Charging Donald Trump with crime wasn't an option for Mueller, nor was clearing him
Russian interference in 2016 was designed to 'damage a presidential candidate'
Special counsel Robert Mueller said Wednesday charging the president of the United States with a crime in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election was not an option his office could consider, given existing Justice Department guidelines that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
In his first public comments since being assigned in May 2017, Mueller said on Wednesday "it would be unfair" to potentially accuse someone of a crime when the person couldn't stand trial to defend himself.
"Charging the president with a crime was … not an option we could consider," said Mueller. "We concluded that we would not reach a determination one way or the other about whether the president committed a crime."
President Donald Trump has claimed the report exonerates him and his campaign team of "collusion."
If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.- Special counsel Robert Mueller
Mueller's report did not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice charges, a point he seemed to emphasize in his appearance on Wednesday.
"If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," he said.
Despite that, Trump said on social media shortly after Mueller spoke, that "nothing changes from the Mueller Report."
"There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed!" said Trump.
House Democrats have tried to arrange, so far without success, for Mueller to testify publicly. Mueller indicated that he was not open to testifying beyond what was said in the report and his statement.
Mueller, 74, told a news conference he was speaking to the report as his time in the Justice Department would come to a close imminently and he would return to private life.
Mueller, who said no one had instructed him whether to or not to testify, did not take questions from reporters.
Watch the full Mueller statement here
Mueller, a former FBI director, was given the brief in May 2017 to investigate "any links and/or co-ordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement: "After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same."
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked Mueller for his valuable contribution for pointing the way to potential investigations in Congress and said she was "gravely disappointed" in the Department of Justice and Attorney General William Barr for what she said were misrepresentations of the Mueller report over the past two months.
'Insufficient' conspiracy evidence: Mueller
Since Mueller delivered his report in late March, it has been the subject of partisan dispute in Congress and at the White House.
Mueller's report concluded that for the purposes of a successful criminal prosecution, it could not be established that Trump campaign associates conspired with Russian officials to sway the election.
He reiterated Wednesday there was "insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy."
With respect to a controversial June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York attended by Russian individuals promising dirt on Hillary Clinton as well as Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mueller's report said "the government would unlikely be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the … meeting participants had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful."
Attempts by Trump associates to lie about the meeting once it was publicly reported "may reflect an intention to avoid political consequences rather than any prior knowledge of illegality," he wrote.
Several Trump associates have been ensnared as a result of the investigation or ancillary probes, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, Manafort's second-hand Rick Gates, former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen, and low-level foreign policy advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. They were charged with various offences, with Manafort and Cohen currently in prison.
Flynn information ordered to be made public
Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, co-operated with the Mueller team. A federal judge has set a Friday deadline for the Justice Department to make public portions of the Mueller report that pertain to Flynn.
Dozens of Russian individuals and entities were also indicted in Mueller's probe, most related to intrusions of Democratic and Clinton campaign computer systems and for online and social media efforts to sow discord in the U.S. election.
Calling it "a concerted attack on our political system, Mueller said at his briefing that Russian entities "used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack into and then release 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."
Impeachment inquiry calls from Democrats
Democrats in Congress and a lone House Republican, Justin Amash of Michigan, have criticized Barr for a four-page summary he delivered regarding Mueller's report as well as for the number of redactions in the report.
Mueller, for his part, privately complained to Barr in a letter that the attorney general's summary simplified the investigation's findings. Barr called Mueller's letter "snitty" in Capitol Hill testimony.
Pelosi has so far resisted efforts by some Democrats who would like to launch proceedings for impeachment of the president. The bar for impeaching a president does not require criminal activity.
A statement by Pelosi on Wednesday stressed the need for Congress to pass legislation to protect U.S. elections from interference, but steered clear of talk of impeachment.
At a public appearance later in her hometown, San Francisco, Pelosi allowed that "many constituents want to impeach the president," but she said it was important to focus on passing legislation to help Americans, and that the case for impeachment had to be "very compelling."
Jerry Nadler, the Democrat chair of the House's judiciary committee, said at a brief news conference that Trump — who did not sit for an interview with Mueller's team — had consistently lied about the special counsel's findings. Trump, Nadler alleged, sought to obstruct the probe "time and time again," and his campaign "repeatedly welcomed Russia's support."
Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Seth Moulton and Julian Castro were quick to weigh in after Mueller spoke, each saying that Congress should begin impeachment proceedings.
Booker called it a "legal and moral obligation." Other candidates such as Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Pete Buttigieg followed later in the day with similar opinions.
Amash said simply, "the ball is in our court, Congress."
The White House has repeatedly stonewalled Congress' ability to take basic fact-finding steps and make an informed decision. That fact, combined with Mueller's clear message today, tells me that Republicans and Democrats should begin impeachment hearings.—@SenGillibrand
While Trump first praised Mueller after Barr's summary was released, the president has more recently returned to a recurring theme, alleging without evidence that the Mueller team was a collection of "angry Democrats," with the origins of the Russia probe characterized by political bias.
Trump last week used words such as "coup" and "treason" in speeches to partisan audiences and gave Barr the authority to investigate the origins of the Russia probe.
Mueller said Wednesday that the same Justice Department guidelines that recommend that a sitting president cannot be indicted do explicitly permit "the investigation of a sitting president, because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available.
"The constitution provides for another process to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing," he said.
The only thing newsworthy out of Mueller’s appearance today is the end of an office that should’ve never been opened. Two years of investigating without ONE collusion related indictment.<br><br>All driven by people who weaponized fraudulent intelligence to politically target POTUS.—@RepMarkMeadows
But Mark Meadows, stalwart Trump supporter from North Carolina, said on social media the investigation had been "driven by people who weaponized fraudulent intelligence to politically target [Trump]."
Barr, currently travelling, was not present at Mueller's appearance.
With files from The Associated Press