In a brief statement to the press on Wednesday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller offered little new substantial information even as he highlighted many of the key aspects of the report on his investigation. He made clear that, if he testified before Congress, he doesn’t intend to offer comments that go beyond the content of the report — and made clear that he wouldn’t answer hypotheticals about whether he would have indicted President Donald Trump were he not president.
But the comments were not helpful to Trump’s cause. Mueller said, as he did in the report, that if he could say Trump didn’t commit a crime, he would. But he is not saying that Trump didn’t commit a crime. Justice Department policy, nevertheless, prevents him from indicting Trump.
And yet while the comments will surely disappoint the most fervent of Trump’s critics who hoped for an about-face from Mueller about indicting the president, the special counsel chose his words carefully. And a few particular claims were a searing moral indictment of Trump, if not a legal one:
The indictments allege, and the other activities in our report describe, efforts to interfere in our political system. They needed to be investigated and understood. And that is among the reasons why the department established our office. That is also a reason we investigated efforts to obstruct the investigation. Matters we investigated were of paramount importance; it was critical for us to obtain full and accurate information from every person we questioned. When a subject of an investigation obstructs an investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable. [emphasis mine]
Since Trump was one of the people questioned by the special counsel’s office, Mueller’s remarks undoubtedly apply to the president himself. And combined with the fact that Mueller said in the report that Trump’s answers to the office’s questions were “inadequate,” we can conclude he does not believe he obtained “full and accurate” information from the president, undermining a critical part of his work.
He also explained in these brief remarks why the obstruction investigation of Trump matters so much. Trump, a “subject” of the investigation in Volume II of the report that examined many potentially obstructive acts by the president, struck “at the core of the government’s efforts to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” Trump and his allies have tried to dismiss the allegations of obstruction because no underlying conspiracy with Russia was established — but Mueller’s comments show why that argument misses the point.