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Mueller makes it even clearer: He didn't put Trump in clear of crimes

Special counsel Robert Mueller at the Justice Department

Special counsel Robert Mueller at the Justice Department on Wednesday. Credit: EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Jim Lo Scalzo

He's the ex-'exonerated' now

Old Trump: "NO COLLUSION! NO OBSTRUCTION." New Trump: "Insufficient evidence."

It doesn't have quite the same self-exculpatory ring. But President Donald Trump went to a fallback mantra after special counsel Robert Mueller spoke up Wednesday and made even clearer the damaging findings from his Russia investigation, which Attorney General William Barr, among others, had tried to fuzz up.

"If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," Mueller said from the Justice Department briefing room. His appearance there, announced on short notice, was all the more dramatic because Mueller said nothing in public during his two years in the job.

Barr said in his April summary of Mueller's report before its release that it found “no evidence of collusion.” But Mueller said Wednesday it was “insufficient evidence.”

The special counsel said it was Justice Department rules against charging a sitting president that stopped him from reporting a conclusion about obstruction of justice. That diverged from Barr's spin — that Mueller was uncertain about the strength of the evidence for obstruction, so the attorney general and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided the facts didn't show a crime.

No matter, Trump tweeted: "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." But Mueller noted the Constitution provides for a process, "other than the criminal justice system, to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” 

Some Democrats in Congress heard that as an invitation to impeach. For more, see Newsday's story by Tom Brune with David M. Schwartz and Laura Figueroa Hernandez. Click here to watch Mueller's statement in full, and here to read a transcript.

Will impeachment become irresistible?

Mueller's statement moved more House Democrats into the "impeachment now" camp, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said their investigations need more time to play out and build a case.

"Where they will lead us, we shall see. Nothing is off the table,” Pelosi said at an event in San Francisco. "But we do want to make such a compelling case, such an ironclad case, that even the Republican Senate — which at the time seems to be not an objective jury — will be convinced of the path that we have to take as a country.”

In the meantime, she said, “The Congress will continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy." The Washington Post reported that Nadler, while not publicly breaking with Pelosi, has privately pushed her to allow an impeachment inquiry to begin.

Janison: An adult is talking 

When Mueller spoke, writes Newsday's Dan Janison, the public got to hear, in a soft clipped tone, sentences that were palpably founded in fact. It was a night-and-day, darkness-and-light contrast to Trump's false, inflammatory rants of how Mueller's probe amounted to a sinister partisan cabal against him.

The fact that Mueller showed discipline, and removed himself from the spotlight without taking questions, sent a message to those who wished to hear it that the government in some ways still functions with rules despite the polarizing background noise. But Mueller passed the baton to others to decide what to do next.

Clamor for an encore

Mueller all but pleaded with the Democrats who want him to testify on Capitol Hill to let his statement Wednesday and his report speak for themselves. “The report is my testimony,” he said. "I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress."

Nadler, who has unsuccessfully negotiated to get Mueller in front of his committee, left uncertain whether he would keep trying. "Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today," Nadler told a Manhattan news conference.

But The New York Times reported the sight of Mueller describing his findings on live television deepened Democratic convictions that putting him on the witness stand would help convince Americans of Trump's wrongdoing and why it matters.

Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff said he wants Mueller to testify because there are "a great many questions he can answer that go beyond the report, including any counterintelligence issues and classified matters that were not addressed in his findings."

Mueller: No witch hunt

Mueller avoided any direct criticism of Barr, but he implicitly contradicted the claims of illicit "spying" on the Trump campaign that the attorney general is pursuing, not to mention Trump's accusation that those investigating him conducted a "witch hunt" and committed "treason."

"I want to thank the attorneys, the FBI agents, the analysts, the professional staff who helped us conduct this investigation in a fair and independent manner," Mueller said. "These individuals who spent nearly two years with the special counsel's office were of the highest integrity."

Mueller closed with a reminder of "the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple systemic efforts to interfere in our election," and declared: "That allegation deserves the attention of every American." 

Thursday's tantrum

The Fox-amped president turned up the noise the morning after Mueller's remarks in an attempt to out-shout Democratic responses.

But along the way, perhaps in a Freudian slip, he tweeted this interesting statement:

"I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected."

The full text is here.

Minutes later he told reporters: "Russia did not help me get elected."

Trailing indicator

The pro-impeachment bandwagon among the Democrats' 2020 contenders got more crowded after Mueller's statement, with Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand jumping on board. Ten of the 23 candidates are now in favor of the House taking the ultimate step it can against a president.

"Robert Mueller clearly expects Congress to exercise its constitutional authority and take steps that he could not," said Gillibrand. "Congress has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately," declared Booker. Buttigieg called Mueller's statement "as close to an impeachment referral as you could get under the circumstances."

While polls have shown a majority of voters overall do not favor impeachment, most Democrats do.

What else is happening:

  • At the White House's request, the Navy kept the USS John McCain "out of sight" during Trump's Japan visit, The Wall Street Journal reported. Its sailors, whose caps bear the McCain name, were given the day off. The destroyer is named for the Arizona senator and war hero who Trump loathes even posthumously, as well as for McCain's father and grandfather.
  • Trump is pressuring Roy Moore, who lost a Senate seat in Alabama to a Democrat in 2017, to stay out of the race next year. "I have NOTHING against Roy Moore" but he "cannot win," Trump tweeted about the Republican, who was accused of sexually predatory behavior with teenage girls. Moore said he still might run.
  • Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan voiced more concern than Trump has about North Korea's recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles.
  • Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended deploying troops to the U.S.-Mexico border but said he wouldn't "comment on the appropriateness" of diverting military funds to build border barriers, Politico reported.
  • Federal prosecutors in Washington sent subpoenas to Mar-a-Lago and the Trump Victory political fundraising committee for records relating to donor Li “Cindy” Yang and several of her associates and companies, the Miami Herald reported.
  • Actor Robert De Niro, who plays Mueller on "Saturday Night Live," urged the special counsel in a New York Times op-ed to testify before Congress. "Your life has been a shining example of bravely and selflessly doing things for the good of our country. I urge you to leave your comfort zone and do that again," De Niro wrote.

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