Thiessen column: Mueller should not have held a press conference
In his news conference Wednesday, special counsel Robert Mueller explained why he would not testify before Congress. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report,” he said. “It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony.”
This is precisely why Mueller should not have held a news conference.
President Trump’s critics are now picking apart his statement, looking for discrepancies with the carefully chosen words in his report, and searching for hidden meaning and secret messages urging them to impeach the president. Like with a verbal Rorschach test, they are reading between the lines to hear what they want to hear.
For example, in his report Mueller definitively declared his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government.” But in his news conference, Mueller said that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.” “Aha!” the Trump-Russia collusion truthers cry, “He’s saying there may have been a broader conspiracy, but he just found ‘insufficient evidence’ to bring charges.” No, sorry, that is not what the report says. It says that “The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with [Russia’s] interference operation.”
The same is true when it comes to obstruction of justice. In his report, Mueller carefully explains both sides of the argument and makes clear that “the evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment.” He presents exculpatory arguments on the president’s behalf. For example, he notes that “unlike cases in which a subject engages in obstruction of justice to cover up a crime, the evidence we obtained did not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference” and “the absence of that evidence affects the analysis of the President’s intent and requires consideration of other possible motives for his conduct.”
Moreover, Mueller also wrote that for the president to have obstructed justice, he must have acted “with a corrupt intention” and “the term ‘corruptly’ sets a demanding standard. It requires a concrete showing that a person acted with an intent to obtain an improper advantage for himself or someone else, inconsistent with official duty and the rights of others.” It’s not an easy case. And since Justice Department rulings prohibit the prosecution of a sitting president, Mueller did not come to a conclusion one way or another. His report “does not exonerate him” but also “does not conclude that the President committed a crime.”
All that nuance flew right over the head of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who suggested that the reason Trump escaped indictment was “Department of Justice policy prevented the Special Counsel from bringing criminal charges against the President” and so “it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump.”
But Attorney General William Barr has testified, under oath, that “special counsel Mueller stated three times to us … in response to our questioning, that he emphatically was not saying, but for the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinion, he would’ve found obstruction.” Barr also stated in April that “Rod Rosenstein and I asked Robert Mueller when we met with him on March 5, whether he would have made obstruction a crime but for the OLC opinion. He made it clear several times that it was not his position.”
Mueller did not refute Barr’s testimony in his news conference, or say that the OLC opinion was the only reason he did not find that Trump obstructed justice. Indeed, spokesmen for Barr and Mueller told The Washington Post that his and Barr’s statements were not in conflict. Besides, the fact is the Mueller investigation was not obstructed. He was allowed to complete his work, with unprecedented cooperation from the Trump administration. And Mueller’s report concluded that Trump was telling the truth all along: He did not conspire with Russia in its assault on our democracy.
In his statement, Mueller noted that the Russians he indicted are “presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.” Apparently, for congressional Democrats, that presumption of innocence does not extend to Trump. All Mueller’s news conference did is muddy the waters. Any congressional testimony would do so 10 times over. He should have heeded his own advice, left the building quietly, and, as he put it in his statement, let “the office’s written work speak for itself.”
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen. (c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group
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