WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Mueller reiterated Wednesday that his office could not clear President Donald Trump of obstructing justice, asserting in his first public remarks about his investigation that federal prosecutors cannot accuse the commander in chief of a crime while suggesting Congress still may do so.
Standing alone on stage in a room used for news conferences on the Justice Department's seventh floor, Mueller said that if his office "had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," and noted that the Constitution "requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse the president of wrongdoing."
But if Mueller was trying to suggest Democrats could initiate impeachment proceedings, he also seemed to dash any hopes they might have had of doing so with him as their star witness.
The special counsel - who noted he was closing up shop and formally resigning from the Justice Department - said he hoped the news conference would be his last public comments, and if he were compelled to testify before Congress, he would not speak beyond what he wrote in his 448-page report.
The comments - the first Mueller has made since his investigation closed last month - mostly reemphasized what the special counsel already had said in his report, and instantly fueled partisan infighting in Washington.
Trump and his supporters seized on the news conference to declare Mueller's investigation over and call for the country to move on.
Trump said in a tweet, "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." Jay Sekulow, his lawyer in the case, said Mueller's statement "puts a period on a two year investigation that produced no findings of collusion or obstruction against the President."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: "The report was clear - there was no collusion, no conspiracy - and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction . . . After two years, the Special Counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same." Her call was echoed by prominent Republicans, including the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the House minority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. They are among Trump's biggest supporters on Capitol Hill.
Democrats, meanwhile, said they would press ahead with their investigations. Several presidential contenders - including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg - said Mueller's comments were akin to an impeachment referral. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said Congress "has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately."
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has resisted a move toward impeachment, thanked Mueller for providing "a record for future action both in the Congress and in the courts" and said lawmakers would "continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy."
A House Democratic leadership aide said Mueller's public statement would change nothing: The chamber still intends to call the special counsel to appear before Congress - even if lawmakers have to force him. Should Mueller refuse, Democrats could issue a subpoena, though they were hoping to avoid such a compulsory measure.
The aide, who follows the House investigations closely, argued there's value in having Mueller appear in public, even if he refuses to answer questions beyond what's in the report. Most Americans, Democrats note, haven't read Mueller's findings - but potentially millions would tune in to a highly anticipated hearing broadcast on national television to hear him re-litigate some of what he found.
"There are tons of benefits to the visual . . . to animate and dramatize the report elevates public awareness of it," the aide said.
Senate Democrats, though, were concerned that the special counsel’s resistance to testifying could complicate their efforts to have Mueller, or one of his deputies, discuss the report’s counterintelligence findings in a closed interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the panel's vice chairman, said Mueller's warnings wouldn't amount to much if Congress fails to act on legislation to improve election security, put "guard rails" around social media, and criminalize any overt failure by political campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance. Warner has proposed legislation to address all of those matters.
"Mueller was pretty explicit that there was no clean bill of health for Donald Trump that came out of his report," Warner said. "It would be beyond irresponsible if the White House or Republican leadership doesn't allow Congress to move on protecting our elections in 2020."
Mueller's highly anticipated public statement was observed by about a dozen government lawyers who stood in the back of the room as Mueller spoke. Attorney General William Barr is traveling in Alaska. The White House was notified Tuesday night that Mueller planned to make the statement, according to a senior White House official.
Speaking softly and with an occasional rasp in his voice, Mueller laid out his reasons for not wanting to testify - mainly, his belief that the report speaks for itself, and his intent to return to private life.
"I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner," Mueller said. "I am making that decision myself. No one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter."
If pressed to testify, he added, he would "would not go beyond our report," because "the report is my testimony."
"We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself," Mueller said.
Mueller thanked Barr for making most of his report public - suggesting that there might no longer be tension, as there once was, over how the attorney general was describing Mueller's work. After Mueller had finished, but before his report was released, Barr had sent lawmakers a four-page letter describing the special counsel's principal conclusions. That sparked Mueller to write his own missive alleging the attorney general "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of investigators' work.
Mueller did not address the dispute specifically Wednesday, but said he did not question Barr's "good faith" in releasing the report. He left without taking any questions.
Mueller noted that his team found "insufficient evidence" to accuse Trump's campaign of conspiring with Russia to tilt the 2016 election, but emphasized they did not make a similar determination on whether the president obstructed justice.
That much was already in Mueller’s report. Mueller’s team wrote that Justice Department legal guidance prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president prevented prosecutors from accusing the commander in chief of a crime even in a private report.
On Wednesday, Mueller sought to explain his thinking more fully. A president, he said, "cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional." And he noted, "Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited."
"Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider," Mueller said.
But Mueller said his team was still allowed to investigate Trump because it was possible others could be charged. He did not say what they might have done if the law allowed a president to be charged, but hinted that lawmakers could still pursue the matter. Hundreds of former federal prosecutors have opined that Mueller laid out sufficient evidence in his report to make an obstruction case.
Since filing their detailed report, Mueller and his team have been frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of understanding even among lawmakers about a critical legal point - that Justice Department policy and fairness prohibit Mueller from reaching a decision on whether the president committed a crime.
Under that policy, Mueller and his team also believe it would be improper for him to say that the president would be charged with obstruction but for the Justice Department policy, because saying that would amount to a criminal accusation against the president, according to people involved in the discussion.
Mueller's team came to believe that making any sort of impeachment referral to Congress also would fall under the category of accusing the president of a crime, according to people familiar with their discussions.
For those reasons, Mueller has been guarded in his comments about the findings, and wants to avoid being drawn into a back-in-forth in congressional testimony that could be tantamount to accusing the president of a crime, these people said.
The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, Carol D. Leonnig, Karoun Demirjian and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.