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Analysis Of Mueller's Justice Department Remarks


We are discussing an event that has not happened before and if Robert Mueller had his way, would never happen again. The special counsel, who was silent, out of the public eye for his entire time while investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election and questions of obstruction of justice around the president and others - the special counsel made about a 10-minute statement this hour at the Department of Justice today, said that he is formally closing the special counsel's office, that he is resigning from the U.S. Department of Justice.

And he briefly restated some of the findings of his report, finding that, in fact, Russia did substantially interfere in the 2016 election and stating that he did not - his office did not clear President Trump, did not exonerate President Trump of suspicions of obstruction of justice. Although his office, Mueller said, was prohibited from indicting the president because of a Justice Department regulation covering a sitting president. Mueller is hoping that's all he has to say. And let's listen to a little bit of his statement.


ROBERT MUELLER: I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner. I am making that decision myself. No one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter. There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. 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. And the report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.

INSKEEP: The report is my testimony, and Robert Mueller adding, I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress. Although, as our Justice Department Carrie Johnson has noted this morning, that might leave some kind of a window for private testimony before Congress. We really don't know.

Our national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is still with us on the line from the Justice Department. She was in the room for Robert Mueller's statement. And, Carrie, I want to call attention to something else that Robert Mueller said. In saying that Justice Department regulations prohibit the indictment of a sitting president, Mueller went on to say something else - quote, "the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system."

What's he referring to there?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, I think, Steve, he's talking about the process of impeachment, which we know Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has been reluctant to take up, at least on an initial matter, because she's concerned that it won't be bipartisan and that it will have terrible political consequences for Democrats in 2020.

But Mueller said what he meant there. He was talking about the way our system works, and because the Justice Department thinks it's unconstitutional to charge a sitting president with criminal wrongdoing, the venue to make that judgment and to serve as a check and a balance is Congress. That is where attention will turn now.

There's also an option that Mueller left open in his remarks and in his report, which is that they did these interviews with witnesses while memories were fresh and documents were available and that it is possible that once President Trump leaves office, that he could potentially be exposed to charges of criminal wrongdoing once he leaves the presidency if the statute of limitations has not yet expired. Those are the two options.

INSKEEP: I want to take a moment to note the way that the special counsel has very carefully defined his role as a person serving a particular function within an institution and not wanting to go beyond that. One sign of that, of course, is how silent he has been up to now and how silent he hopes to remain. He says, in the future, he wants his work, he wants the report to speak for itself. And when you talk about discussions of the evidence and how much more of the evidence Congress might get its hands on directly, he essentially said, that's not my business. Someone else is discussing that. I'm not discussing that. That's not - that's not something I'm going to concern myself with.

JOHNSON: That's right. There are two things going on here. One is that Robert Mueller has respect for institutions. He was a famously decorated United States Marine after Vietnam. He served as the FBI director after the September 11, 2001, attacks where he witnessed a lot of strange and sometimes troubling things inside the administration.

Robert Mueller was reluctant to ever expose or to tell tales out of school in Congress about what he saw and did there, unlike former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey, who did go public with concerns about wiretapping and Vice President Cheney and other people in the White House. Bob Mueller never wanted to talk about that dirty laundry in public. He also rejected attempts to get him to talk about that.

Today Mueller said even though he was compelled to write a letter to his old friend, Attorney General Bill Barr, trying to get Barr to release more of the summaries of his report earlier this year, Barr finally did release the full report, and he was happy about that, Bob Mueller was. And he also said he did not want to question the attorney general's good faith in that decision.

Bob Mueller has done his job. He says he conducted a fair and independent criminal investigation. Virtually everybody can see and read the results of that investigation in a 400-odd-page report. Now that work is up to somebody else to continue, if it does.

INSKEEP: Let me turn now to our national political correspondent Mara Liasson because I have a question about the political effects of a particular phrase in this report, Mara. Robert Mueller said - well, made a point of saying, the allegations that we looked into, quote, "needed to be investigated." What is the political significance of a statement like that?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I think he's saying that if it needed to be investigated by him, it might also need to be investigated by Congress. And as Carrie has just laid out, he clearly explained that the pursuit of these allegations belong in a different process. He...

INSKEEP: Is he also - if I can ask, is he also pushing back at Republicans who have pushed conspiracy theories about exactly how this investigation started?

LIASSON: Oh, well, there's no doubt about that. But I also thought that he was pushing back against them when he - at the very end, where he thanked his staff, which sounds very pro forma. But he said these individuals, who spent nearly two years with the special counsel's office, are of the highest integrity. And that...

INSKEEP: Oh, and these are people that...

LIASSON: ...These investigations were conducted in a fair and independent manner because what you're talking about is the president and his supporters in Congress who are trying to say that the whole investigation was tainted because of the way it started, because of the FISA warrants that were granted by a judge to do surveillance - legal surveillance against people who had been connected with the Trump campaign.

But what I think is interesting is how he sent this hot potato into Congress's lap. And we've already had Chairman Nadler of the Judiciary Committee responding saying that they are going to follow up. He didn't say they're going to open impeachment hearings, but he said it's clear that the president is lying when he said the special counsel found no obstruction. And it falls to Congress to respond to these crimes and lies.

INSKEEP: Much more to discuss here after Robert Mueller made what he says is his only public statement about his investigation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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