Mueller Played by the Rules. Trump Made New Ones.

WASHINGTON — The president of the United States appears to believe that you don’t matter unless you are on television. By that measure, Robert S. Mueller III’s 10-minute soliloquy seemed to have seized his attention.

But even though Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, cut through the legalese of his 448-page report on Wednesday to make clear that his investigation in no way exonerated President Trump, he stopped short of delivering a punchy sound bite to summarize his inquiry. Mr. Trump has had one for two years — “No collusion! No obstruction!” — and recently had White House aides print the slogan and hang it on his lectern.

Mr. Mueller’s refusal to pass judgment on whether the president broke the law is one example of how the special counsel operated by rules ill fitted for the Trump era. He said nothing and the president said everything. He worked in secret, allowing the president to fill the void with reckless accusations of a witch hunt. His damning conclusions were encased in dense legal jargon that the president distorted into a vindication.

Mr. Mueller seemed to expect that the system would work as it had in the past, with Congress or perhaps voters making the decision about whether Mr. Trump had committed a crime, only to see the president’s handpicked attorney general — and Mr. Mueller’s longtime friend — make his own determination that there was not enough evidence to support such a charge.

Congress might still pursue impeachment, but many Democrats who oppose Mr. Trump for now seem unwilling to act on findings they have described as outrageous without what they see as explicit instruction from Mr. Mueller to do so.

“Now you have institutions talking past one another,” said Matt Jacobs, a lawyer at Vinson & Elkins who worked for Mr. Mueller as a prosecutor and a spokesman. “You have Mueller thinking he was very clear in providing evidence that others can pursue. And you have a Congress that hasn’t shown itself to be capable of untangling the evidence.”

As he tried to deflect calls by Democratic lawmakers to give public testimony, Mr. Mueller seemed to be urging Americans to read and digest the voluminous findings from his investigation. “The report is my testimony,” he said.

That admonition might have been directed at 535 Americans in particular, as many lawmakers appear to have not been bothered to read the report, choosing instead to fashion their talking points based on guidance from their party’s leadership. Only one Republican congressman, Justin Amash of Michigan, has said that the Mueller report’s findings warrant impeachment proceedings against the president.

Some of Mr. Mueller’s friends said it was extraordinary in itself that he decided to make any public statement — perhaps a decision born out of frustration.

“The fact that he decided to hold a press conference at the Department of Justice is surprising,” said Matthew Olsen, who worked closely with Mr. Mueller when he was the F.B.I. director and later became the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

“My sense is he felt compelled to do so by the circumstances around the way the report has been described by others, including the attorney general,” Mr. Olsen added.

Still, even then Mr. Mueller refused to unambiguously say what he and his team thought should be done with their findings, allowing others to insert their interpretations.

Mr. Mueller handled the part of his investigation involving the president’s conduct in office with extreme care, allowing only a part of his team to develop evidence on the obstruction-of-justice matter. The other investigators were walled off from that part of the inquiry, according to several people with knowledge of the structure of the special counsel’s office.

Yet Mr. Trump portrayed the Mueller investigation as out of control — an ever-expanding blob that consumed anything in its path — and his attacks on the special counsel and his team began immediately. “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” he wrote in a tweet the morning after Mr. Mueller was appointed.

His attempts to fire Mr. Mueller were thwarted, so he poured his energy into trying to discredit the special counsel and his team.

Over a nearly 150-day period last year, the time between two major grand jury indictments of Russians for election interference, Mr. Mueller’s office was effectively silent. During that time, the president unleashed more than 90 tweets that were variations on a theme — the Russian interference campaign was a “hoax,” and Mr. Mueller was out to get him.

The special counsel stayed above the fray, but some polls at the time showed a steady increase in the percentage of Americans — especially of Republicans — who disapproved of Mr. Mueller’s handling of the investigation.

There was no secret to the White House strategy. The president’s aides and lawyers suspected that Mr. Mueller would feel bound by Justice Department guidelines and determine he could not indict a sitting president, so the only threat was impeachment by Congress. If the public could be turned against the special counsel’s investigation, Congress would be less likely to act on Mr. Mueller’s findings.

The strategy might have worked, as House Democratic leaders have said repeatedly that one of the reasons for not wanting to pursue impeachment of Mr. Trump was because a majority of Americans seem opposed to the idea.

Many Democrats accepted the silence of the special counsel because they believed he might be building toward a knockout blow — a report so harmful to the president that it would silence Mr. Trump’s criticism about the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation. The report was indeed damning, but Mr. Mueller’s decision to avoid explicitly saying that he expected Congress to weigh in on the obstruction-of-justice evidence left some top lawmakers confused about how to proceed.

What is puzzling even to some of Mr. Mueller’s defenders is why, after deciding early that he would follow Justice Department guidelines and not take on the issue of recommending charges against a sitting president, he kept that decision to himself.

“There’s a valid criticism that the special counsel’s office didn’t say any of that from the beginning,” Mr. Jacobs said. “If he was going to take that approach — that at the end of the investigation, he would never tell us directly whether the president committed a crime — he probably should have said so at the beginning so people could set their expectations accordingly.”

By hewing to Justice Department policy that prosecutors should not interpret their findings in public, Mr. Mueller opened the door for one of the Trump administration’s savvier operators to interpret his findings for him.

Attorney General William P. Barr, over weeks in late March and April, set the narrative about the Mueller investigation’s conclusions even as Mr. Mueller himself remained silent. During this time, he took his own shots at Mr. Mueller and his team.

It is now clear that Mr. Mueller will try his best to avoid giving any further public opinion about the evidence he found, leaving Mr. Barr and Mr. Trump plenty of room to spin the report. On Thursday, Mr. Trump said that Mr. Mueller’s team consisted of “some of the worst human beings on earth.”

And like his boss, Mr. Barr has said it is time to flip the investigative lens — to examine why the Mueller inquiry began in the first place.

Noah Weiland contributed reporting.

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