Mueller says his team could not consider charging Trump with a crime

A redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report was released in March. Since then, Washington has been consumed with debate over his decision neither to charge nor exonerate President Donald Trump. Mueller is scheduled to testify before Congress today. Mueller is pictured here when he was director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation — Photo taken May 16, 2013 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday stressed that his office did not consider it an option to charge President Donald Trump with a crime as he and his team completed their investigation.

Mueller spoke for about 10 minutes Wednesday morning from a lectern at the Justice Department, marking his first public appearance since launching a two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime,” he said, reiterating a key finding from his 448-page report.

Mueller said he was abiding by longstanding Justice Department policy, where “a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office.” He added, “Charging a president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”

Many House Democrats considering how to proceed in investigating a defiant administration took Mueller’s comments as a clear signal that it’s up to lawmakers to aggressively probe the president’s actions.

Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, D-8th, said “Special Counsel Mueller makes it clear that his investigation did not ‘exonerate’ Trump, and directly contradicts [Attorney General William] Barr’s public statements.” Beyer added, “Barr should resign, and Congress should open an impeachment inquiry into the President’s potentially criminal acts.”

Virginia’s other House members, however, kept mostly quiet about Mueller’s statement and Beyer appears to be the lone Virginia representative calling for impeachment.

U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-11th, said in a CNN interview that “a number of investigations” are going on now ” but stopped short of calling for impeachment. He didn’t say it was off the table, though.

“If Democrats define this solely as a matter of political judgment, we will not impeach Donald Trump,” he said.

“Because politically it’s not advantageous and it could hurt Democratic prospects next year. On the other hand, if you remember that you took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution … I think that’s a much closer call. … Increasingly, Democrats are moving in that direction and are willing to risk the political fallout if that’s necessary. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting awfully close.”

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the lone congressional Republican so far to push for impeachment, said of Mueller’s comments, “The ball is in our court, Congress.”

Other lawmakers still want Mueller to testify before Congress, although the special counsel made it clear that he is closing up shop and doesn’t plan to offer much more information, even if he’s at the witness stand.

“I am speaking out today because our investigation is complete; the attorney general has made the report on our investigation largely public. We are formally closing the special counsel’s office and as well I’m resigning from the Department of Justice to return to private life,” he said. He took no questions after he spoke.

Any congressional testimony he would offer “would not go beyond our report,” Mueller said. “We will not comment on any other conclusions or hypotheticals about the president.” He noted that his office isn’t involved in conversations about congressional access to the evidence underlying his report, which lawmakers are also seeking to obtain.

“While Mueller’s report confirmed Russian interference in our 2016 election and did not exonerate Trump from obstruction; there are still many questions left unanswered,” Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said. “Mueller should testify before Congress. The American people deserve the whole truth.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) agreed. “Mueller needs to testify before Congress,” he wrote.

Trump and his GOP allies continued their defense of the president.

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report. There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you,” Trump wrote on Twitter shortly after Mueller’s appearance.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) slammed Mueller’s transparency in a tweet. “If @realDonaldTrump doesn’t take a question for a few weeks, the media claims democracy is on life support,” Gaetz wrote. “Robert #Mueller took 22 months to do the investigation. Followed by a 9 minute drive-by obstruction allegation. And then does not take a SINGLE QUESTION.”

UPDATE: U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, appeared on the John Fredericks Show Thursday morning.

“I read the report. I find it interesting that people are screaming, I guess on the far left again, about impeachment talk,” Riggleman said.

“There was simply no conspiracy or collusion. And now we’re looking at maybe obstruction. But I don’t think we can try to adjudicate character, which I think they’re trying to do.  … He just reiterated the same thing he said in the report and I guess we need to move on as a country and get some things done.”

Editor Robert Zullo contributed.