White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions from reporters on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s statement about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election outside of the White House on Wednesday, May 29, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions from reporters on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s statement about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election outside of the White House on Wednesday, May 29, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Mueller: Investigation did not exonerate Trump

In his first public comments on the Russia investigation, outgoing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III refused Wednesday to clear President Donald Trump.

WASHINGTON _ In his first and perhaps last public comments on the Russia investigation, outgoing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III pointedly refused Wednesday to clear President Donald Trump of a possible crime, while urging Americans to confront foreign interference in U.S. elections.

Appearing at the Justice Department, Mueller sought to put a capstone on his nearly two-year investigation, reading a statement but taking no questions from reporters. He did not definitively rule out testifying to Congress, but said he would not provide any information not contained in the redacted 448-page report released six weeks ago.

He stopped far short of Trump’s claims, and those of Attorney General William Barr, that the investigation found no obstruction of justice by the president and “no collusion” between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives.

Mueller said Justice Department guidelines prevent indicting a sitting president, a remark that suggested it was the rules, not the lack of evidence, that spared Trump from criminal charges.

“If we had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller declared in a raspy baritone that hasn’t been heard publicly since he was appointed special counsel in May 2017.

As for Russia’s intervention in the 2016 campaign, he cited “insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy” beyond the indictments of 25 Russian military intelligence operatives and others for stealing Democratic Party emails and sowing disinformation on social media.

He urged Americans _ and implicitly Congress and the Trump administration _ to take the threat of foreign meddling more seriously to preserve the integrity of future U.S. elections.

“There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our (2016) election,” Mueller said. “And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Mueller, 74, announced that he’s resigning as special counsel and will return to private life, an expected outcome now that his investigation is over. A former FBI director, he was in private practice before he was appointed special counsel.

Trump responded in a tweet shortly after Mueller finished his statement.

“Nothing changes from the Mueller Report,” he tweeted. “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed! Thank you.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, by contrast highlighted Mueller’s refusal to clear Trump.

“It falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump,” Nadler said. “We will do so.”

Nadler did not indicate that he’s ready to begin impeachment proceedings, and he appeared less adamant about requiring Mueller to testify on Capitol Hill.

“Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today,” Nadler said.

Mueller made clear he hopes congressional testimony won’t be necessary.

“The report is my testimony,” Mueller said. “I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

He added, “I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to speak further about the investigation or to comment on the actions of the Justice Department or Congress.”

After reading his statement, Mueller departed the podium with a staccato wave of his left hand as reporters shouted questions in vain. Although he barely strayed from the text of his report, his appearance _ abruptly announced 90 minutes earlier _ proved dramatic after spending nearly two years studiously avoiding any public comments.

He never appeared publicly to announce indictments, and he did not speak to the media when he filed his final report on March 22 or when the Justice Department released a redacted version of it April 18.

The report documented how the president’s campaign team welcomed Russia’s offers of help and expected to benefit from it.

Moscow conducted a two-pronged covert effort during the 2016 campaign. The Internet Research Agency, a so-called troll farm allegedly funded by an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, spread divisive and false content on social media. And military intelligence officers hacked Democratic Party emails and released them through WikiLeaks at key moments during the campaign.

Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump broke the law by obstructing justice. The special counsel’s report outlined various ways the president tried to influence the outcome of the investigation, such as directing his White House lawyer to remove Mueller from his post.

The report also said Trump tried to limit the probe “to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the president’s and his campaign’s conduct.”

After Mueller filed his report, Barr released a letter saying the evidence did not show that Trump had committed a crime by obstructing justice. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller and supervised the investigation, agreed with that assessment. Rosenstein has since resigned.

Outside legal experts, and many Democratic members of Congress, argued that some of Trump’s actions would be prosecuted if he were not president, however.

Mueller had previously complained privately that Barr did not “fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions,” but little of that tension was on display Wednesday.

Instead, Mueller thanked Barr for making much of the report public and said he did not question the attorney general’s “good faith” in the redaction process.

However, the special counsel’s comments contrasted with Barr’s own description of the investigation.

For example, when Barr held a news conference last month, he said “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency,” a perspective that cast Trump’s actions in a more innocent light.

Mueller expressed a more hard-line view Wednesday.

“When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s effort to strike at the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable,” he said.

He also emphasized the role of Justice Department rules in his decision not to determine whether Trump committed a crime and hinted that it was up to lawmakers, not prosecutors, to sanction the president if they believe he broke the law _ two aspects of his report that Barr had downplayed.

“Charging the president with a crime was not an option we could consider,” he said. The Constitution “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” he added.

Mueller’s statement came while Congress was on Memorial Day recess, when very few members are in Washington, dampening the chance of immediate fireworks from Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who weeks ago declared “case closed,” was on stage at an event in Kentucky as the former special counsel spoke, according to a spokesman.

But Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the only House Republican who has called for impeachment proceedings against the president to begin, tweeted soon after that “the ball is in our court, Congress.”

Even though Mueller did not significantly expand on the text of his report in his comments, some Democrats responded by calling for impeachment.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York both tweeted that it was time to begin impeachment proceedings.

Other Democratic candidates _ Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Kamala Harris of California _ have already called for impeachment.

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