For the last two years, Robert Mueller has maintained his sphinx-like silence as he investigated Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. That has allowed politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, to use the special counsel to their own advantage. For Trump, he was a punching bag who didn’t hit back against attacks on his integrity. For Democrats, he was a ready-made excuse to their base for failing to impeach the president already: “Wait for the Mueller report” became the party’s semi-official refrain.
Mueller spoke about the investigation for the first time on Wednesday and made it clear that there’s nothing more to wait for — and that expecting a definitive recommendation from him was a mistake all along. He has investigated the facts, finished his report, and had his say. Mueller is not going to declare that the president’s a crook, and he’s not going to declare that he’s not. Make him testify before Congress, and the special counsel will just say it again: While he found no evidence to establish a conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, he could not clear the president of obstruction of justice.
His exact words: “If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.” The report lays out the facts that Mueller’s investigation established, including numerous instances of Trump trying to shut down or stymie the Russia investigation. But he makes clear that it’s not the place of a federal prosecutor to decide what to make of that evidence. That’s because sitting presidents can’t be charged with crimes under Justice Department guidelines. “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” he said.
The “process other than the criminal justice system” is impeachment. What Mueller is saying is that if Congress feels that Trump’s actions are unacceptable, its remedy is to impeach him.
If Mueller’s public statement accomplishes anything, it should be to reframe the debate over Trump’s actions in the Russia probe to one of presidential conduct rather than criminality. Is it OK for a president to fire the FBI director to derail an investigation into his actions? Do we want to live in a country where presidents criticize witnesses who cooperate with the government, and praise the ones who don’t?
Those are not questions that Robert Mueller should try to answer — they are political questions for Congress. It doesn’t matter whether Trump’s conduct would clear the bar for a criminal indictment, though hundreds of former federal prosecutors have said it does; what matters is whether Congress decides it’s a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Sure, Trump could be indicted after he leaves office as a result of this investigation or of other ongoing federal probes, but is that enough?
Those are the questions that the Congress — and, ultimately, the country — needs to consider. For Democrats, calling for further investigation — or for more testimony from Mueller — begins to look like a delay tactic. Mueller’s job was to investigate, and now he clearly wants to ride off into the sunset. His statement should be a reminder that at some point investigating the facts needs to yield to acting on them — or not.