Special counsel Robert Mueller said one reason he didn’t recommend bringing charges against President Trump is that it could have foreclosed Congress’ ability to impeach him.
In his 448-page report released Thursday, Mr. Mueller concluded that Mr. Trump did not conspire with Russia to try to subvert the 2016 election — but the special counsel said the steps the president took to try to undermine the subsequent investigation into that baseless claim could seem fishy, depending on one’s perspective.
Those moves, including dangling pardons and trying to fire Mr. Mueller, never came to fruition — but Mr. Mueller says that was more because of the stoic efforts of the president’s aides to thwart him than restraint on Mr. Trump’s part.
“The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mr. Mueller concluded.
Mr. Mueller did not recommend prosecuting Mr. Trump and offered a number of explanations for that.
One reason is that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has a long-standing policy against charging a sitting president, even in a sealed indictment. But Mr. Mueller also said he didn’t want to prevent Congress from being able to impeach the president should lawmakers pursue that option.
DOCUMENT: Read the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller
“Apart from OLC’s constitutional view, we recognized that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting president would place burdens on the president’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,” Mr. Mueller said.
While Mr. Mueller didn’t make a final recommendation on obstruction charges, Attorney General William P. Barr, who has spent weeks reviewing the findings, did make a determination. He said there wasn’t enough clear evidence of Mr. Trump’s intent.
Besides, Mr. Barr said, it would be difficult to prove obstruction of an investigation into something that didn’t occur — in this case, conspiracy with Russia — and that the president knew to be fake.
“As he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion. And as the special counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks,” Mr. Barr said.
Even given all that, the president’s team fully cooperated with Mr. Mueller, and none of Mr. Trump’s moves denied the investigation documents or access it sought, Mr. Barr said.
Mr. Mueller appears to have disagreed, spending page after page detailing what he said looked like suspect conduct.
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“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment,” Mr. Mueller said. “The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Democrats seized on those comments.
“Even in its incomplete form, the Mueller report outlines disturbing evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice and other misconduct,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would lead any impeachment push.
Asked specifically about impeachment, Mr. Nadler demurred.
“It’s too early to talk about that. We will have to go follow the evidence where it leads,” he said, though he added that his reading of the structure of Mr. Mueller’s report suggests he was indeed trying to give Congress a “road map” to that goal.
Pressure for impeachment was already growing among the rank and file Thursday — including a key voice in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bellwether freshman liberal.
She said she’d been reluctant to go down that path, but Mr. Mueller’s report was a clear invitation. She said she would be signing onto articles of impeachment.
“Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment,” she said. “But the report squarely puts this on our doorstep.”
A similar report by the special prosecutor in the 1970s provided a blueprint for House impeachment proceedings against then-President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon resigned before the House actually voted on impeachment.
The crux of a case against Mr. Trump would be nearly a dozen different episodes where Mr. Mueller said the president’s actions could be seen as an attempt to thwart a valid probe.
One was Mr. Trump’s attempts to shape FBI Director James B. Comey’s initial inquiries into Russian actions and then firing Mr. Comey when the director appeared to counteract the president. Mr. Mueller found Mr. Comey’s version of events more convincing than that of the president’s team.
Mr. Mueller also questioned the president’s orders to former top White House attorney Don McGahn to fire Mr. Mueller, which Mr. McGahn refused to do; the president’s attempt to hide details about a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his family members and a Russian-backed operative; and the public dangling of pardons for those who might refuse to cooperate with investigators.
Mr. Mueller said he found it important to view the president’s actions collectively to determine whether his motives were to undermine the investigation.