Special counsel Robert Mueller broke his long silence Wednesday, telling a news conference his two-year Russia investigation is closed and that he did not have anything to say publicly beyond what was written in his report, released last month. But the key passages he chose to highlight underlined the dishonesty of President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr in seeking to dodge and mischaracterize his conclusions.
The “central allegation” of the investigators, Mueller said, was “that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” adding pointedly that “that allegation deserves the attention of every American.” Yet to date, it has not been fully acknowledged by Trump; nor has his administration taken sufficient action to ensure that it will not happen again.
Barr claimed that there was not a case to be made against Trump for obstruction of justice, based on Mueller’s findings. So it was significant that Mueller restated what his report actually says: that “if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” The reason he did not reach a conclusion about whether Trump could be charged with obstruction, Mueller said, was that “under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office,” and so it would have been unfair to accuse him of wrongdoing if he could not defend himself at a trial.
Mueller could have avoided much confusion and short-circuited the administration’s attempt to manipulate public opinion if he had made his statement weeks ago, in conjunction with the release of a lightly redacted version of his report. Barr claimed that Mueller told him privately that Justice Department policy on charging a sitting president was not the reason the special counsel declined to accuse Trump. In fact, Mueller insisted Wednesday that his report represents his views on the matter; in effect, he refuted Barr’s narrative.
Members of Congress no doubt will want to have Mueller testify publicly about his investigation, including what he did or did not say to Barr. Mueller insisted Wednesday that he had nothing beyond his written report to add to the public record, indicating that he did not want to get entangled in a public fight with Barr or reveal information the public has not already seen. That may be a principled decision, but Mueller should not resist appearing before Congress, even if it is to explain why he will not answer certain questions.
Mueller’s statement made it more clear than ever that the responsibility for continuing to pursue the question of Russia’s interference, and of Trump’s attempts to obstruct investigation of it, now lies with Congress. Democrats are aggressively taking on the latter issue; but, as Mueller indicated, they must not neglect the reality that the Kremlin has already damaged U.S. democracy — and that intelligence officials are concerned that Moscow has not been deterred from future meddling. That should not be a partisan conclusion, and addressing it should not be a partisan concern.