WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller is that rare public figure who, in this age of bombast and baloney, still uses language with discipline and economy.
For two years as special counsel, he said not a word in public, and his office sprung nary a leak. Even when his purported friend Attorney General William Barr seriously mischaracterized his findings before releasing the report, Mueller kept quiet.
Finally, Mueller emerged in front of the cameras at the Justice Department on Wednesday morning to say that … well, he doesn't wish to say anything more.
"It is important the office's written work speak for itself," he said, and "the report is my testimony," and "we chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself."
This linguistic caution makes it all the more noteworthy that Mueller did depart from the report's language in one area: President Trump's criminality. A "president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional," Mueller said. "Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited." Charging the president with a crime, he said, "was therefore not an option."
Unconstitutional. Prohibited. Not an option. This was stronger language than the report used, and Mueller added that under "principles of fairness," he couldn't charge Trump "when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge." Under Justice Department policy, he said, "the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal-justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing."
That process is impeachment.
If this man of precise language was not inviting Congress to impeach the president, he certainly seemed to be inviting the belief that he didn't charge Trump with crimes only because he couldn't. And because Mueller chooses words carefully, it's also worth noting which one he didn't use: "collusion." Instead, he implicitly rebuked a president who constantly, maddeningly, refers to Vladimir Putin's interference in the 2016 election as the "Russian hoax."
"Russian intelligence officers who are part of the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system," Mueller reminded us Wednesday. He found "that they used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack into computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign. They stole private information and then released that information through fake online identities and through the organization WikiLeaks. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate."
Mueller ended his nearly 10-minute statement where it began, and where the entire investigation began: with a Russian attack on the United States. There "were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American," Mueller said.
If our country's political health were better, the Russian attack would get the attention of every American. But Mueller gives us more credit than we deserve. His report assumed that our leaders would take seriously the Russian threat when presented with overwhelming evidence. It assumed that political leaders would soberly weigh the evidence that Trump obstructed his investigation.
Instead, Trump laughs about the whole thing with Putin, Republican leaders quash bipartisan efforts to protect the 2020 election from another attack, and GOP lawmakers, instead of pondering the president's culpability and Mueller's damning findings, demand investigations of investigators' "treason" and attempted "coup."
In appealing to their better angels, Mueller was naive. Yet even Wednesday, as he entered the Justice Department briefing room, stooped and alone, he continued to act as though things were on the level. His necktie askew, he read from his text carefully, tripping over a few words, occasionally rubbing his nose and otherwise indicating discomfort in the spotlight. "I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further," he said.
Mueller's sense of propriety seems quaint, given the sabotage done to him. Barr's misdirection about Mueller's findings devalued the crucial work, but Mueller said he didn't question Barr's "good faith." Trump outrageously accuses investigators of a capital crime, but Mueller mildly defended his staff's "fair and independent manner" and "highest integrity."
Trump reacted to Mueller's statement in predictable fashion. He retweeted a false statement saying Mueller found "no collusion," he proclaimed his innocence, and he retweeted a message from his campaign: "Now it's time to turn to the origins of the Russia hoax and get to the bottom of why the Trump campaign was spied on by the Obama-era DOJ and FBI."
Russia is preparing to attack us — again. Trump is poised to benefit — again. Unlike in 2016, we now know Russia's bad intentions, thanks to Mueller. That Trump and his allies facilitate the Russian attack by refusing to protect against it is the essence of collusion.
Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached via Twitter: @Milbank.