody is above the law” in commenting on the president’s behavior and has been resisting the idea of launching impeachment proceedings although she has toughened her remarks about Trump in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, she said that “The Special Counsel’s report revealed that the president’s campaign welcomed Russian interference in the election, and laid out 11 instances of the president’s obstruction of the investigation. The Congress holds sacred its constitutional responsibility to investigate and hold the president accountable for his abuse of power.”
She said that Congress “will continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy. The American people must have the truth.”
Several key Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, both of whom are running for their party’s presidential nomination in 2020, along with popular Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, came out in favor of impeachment, while others warned that such a move could help Trump during the upcoming election campaign.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading in the polling for the Democratic presidential nod, said that “no one would relish what would certainly be a divisive impeachment process, but ... it may be unavoidable if this administration continues on its path.”
Although Democrats are in control of the House, where impeachment proceedings would start, the president would be tried in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, and many observers feel that conviction there is simply not in the cards because at least 20 of the 53 GOP senators would have to vote against Trump to attain the two-thirds majority that would ensure his ouster.