Robert Mueller says the report is his 'testimony' — and it doesn't exonerate the president

Robert Mueller, who avoided the media during his probe of 2016 election interference, finally appeared before cameras Wednesday. What he said wasn’t new — but by underlining the necessity and purpose of the investigation, and spelling out its conclusions, he was clearly trying to turn attention back to Congress.

Democrats, including dozens of presidential hopefuls, divided over impeachment

Robert Mueller spoke to the media Wednesday about his report into the Russia investigation, outlining its main findings and why decisions were made. 'If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,' he said. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters, Tom Brenner/Reuters)

For the first time since the beginning of his investigation into the 2016 U.S. presidential election two years ago, there he was in flesh and blood, alone before the TV cameras and the press: Robert Mueller III, his patrician bearing and mythic rectitude on full display in the deliberate and even way he talked to the public about his work. 

The former special prosecutor who had been appointed to oversee the investigation into Russian interference in the election and potential links to the Trump campaign didn't say anything we couldn't have read in his report weeks ago, but that was apparently the point.

He'd wanted us to read it but apparently too few of us had, and so he decided to put his own voice to what he considered its gravest headlines. 

It was riveting, clarifying and, to whomever it was news, it was necessary.

And it came, perhaps not coincidentally, while the question of what Congress should do with it still hangs in the air.

Democrats are divided. Many are distressed that the Mueller report distracts from the other important things they want to do. Others think it hasn't received the attention it deserves.

WATCH: See what Robert Mueller had to say about his report.

The Trump administration routinely adds futility to the efforts of his opponents by brushing off their subpoenas.

And lately there's the added embarrassment to Democrats that their thunder could be stolen by, of all things, a Republican. Rep. Justin Amash is grabbing headlines by affirming Congress's constitutional duty to hold the president to account for what Mueller has reported.

The Washington punditocracy, meanwhile, seems obsessed with gaming out ways the Democrats could ride the Mueller report to a crushing defeat in 2020.

Work 'speaks for itself'

And so Mueller's words Wednesday rolled through town like a bowling ball through ten pins, knocking down the nervous naysayers with what was widely viewed as a clear argument for Congress to get on with its singular responsibility for applying the constitution to the president — though Mueller stopped short of using the actual word for that: impeachment. 

What he did say is that the work "speaks for itself." The words in his report were chosen "carefully" and he has nothing to add to it.

"The report is my testimony."

Mueller reminded us that the testimony in the 400-plus page report is serious and sobering, and focused on two key findings, which amount to this:

  • In 2016, Russia worked covertly to steer the 2016 presidential election toward Donald Trump. There was no criminal conspiracy with Russia, but some members of Trump's campaign and Trump's family knew what Russia intended, were in contact with Russians about it, encouraged them, and endeavoured to keep their secrets.

In other words, the president knew all along that the attack on American democracy wasn't a hoax as he often pretended it was. And the subsequent investigation seems to have been the FBI's clear duty and not a witch hunt — or attempted "coup" — as the president has alleged.

And then there's this:

  • When U.S. law enforcement sought to get to the bottom of the Russian attack on the 2016 election, Mueller's team found substantial evidence that Trump tried to use his power to obstruct their investigation. Mueller didn't consider prosecuting Trump because he is the president — and the Department of Justice policy is that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

The Mueller report is not a particularly difficult read, and its conclusions are unambiguous. But it is longish and often tedious.

As a consequence there is a widespread misconception — created first by Trump's Attorney General William Barr, whose very short overview of the report has been called misleading — that Mueller mostly cleared Trump, while suggesting dark motives behind those who sought to investigate him.

Barr has already appointed someone to investigate the investigators.

Reframing report after Barr letter

Mueller took care to say that he believed Barr acted in good faith. But by restating what his team actually found, underlining the necessity and purpose of the investigation, and spelling out its conclusions — in particular about whether Trump is a criminal, which the report suggests in exacting detail that he very well might be — Mueller was clearly deconstructing the frame that Barr had set, giving his report a second life.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had harsh words for the president. But the powerful politician is not among the voices calling for impeachment. (Getty Images)

The single line echoing around the cable news studios after he spoke was a rebuttal of the claims of full exoneration: "If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so."

That's not an indictment of the president in any legal sense, but it is a devastating indictment of the president's behaviour by someone who knows a thing or two about lawlessness.

Trump, of course, weighed in within minutes to try to take back the narrative.

But are there people outside the MAGA base still buying that?

Nearly a thousand federal prosecutors — Democrats and Republicans — recently said in an open letter that they believe were he not the president, Trump would have been indicted on multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice. They believe that as long as he remains in office, unimpeached, he's getting away with something no one else in the country would.

That discussion is picking up support among Democrats.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker, for one, was the latest to come off the fence after Mueller spoke Wednesday. Booker is now for impeaching the president.

Others might quickly find it harder now not to do the same.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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