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WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller, the special counsel, declined Wednesday to clear President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice in his first public characterization of his two-year investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said.
He also noted that while Justice Department policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a crime, the Constitution provides for another remedy to formally accuse a president of wrongdoing — a clear reference to the ability of Congress to conduct impeachment proceedings.
The news conference presented an extraordinary spectacle of a top federal law enforcement official publicly stating that the president’s conduct had warranted criminal investigation. Mueller delivered his statement on his last day as special counsel, saying it was his final word on his investigation and he was returning to private life.
Democratic presidential candidates immediately seized on Mueller’s refusal to exonerate Trump to call for the president’s impeachment, intensifying pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has insisted impeachment proceedings would only play into Trump’s hands.
The president’s aides and allies tried to cast the event as just a summary of a 448-page report released weeks ago. Mueller “has closed his office and it’s time for everybody to move on,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
Mueller seemed to cast the president’s conduct in a more damning light than Attorney General William Barr did when he discussed the investigation’s findings at a news conference in April and at a subsequent Senate hearing. Barr said Trump was not guilty of “obstructive conduct.” He also suggested that the president may have been merely acting from frustration, not corrupt intent, when he tried to interfere with the investigation.
Mueller, by contrast, stressed the gravity of the allegations against the president and defended his decision to pursue them, saying that “the matters we investigated were of paramount importance.”
“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” he said.
While charging the president with a crime was “not an option we could consider,” Mueller said, he also referred to the impeachment process.
“The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” he said.