When special counsel Robert Mueller took to the rostrum Wednesday in Washington for a much-hyped public statement, he did so with the intention to set the record straight on his two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the prospective obstruction of justice by its winner, President Donald Trump, and his associates.
Namely, he emphasized that the report his team produced — which neither exonerated nor charged the president with a crime — was exactly what he said it was: an honest look at the operations of the campaign and of Russian intelligence as they related to the 2016 election.
“The report is my testimony,” Mueller said in a news conference Wednesday.
Most important, however, was Mueller’s statement on his role as special counsel: that it was Congress’ responsibility, not the Justice Department’s, to try the president for any crimes he may have committed while in office.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said.
Wyoming’s delegation in Washington — which has been stridently in support of the president since the release of the Mueller report last month — had little new to say Wednesday, with Republican Rep. Liz Cheney and close Trump ally Sen. John Barrasso releasing statements avoiding the lines Mueller left open to interpretation.
“Special Counsel Mueller said today that his report speaks for itself, and confirmed what we already knew: there was no collusion and the Justice Department found there was no obstruction,” Cheney said in a statement.
Mueller’s investigation came in two parts: one investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election — and whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian agents to hurt his opponent, Hillary Clinton — and another examining whether Trump or his associates obstructed the special counsel’s investigation.
Numerous ties between Trump’s team and the Russian government — as well as evidence his associates had impeded Mueller’s investigation — were outlined in the report, while more than a dozen additional, ongoing investigations were acknowledged in the report’s appendices.
Though numerous Trump associates were convicted of or indicted for federal crimes during the course of his office’s investigation, Mueller made it clear that his office did not have the authority or sufficient evidence to charge the president with a crime.
Rather, the determination to charge a sitting president with a crime, he said, should be left not to the court system but to Congress.
“Charging the president with a crime was not something we could consider,” Mueller said.
While Barrasso acknowledged that the investigation had yielded arrests, he avoided mention of the indictment of numerous Trump associates — only the Russian nationals named in the report.
“The Special Counsel didn’t find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but did indict dozens of Russians for interfering in the 2016 election,” said Barrasso. “That was confirmed again today by Special Counsel Mueller.”
In the history of the United States, only four presidents have ever faced the prospect of impeachment: James Buchanan (corruption), Andrew Johnson (violating the Tenure of Office Act), and Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, who both — among other allegations — were accused of obstruction of justice.
Impeachment of Trump, however, has largely been considered off the table.
Democratic leadership in the House, with only the contents of the Mueller report to consider, has been reluctant to lend support to calls from a small portion of their membership to bring articles of impeachment against the president. Meanwhile the Senate, which maintains a Republican majority, would be unlikely to support those efforts, particularly with a public that, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, opposes impeachment by a slim majority.
Through a spokesperson, Enzi — the only member of the Wyoming delegation to ever discuss impeachment in a Senate hearing — said he believed any such proceeding should “be based on credible evidence of wrongdoing while in office.”
“Should questions on the president’s actions come before the Senate as a result of impeachment, Senator Enzi would review all the facts and make a judgment about such conduct at the time,” they said in a statement.
Barrasso, in an appearance on Fox News last week, was much more succinct.
“If the House of Representatives wants to do what they seem to want to do, which is travel the path to impeachment, let them,” he said. “There’s going to be no appetite for that in the United States Senate.”
For Wyoming’s delegation, nothing new
Mueller’s statement Wednesday, while explicit in the special counsel’s role within the justice system, was noticeably vague and refrained from drawing any specific ties between the president and the evidence presented within the report that associates within his campaign obstructed justice during the investigation.
Mueller maintained Wednesday that while he may be asked to testify before Congress on the contents of the report, it was important that the report be allowed to speak for itself and, if questioned, he would speak no further than its contents.
As such, Wyoming’s delegation in Washington had little more to say than what they had said previously. All three supported the investigation at its start and, following its conclusion, supported the release of the Mueller report in its entirety.
Following its release, they celebrated the full report as an exoneration of the president from any complicity in Russia’s verifiable interference in the 2016 elections, maintaining it was time to move on.
“As the Attorney General’s letter revealed a month ago, the release of this report confirms that Democrats have perpetuated a fraud on the American people for the last two years,” Cheney said in a statement last month. “There was no collusion.”
On Wednesday, the president seemed to celebrate with a victory lap, tweeting “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.”
Cheney, meanwhile, has gone on the offensive in recent weeks, going as far as to say comments made by former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page during the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference “could well be treason” and that proof of high-level corruption existed within the FBI itself, a claim echoed by the president on social media earlier this week.
Meanwhile, the president has given Attorney General William Barr the go-ahead to lead an investigation of the investigation itself, giving Barr the authority to “declassify, downgrade, or direct the declassification or downgrading of information or intelligence” relating to the Russia investigation in a special order last week — an effort Cheney supported in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“I support the Attorney General’s determination to investigate improper behavior by some at the highest levels of the Obama Justice Department and FBI,” she said.
Looking toward 2020
What likely remains the most realistic outcome of the Mueller investigation is the examination of foreign interference in the 2016 election, which was intended to damage the credibility of a specific candidate in the election, Clinton, to the advantage of her opponent.
“There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our elections, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American,” Mueller said.
A concerted response to that interference, however, has been slow in coming. In March, the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations released a piece calling for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s electoral security, noting the lack of a cohesive plan from the Trump administration or Congress.
Enzi, who acknowledged the role Russian intelligence played in the 2016 elections in previous statements to the Star-Tribune, said through a spokesperson he was committed to staying the course on preventing similar meddling in future elections. This year in the Senate, several pieces of legislation, including the DETER Act of 2019, have been introduced with the intention of preventing future election interference from foreign governments, while others, like the sweeping “For The People Act“ backed by House Democrats, have garnered only partisan support.
“As Special Counsel Mueller’s report found, it is clear there were systematic efforts by Russia to interfere with our election,” Rachel Vliem, a spokesperson for Sen. Enzi’s office, wrote in an emailed statement. “Senator Enzi is committed to working with his colleagues to prevent threats posed to our democratic institutions by foreign interference.”
Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds
Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!
Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.