On Wednesday, Robert Mueller spoke publicly in the way he should have weeks ago. He framed the findings of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether President Trump sought to obstruct the effort to determine what happened. The special counsel’s characterization differed sharply from the portrayal initially presented by William Barr, the attorney general, who opened the door to the president’s false claim of “complete and total exoneration.”
After Mueller spoke, the president tweeted: “The case is closed!” That isn’t accurate, either, at least as a summary of where things now stand.
Mueller stated in so many words that his job involved gathering the facts. He added that in those instances where the facts allowed, he could indict individuals for crimes, and he did, including the Russian intelligence officers who launched “a concerted attack on our political system.” One person he could not indict was the president. As Mueller explained, longstanding Justice Department policy blocks such a step because it would interfere with the capacity of the executive branch to do its job.
It also wouldn’t be fair to say whether the president committed a crime due to the lack of a legal avenue to clear his name. What Mueller reminded, and the report makes clear, is that the Constitution provides another process for weighing whether to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing. That’s right, impeachment. Which gets to why this case isn’t closed. Mueller has put forward a comprehensive collection of facts. Congress has the task of sorting through the information and arriving at a decision about the president’s fate.
This isn’t something lawmakers somehow can dodge. Mueller stressed: “The matters we investigated were of paramount importance.” He added a sentence later: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
Thus, it is incumbent on members of Congress, along with the rest of us, to read in its entirety or become most familiar with the special counsel’s report. For instance, the second volume describes nearly a dozen occasions during which the president sought to interfere with or halt the investigation. That includes urging aides to falsify the record and leaning on the FBI director to go easy on Michael Flynn when the president knew his then national security adviser was the subject of a criminal investigation.
William Barr has concluded the president did not obstruct justice. Yet roughly 900 former federal prosecutors, under Democratic and Republican presidents, have said the facts point to “multiple felony charges” for obstruction. They stressed in a letter “these are not matters of close professional judgment.”
For Congress, this is about the political and constitutional more than the legal. What are “high crimes and misdemeanors”? That is why many were heartened by the progression of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican. He read the Mueller report and then arrived at his conclusion that the president crossed into impeachable offenses. He also told the Washington Post that “few members” have read the report.
If true, that is a shame, and more so in view of the Mueller statement this week. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated her wish to proceed deliberately. That is a responsible course, as part of informing the public and lawmakers in both parties, and seeking a sound decision. Robert Mueller hasn’t made it easy in stating again: “ … if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” It falls to Congress to determine the significance of what the report doesn’t say.