Standing Where Barr Cleared Trump on Obstruction, Mueller Makes a Different Case

WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr stood at the Justice Department lectern six weeks ago and put the best possible spin on the Mueller report for his boss, declaring that the special counsel had amassed insufficient evidence to accuse President Trump of a crime.

Robert S. Mueller III delivered a starkly different presentation on Wednesday from the same lectern, saying that charging a sitting president was never an option, no matter the evidence. Instead, his investigators asked another question: Could they clear the president?

On potential obstruction of justice, the answer was no.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime,” Mr. Mueller said, “we would have said so.”

The power of Mr. Mueller’s brief appearance came from his attempts to cut through a lengthy and dense report to give his own voice and imprimatur to a damning set of findings both about Mr. Trump and the Russian sabotage campaign. His carefully chosen phrases stood in sharp contrast to Mr. Barr’s portrayal of the investigation as vindicating Mr. Trump from accusations of the crime of obstruction.

[Read more coverage of Mr. Mueller’s statement or the transcript of his remarks.]

After weeks when Mr. Barr had served as the public face of the Mueller report, Mr. Mueller reclaimed the document as his own with his first, and perhaps last, public statement about the investigation since being appointed special counsel two years ago. He made clear that it was for others to decide whether to accuse Mr. Trump of breaking the law — perhaps members of Congress, perhaps future prosecutors. Mr. Mueller’s delivery was sometimes halting, but his message was firm.

Mr. Barr, at a news conference shortly before he released the Mueller report last month, repeatedly emphasized that the special counsel had not established “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mr. Mueller opened with a sobering account focused on Russia’s “concerted attack on our political system” that was meant to “interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.”

While he also said that the evidence did not add up to a conspiracy, his emphasis, unlike Mr. Barr’s, was on the “paramount importance” of figuring out what Russia had done — an argument that built into an implicit censure of Mr. Trump’s efforts to undermine and impede the investigation.

“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators,” Mr. Mueller said, “it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”

But in a crucial respect, Mr. Mueller remained as coy as he was in the report. He refused to unambiguously state what he and his team thought should be done with their findings, leaving his intentions and conclusions open to interpretation.

For instance, he listed his reasons for stopping short of deciding whether to accuse Mr. Trump of the crime of obstruction: namely, that the Justice Department has forbidden charging a sitting president with a crime, and it would be unfair to accuse someone of wrongdoing without giving them the opportunity to clear their name at trial.

But he offered only hints about what he thought should happen instead, emphasizing that a sitting president can still be investigated “because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available.”

“Among other things,” Mr. Mueller said, “that evidence could be used if there were co-conspirators who could be charged now.”

His use of the pregnant phrase “among other things” was a deflection. It implied — but left unsaid — the far more important thing for which the Justice Department can use all of that preserved evidence: In the future, after Mr. Trump leaves office, other prosecutors could decide then whether to charge the former president with a crime.

Similarly, Mr. Mueller noted that the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that forbids indicting a sitting president “says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” Yet he stopped short of saying the explosive word he was clearly referring to: impeachment.

Mr. Mueller is “being as direct as he can be” about the possibility that Mr. Trump committed a crime and that Congress should act, said Glenn Kirschner, who worked with Mr. Mueller as a homicide prosecutor.

“Mueller is the king of circumspection, and that’s a blessing and a curse because the American people are not good with circumspection,” Mr. Kirschner said.

Mr. Mueller’s aversion to delivering quotable sound bites denied the president’s critics the chance to use his words as partisan ammunition in the months ahead, preserving his above-the-fray credibility and the integrity of his findings. But it came at the cost of risking that the public may fail to fully grasp his implications — confusion that Mr. Trump and his allies exploited almost immediately.

In a statement later on Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said, “The report was clear — there was no collusion, no conspiracy — and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction.”

Indeed, the ambiguity in Mr. Mueller’s report left an opening for Mr. Barr to exploit, jumping in to claim that the special counsel had left the decision to him, as attorney general, about whether to accuse Mr. Trump of committing crimes.

Mr. Barr declared that “the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense.” In doing so, he ignored that the report lays out several episodes in which Mr. Trump took actions that appeared to meet all three criteria for the crime of obstruction based on the special counsel’s analysis of them.

In the weeks after he delivered his report, Mr. Barr took jabs at both Mr. Mueller and his team. He described Mr. Mueller’s decision not to make a definitive judgment on the obstruction of justice issue as inscrutable. He pointedly declined to defend the special counsel against charges from Republicans that Mr. Mueller had been engaged in a “witch hunt.” He described a letter Mr. Mueller had written in the days after the delivery of the report as “snitty,” and said it was likely written by a member of his team.

Mr. Mueller never took the bait. He said on Wednesday that he appreciated the attorney general’s decision to make the bulk of his report public. He said that Mr. Barr had acted in “good faith” by choosing not to release summaries of the report drafted by Mr. Mueller’s team, despite his entreaties that a March 24 letter from the attorney general, widely criticized as painting a misleadingly rosy view of Mr. Trump, confused the public. And he did not address Mr. Barr’s clearing of the president over obstruction of justice.

Nor did Mr. Mueller directly address the ceaseless attacks on his team by Mr. Trump, who spent two years disparaging them as “angry Democrats” leading an unfair “witch hunt” and demonized several by name. But the rebuke was lurking just below the surface of his closing remarks, thanking his team for conducting the investigation “in a fair and independent manner” and with “the highest integrity.”

With that, Mr. Mueller, who spent two years as the most important person in Washington nobody had heard from, remained Sphinxlike to the end. He sought to leave public life as the same detached, above-the-fray public servant who — during his long career as a prosecutor and then as F.B.I. director — was known for refusing to get drawn into partisan bloodletting.

Rebuffing calls by House Democrats to come explain his findings in televised hearings, he said it would not be appropriate for him to speak further in public about the investigation.

“The report,” he said, “is my testimony.”

Katie Benner contributed reporting.

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