Mueller's desire to avoid congressional testimony creates roadblock to impeachment

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller briefly broke his silence on Wednesday, but he indicated he has no desire to speak again anytime soon.

“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner. I am making that decision myself,” Mueller said, adding, “There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. ... We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself, and the report is my testimony.”

Mueller also said that, since his investigation was concluded, he would be closing the office of the special counsel and resigning from the post.

Trump allies were quick to suggest Mueller’s remarks closed the book on his probe of the president. The president’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, told Yahoo News that Mueller’s resignation “puts a period on a two-year investigation that produced no findings of collusion or obstruction against the president.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was similarly emphatic in her statement. “After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same,” Sanders said.

Some Democrats haven't given up on calling for the special counsel to testify before Congress, but Mueller’s desire to remain behind the scenes has put them in a complicated position as they ponder their next steps.

Mueller’s remarks were the first he has made publicly about his office’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump obstructed that investigation. They answered some of the questions that have swirled around the special counsel’s office since April 18, when the Department of Justice released a redacted version of Mueller’s report.

In the report, Mueller outlined his conclusion that the Kremlin mounted an extensive campaign to boost Trump in the election. Mueller’s team documented evidence showing Trump’s inner circle had multiple contacts with Russian government associates and that his campaign hoped to “benefit” from Moscow’s efforts. The investigation led to charges against multiple officials on Trump’s campaign for financial misconduct and for lying about their contacts with people linked to Russia.

Mueller’s conclusions about whether the president committed obstruction of justice were far less definitive. While Mueller described a slew of actions by the president that could have been considered obstruction, he ultimately left the choice about whether to charge the president with that crime up to the attorney general.

The major question Democrats had in the wake of the Mueller report’s release was why the special counsel did not make a more definitive ruling on the question of obstruction.

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller makes a statement on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election at the Justice Department in Washington, U.S., May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

According to Mueller, his investigation did not exonerate Trump, but his decision not to make a determination about whether the president’s conduct constituted obstruction was informed by guidelines from the DOJ’s office of legal counsel that declared a sitting president cannot be charged with a federal crime.

“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.”

Mueller cited Justice Department policy that prohibits charging a sitting president with a federal crime. “The special counsel’s office is part of the Department of Justice and by regulation it was bound by that department policy,” he said. “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”

Yet Mueller’s comments appear to contradict what acting Attorney General William Barr said in a press conference ahead of the report’s release on April 18. Barr indicated the department policy on sitting presidents did not affect Mueller’s decision making when he discussed the special counsel’s findings last month. Mueller made it clear that he had not made the determination that there was a crime,” Barr said.

Spokespeople for the acting attorney general and the special counsel did not respond to requests for comment about the apparent discrepancy between their remarks.

This is not the first time statements by Mueller and Barr have been at odds. Back in March, after Barr released a four-page summary of Mueller’s report, the special counsel sent the acting attorney general a letter saying the summary created “public confusion” because it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”

Mueller’s desire to avoid testifying before Congress also complicates matters.

House Democratic leadership has sent mixed messages about potential impeachment proceedings. In an interview that was published in March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested impeachment would be “divisive.” Following Mueller’s remarks on Wednesday, Pelosi spoke at an event in San Francisco where she said “nothing is off the table” for the Democrats.

Nevertheless, prior to Mueller’s comments, a Democratic source told Yahoo they believed impeachment ultimately will happen, but there are important strategic considerations about the timing. The source pointed out that Republican control of the Senate makes it unlikely any impeachment proceedings would end with Trump’s ouster, so impeaching Trump would likely only be useful to Democrats as a tool to damage Trump.

Impeachment can be rapid — for example, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton that began in 1998 lasted less than two months — so Democrats have an incentive to time the proceedings to give Trump less time to recover in advance of next year’s election. According to the source, the ideal way to launch impeachment proceedings would involve televised congressional testimony that could expand on the special counsel’s conclusions and also expose them to members of the public who haven’t been following the matter closely.

Special counsel Robert Mueller leaves the podium after speaking at the Department of Justice Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Washington, about the Russia investigation. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

But having Mueller testify is central to this strategy and his reluctance to do so, coupled with former aides of Trump’s who are not cooperating with congressional subpoenas, would seem to deal a major blow to any Democrat hoping for a protracted and highly publicized impeachment rollout.

This plan depends largely on Democratic House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler making an effort to compel Mueller to testify.

“He must testify. Nadler has to get this done,” the source said.

Nadler held his press conference of his own on Wednesday afternoon, when he said Mueller made clear the president is “lying” when he claims to have been exonerated. When asked about impeachment, Nadler said, “All options are on the table and nothing should be ruled out.”

However, Nadler did not seem eager to force Mueller to testify before his committee. When pressed on the issue, Nadler answered after a noticeable pause.

“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today,” he said.

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