WASHINGTON (CN) – Speaking publicly for the first time about his report on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, special counsel Robert Mueller emphasized Wednesday that Justice Department policy barred his office from charging the president with a crime.
“The Special Counsel’s Office is part of the Department of Justice and by regulation it was bound by that department policy,” Mueller said this morning. “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”
Mirroring points made in his blockbuster report last month, Mueller made the points this morning during a surprise availability at the Justice Department. The former FBI director began the remarks by saying he is resigning from the position of special counsel and that the office is formally closing its doors.
Another point Mueller made was that his investigators did not exonerate President Donald Trump on obstruction of justice.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said. “We did not however make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
On Wednesday, Mueller said the “long-standing” policy of the Justice Department is that charging a sitting president with a crime would be unconstitutional. That view is set out in two opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel, and Mueller said it also would extend to filing a sealed indictment against the president that would be unveiled after he left office.
Mueller explained there are other avenues to charge a president of wrongdoing outside of the criminal justice system.
As for his handling of the obstruction decision in the report, Mueller reiterated that, if his team dug up clear evidence that Trump did not obstruct justice, it would have said so. He also said accusing somebody of a crime without the possibility of that person having a day in court would be inappropriate.
“It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge,” Mueller said.
Mueller was famously reclusive during the course of the probe that dominated all conversation in Washington for the better part of two years, only speaking through court documents filed by his team of lawyers and the occasional press release.
Then in March the Justice Department announced that Mueller had completed his work, and the special counsel released a 448-page report of his investigation last month.
While detailing repeated contacts between Trump campaign officials and people with ties to the Russian government, Mueller did not find a conspiracy between the campaign and Russia. He also did not reach a traditional prosecutorial decision on whether Trump obstructed justice with his approach towards the probe.
Instead, Attorney General William Barr, consulting with others at the Justice Department, determined Mueller’s investigation had not dug up sufficient evidence that Trump obstructed justice.
Since Mueller’s report dropped last month, Democrats in Congress have pursued their own investigations into its subject matter, attempting to receive testimony from some of the report’s key figures and to gain access to some of its underlying evidence.
The House Judiciary Committee had been in talks with Mueller to testify publicly before the panel, though Mueller reportedly hoped to testify in private.
But Mueller said Wednesday he does not believe it would be appropriate for him to comment any further on the investigation, and that if he were to speak publicly he would not say anything that is not already publicly available.
“The report is my testimony,” Mueller said. “I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
Responding to Mueller’s comments Wednesday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said “all options are on the table” for Congress to take action against Trump
Without committing specifically to opening up impeachment proceedings, Nadler said Wednesday at a press conference in New York City: “No one is above the law and we will hold the president accountable.”
Nadler accused Trump of lying about the contents of Mueller’s report and commended Mueller for his work on the investigation.
When asked about Mueller’s comments about testifying before Congress, Nadler would not say whether he would subpoena Mueller to appear before the committee.
“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we needed to hear today,” Nadler said Wednesday.
Mueller was clear he was making the decision on his own, and that nobody in the government told him he could not testify.
A senior White House official said the White House heard Tuesday night that Mueller could make a public statement on Wednesday, according to a White House pool report.
Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to respond to Mueller’s comments, saying “nothing changes from the Mueller report.”
“There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our country, a person is innocent,” Trump tweeted. “The case is closed! Thank you.”