WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, on Wednesday declined to clear President Trump of obstruction of justice in his first public characterization of his two-year-long investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mr. Mueller said, reading from prepared notes behind a lectern at the Justice Department. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
He also said that while Justice Department policy prohibits charging a sitting president with a crime, the Constitution provides for another process to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing — a clear reference to the ability of Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.
Although his remarks closely matched statements contained in his more than 400-page report, Mr. Mueller’s portrayal of Mr. Trump’s actions was not as benign as Attorney General William P. Barr’s characterizations. While Mr. Barr has seemed to question why the special counsel investigated the president’s behavior, Mr. Mueller stressed the gravity of that inquiry.
[Read the full transcript of Mr. Mueller’s statement.]
“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” he said.
He suggested that he was reluctant to testify before Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee has asked. “The report is my testimony,” he said.
He said he was grateful to Mr. Barr for releasing the vast majority of the document, and did not expect to comment on it further. He said he was closing the special counsel’s office and returning to private life.
Mr. Trump and his advisers sought to play down Mr. Mueller’s comments. The president said that they made little difference and conflated Mr. Mueller’s assertions that his investigators found insufficient evidence to charge a conspiracy with Russia but declined to make a decision on obstruction because of the prevailing Justice Department view. “The case is closed!” he wrote on Twitter.
Democrats pointed to Mr. Mueller’s remarks as a fresh call for them to investigate the president. Representative Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Congress would continue to scrutinize the president’s “crimes, lies and other wrongdoing.” He added, “No one, not even the president of the United States, is above the law.”
Mr. Nadler has sided with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who have avoided calling for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, creating division in the Democratic Party. In her own statement after Mr. Mueller’s remarks, Ms. Pelosi sidestepped impeachment.
Representative Justin Amash, the lone Republican in the House who supports impeachment proceedings, said, “The ball is in our court, Congress.”
Mr. Mueller has been at the center of a fight between the Trump administration and House Democrats, who want to hear from him about his nearly two-year investigation.
After Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report was released with redactions in April, House Democrats sought the entire text and underlying evidence, which Mr. Barr has refused to provide, prompting the House Judiciary Committee to recommend that he be held in contempt of Congress. Portions of the report were redacted to protect secret grand jury information, privacy and open investigations.
Mr. Trump has said he would block all subpoenas from Democrats, stymieing their oversight efforts on a variety of issues, including whether he obstructed justice.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mueller said he would not provide any information to lawmakers beyond what was in the report, adding that he was under no instructions about whether he could or should testify before Congress. Mr. Nadler has said he would subpoena Mr. Mueller’s testimony, if necessary.
Mr. Mueller also stressed that the evidence his team uncovered of Russia’s effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election was a threat to the nation’s political system and “deserves the attention of every American.”
Mr. Mueller has objected to the portrayal of the special counsel’s findings provided by Mr. Barr. In particular, Mr. Mueller disputed Mr. Barr’s characterization that the report’s conclusions cleared the president from charges of obstruction of justice. In the report, Mr. Mueller detailed 11 instances in which prosecutors investigated whether the president was deliberately trying to obstruct the investigation.
[As special counsel, Mr. Mueller kept such a low profile he seemed almost invisible.]
“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,” Mr. Mueller and his investigators wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
After Mr. Barr framed the findings, Mr. Trump declared himself vindicated. And Mr. Barr was said to be frustrated that Mr. Mueller did not make a decision about charging Mr. Trump for any of those 11 instances and instead left it to Mr. Barr.
Mr. Trump has lashed out at Democrats for continuing to investigate him, and last week he said he would hold hostage bipartisan legislative priorities until they “get these phony investigations over with.”
Mr. Trump also announced last week that he was delegating extraordinary powers to Mr. Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia inquiry and declassify documents from American intelligence agencies. The move prompted concerns among Democrats and current and former national security officials about the politicization of intelligence, such as the administration declassifying only materials that support Mr. Trump’s view that the investigators illegally opened the inquiry.
“We’re exposing everything,” Mr. Trump said last week.