It’s been a constant refrain for President Donald Trump since the April 19 release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report: “No collusion, no obstruction,” Trump has said and tweeted dozens of times.
But Mueller’s dramatic public statement on Wednesday was a powerful reminder, perhaps even to the White House, that Trump’s past comments were misleading at best.
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In concluding remarks before formally leaving his post after more than two years, Mueller made clear on Wednesday that he did not determine that Trump hadn’t obstructed justice, and that “if we had had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime we would have said so.”
It was far from the “total exoneration” that Trump has repeatedly — and falsely — claimed.
The renewed attention Mueller drew to his findings also seemed to produce a subtle change from Trump and his allies. They were mostly careful not to assert that Mueller had cleared Trump outright. It seemed a retreat from more definitive statements, and a recognition that Mueller’s spoken words would have more resonance than his dense, 448-page official report.
Trump acknowledged the distinction between the exoneration he has claimed in the past and Mueller’s far less forgiving findings when he responded via Twitter on Wednesday that there was “insufficient evidence” in Mueller’s report to show he obstructed justice and that, “therefore,” he is “innocent.”
It was an unusually mild framing by Trump, who often insists that he did nothing wrong in the Russia probe and that accusations against him are simply made up.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later issued a statement noting that Mueller’s “report was clear — there was no collusion, no conspiracy — and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction.” In what seemed like an act of coordination, Trump’s campaign echoed that language, saying, “There was no case for obstruction.”
The change from “no collusion, no obstruction” to “no collusion, no conspiracy” was a striking shift for a White House whose rhetoric has been consistent until now. It also included more nuance about the possibility that Trump had legally obstructed Mueller’s probe than most of their previous assertions.
Not in every case, to be sure: the statement from Trump’s campaign did repeat the assertion that “President Trump has been fully and completely exonerated.”
But Trump aides and allies generally offered clearer-than-usual acknowledgments that it was Attorney General William Barr, and not Mueller, who made the determination that Trump did not obstruct justice — even as prosecutors investigated 11 instances in which the president tried to hamper the Russia probe.
Barr has said Mueller’s report does not provide the basis for charging Trump with obstruction, in part because Trump did not commit the underlying crime of conspiring with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election.
But Democrats call Barr’s defense of Trump inherently suspect given that the president appointed him to the job of attorney general, and say the conclusions of Mueller, a Republican former FBI director who owes nothing to Trump, should carry far more weight.
The response from Trump and his aides on Wednesday appeared to recognize that the Mueller-led Justice Department investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election is now closed and that they need to work more clearly to try to influence lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Jan Witold Baran, a Republican lawyer specializing in government ethics, said: “If Mueller did not recommend prosecution and the two top DOJ officials” — namely, Barr and his then-deputy, Rod Rosenstein — “concluded that there is insufficient evidence for an obstruction charge, then the House will have to impeach Trump either on the basis that all the prosecutors were wrong or on another basis.”
But Sanders told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that Trump had not changed his response.
“We’ve been saying the same thing for two years, before the Mueller investigation even had to start,” she said. “We knew there was no collusion, we knew there was no conspiracy and there’s been no obstruction. We’ve been explicitly clear in that. I think I’ve probably said that phrase no less than a thousand times standing right here in this very spot. The message hasn’t changed at all.”
Trump’s responses are always shorter, more unequivocal and more exorbitant than his aides official statements in part because he relies on Twitter shorthand. But within minutes of Mueller’s statement, Trump, the White House and the Trump campaign responded in similar ways.
Jay Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, said in a statement that the investigation “produced no findings of collusion or obstruction against the president,” although he was careful to attribute that determination to Barr, not Mueller himself.
“The attorney general conclusively determined that there was no obstruction by the president,” he said. “In the words of Attorney General Barr: ‘The report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct.’”
Mueller’s statement that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to accuse a president of wrongdoing led some members of Congress to announce that they want to investigate further.
“The ball is in our court, Congress,” tweeted Justin Amash, the lone Republican lawmaker pushing for impeachment proceedings.
Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, said Trump and his aides appeared to be speaking to those lawmakers mulling impeachment proceedings and that the change in language is not for legal reasons, but political ones.
“They want to give cover to anyone who wasn’t sure about impeachment,” he said. “Their hope is the attorney general’s opinion carries weight … He’s not just any guy. He’s the attorney general of the United States.”
That strategy is unlikely to work with some lawmakers. House Democrats have already accused Barr of acting more like Trump’s personal attorney than the U.S. attorney general and threatened to hold him in contempt for failing to release Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence.
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