He was, as ever, stolid, serious, sober. He spoke in clipped, cautious sentences. He said he was not saying a single thing beyond what he’d written in his report.
Yet when Robert Swan Mueller III finally spoke Wednesday, breaking two years of silence, he delivered a nearly nine-minute soliloquy that seemed as powerful an invitation to impeachment of the president as anyone has delivered to date.
The special counsel who examined Russia’s effort to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election repeatedly said that this was the end — his final act in a position from which he is now resigning, his last words about President Trump’s possible role in obstructing his investigation, his ultimate conclusion that there would be no criminal charges against Trump.
But Mueller’s statement, read with dampened expression, his eyes cast down at a script, sounded to many like a call to action — to Congress to consider his findings about Trump’s behavior and to the American people to pay closer attention to “multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.”
Intent on going out on his own terms, Mueller insisted repeatedly that his report was his final word. “The report is my testimony,” he said, seeming to decline an invitation to testify to Congress. Yet he had clearly concluded that he needed to say something beyond what was in his 448 pages of written work. “I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner,” Mueller said.
But from the halls of Congress to millions of screens across the country, Mueller’s statement, delivered in a half-empty Justice Department briefing room, was received as anything but an ending.
In some quarters, there was a reflexive retreat to the battle stations of the past two years. Congressional Democrats heard Mueller punting the ball to them, for action on the obstruction charges that Mueller did not bring. The president, reacting by tweet, countered with a declaration: “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed!”
On cable news, the nation’s separate perceptions of reality were reflected in dueling chyrons.
Fox News: “Mueller: There was insufficient evidence to charge broader conspiracy.”
CNN: “Mueller: ‘If we had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.’ ”
But many Americans, listening to live special reports across all media, heard Mueller say that although “a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office,” the Russians’ efforts to interfere in the 2016 election “deserves the attention of every American.”
Mueller, 74, was the adult in the room, sternly reminding the nation to step aside from the partisan fray and focus on the threat to democracy. He delivered his message in the way he has conducted his career — by the book, in a code designed to inform rather than inflame.
Anyone expecting the special counsel to let his hair down and speak from the heart about what he really thought of Trump did not know who Mueller is. A decorated Marine, a career prosecutor who wears a white shirt to work every day, Mueller rose through the government and became FBI director and a valued adviser to presidents of both parties not by speaking his mind but by proving his reserve.
Until now, Mueller had played the role of the sphinx of the capital. For two years, his silence flew in the face of a Washington political culture that feeds on jolts of Twitter adrenaline and cable cacophony. Mueller sightings were infrequent and frustratingly uncontroversial: Here he was at the Apple store getting his device fixed. There he was at Reagan National Airport’s infamously hectic Gate 35X, being totally calm. There were sightings at church on Sunday morning, at his favorite restaurant in American University Park, all empty calories.
For many months, the nation heard Mueller’s voice only through the imagination of Robert De Niro’s depiction of the special counsel as a humorless stiff on “Saturday Night Live.”
Now, when he finally spoke, Mueller did so in a voice thinned by age, but strong in its controlled rectitude. If Mueller’s words seemed opaque, if he appeared to be more concerned about following Justice Department rules than about seeking to hold an alleged lawbreaker-in-chief to account, he nonetheless sent his message with a clarity heard at both ends of the polarized field that is Trump’s America.
Mueller “today characterized the president as someone who committed crimes,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a candidate for president. Mueller’s message, Swalwell said, was that but for Justice Department policy against prosecuting a sitting president, he would have indicted Trump.
“The ball is in our court, Congress,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the lone House Republican to have concluded that Trump “engaged in impeachable conduct.”
Other Republicans agreed that, as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) put it, “the report speaks for itself,” interpreting the document through the president’s eyes: “The case is over,” Graham said. “A possible obstruction case was a hodgepodge of complicated facts and law.”
Speaking directly across from portraits of Trump, Vice President Pence and Attorney General William P. Barr, Mueller declared that he had provided all the clarity he could. The rest would remain with Congress. This would be his single and final statement. He seemed determined to demonstrate that he meant it.
After Mueller finished, a reporter tried to elicit something beyond the written statement, but the special counsel said, “No questions,” turned, and strode out of the room.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.