Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III just opened his mouth in public for the first time in years, and though what he said was careful, precise, and restrained, it nonetheless amounted to a new statement, one that underscored a stark reality:
Members of Congress are the only ones with the power to hold President Trump accountable for his efforts to obstruct justice.
In his roundabout way, Mueller made clear that all the statements that he supposedly found “no obstruction” and his investigation exonerated the president are simply false. Instead, he emphasized a few points.
First, Mueller underlined that under Justice Department policy he was forbidden from indicting President Trump and that this is why he did not make a final judgment about whether to bring criminal charges. “Charging the president with a crime,” Mueller said, was “not an option we could consider.”
Second, Mueller underscored that if he had found that Trump was innocent, he would have proclaimed that to be the case. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said.
Third, the criminal justice system can’t hold a sitting president accountable for his conduct, so someone else has to step up and do it. “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” Mueller said.
“The Special Counsel is making a very powerful statement on his last day of work,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told us. “And members of Congress are going to be taking it to heart over the next couple of days.”
“We have a responsibility to act when the president of the United States engages in criminal conduct," Raskin continued. "So to my mind, we need to launch an impeachment inquiry to find out what exactly happened and what our response should be.”
Raskin, a constitutional law professor, also said Mueller’s statement today “increases the pressure on the House of Representatives to act forcefully against the president’s lawlessness.”
Asked directly whether this would increase the pressure to launch an impeachment inquiry in particular, Raskin said a majority of members of the Judiciary Committee -- which would carry out an inquiry -- have already expressed an active interest in launching one, adding: “The sentiment is growing.”
“I feel an impeachment inquiry is indicated," Raskin said. "Most members are now distinguishing between an impeachment inquiry, which is the beginning of an investigation into high crimes and misdemeanors, and impeachment articles.”
Mueller “made it clear that the only reason the president wasn’t indicted was because it was against DOJ policy,” Raskin said, and that “he clearly believes it is up to Congress to act.”
To be clear, in key ways what Mueller said today is also what he wrote in his report. But views of that report have been shaped by a propaganda effort spearheaded by the president and Attorney General William P. Barr, and carried out with the enthusiastic support of friendly media outlets, an effort meant to deceive the public into believing that Mueller exonerated Trump of any wrongdoing.
In that context, Mueller’s decision to publicly underscore the key points above is plainly a reset of the conversation.
Mueller also offered a somewhat more pointed emphasis in several ways. First, he flatly declared that the reason the obstruction question is important is because it could have frustrated an investigation designed to get to the bottom of an attack on our political system, irrespective of any “collusion” question. Taken alongside Mueller’s confirmation that Trump was not exonerated of obstruction, that adds up to a remarkable indictment of Trump’s overall conduct.
Mueller also went out of his way to emphasize that he found “insufficient evidence” to bring a criminal charge of conspiracy with Russia, which is not at all the same as concluding that “no collusion” occurred. Mueller’s report did not conclude that at all, yet Trump traffics in the “no collusion” lie constantly, and Barr’s presentation of Mueller’s findings dishonestly submerged their seriousness on this front.
“Special Counsel Mueller basically returned us to the starting point,” Raskin said. “This is where the conversation should have been two months ago, before Attorney General Barr misled the nation. The air is clear now. We have the opportunity to act on the Special Counsel’s findings."
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement today was once again very noncommittal, which suggests how badly she wants to avoid an impeachment inquiry. By contrast, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the one Republican who allows that Mueller found impeachable offenses, was far more forceful:
You got that right, Congressman. Whether Democratic leaders will accept this responsibility, of course, is another matter entirely.