OP-ED: Here’s the only thing you need to know about Mueller’s news conference

Timothy L. O'Brien
Bloomberg News

In Bob Woodward’s biography of President Donald Trump, “Fear,” he recounts a moment when Trump tells a pal who was a sexual predator how to handle any accusations coming his way.

“You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” the book recounts Trump saying. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”

This has been part of the Trump playbook for decades. Whether it involved disputing that he and his father had discriminated against prospective renters of color in the 1970s or whether he had knowingly made misleading statements to investors in the early 2000s, the go-to response was always the same: deny, deny, deny.

Right on cue Wednesday, Trump popped out a tweet responding to a clarifying — and damning — little news conference Special Counsel Robert Mueller conducted outlining his key takeaways from his investigation of Team Trump’s myriad intersections with Russia and Russians in recent years. Trump’s take: “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.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Washington, about the Russia investigation.

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Trump’s marionette, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, also jumped on board with her own tweet: “The report was clear — there was no collusion, no conspiracy — and the Department of Justice confirmed there was no obstruction.”

None of this handiwork — surprise, surprise — completely captures what Mueller said at his news conference. It also actively misrepresents what he said. Mueller, despite the president’s spin, didn’t exonerate Trump.

Mueller indeed noted that there “was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy” tying Trump and his advisers to Russian efforts to sabotage the 2016 presidential campaign. Mueller, however, wasn’t willing to give Trump a pass on another possible crime that his investigators probed and which he outlined in disturbing detail in the second half of his report: obstruction of justice.

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said on Wednesday morning. Mueller also said that he didn’t see it as his place to decide whether Trump had committed a crime.

“Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional,” Mueller pointed out. “A special counsel’s office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation, it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”

So who should consider that option? “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” Mueller pointed out (reiterating a point he made in his report as well). In a word: impeachment. And that’s a process that Congress oversees.

Sanders’s spinning wasn’t so off the rails that she tried to say Mueller cleared her handler of obstruction of justice. She cites the Department of Justice for that one. And that is, essentially, Attorney General William Barr, who took it upon himself to clear his boss of obstruction of justice in a manner Mueller clearly hadn’t.

In fact, Mueller emphasized — yet again — during his news conference why obstruction is such a seismic crime when it comes to the rule of law and the notion that no one exists above it.

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

There has been a complex and important debate underway about whether Trump should be impeached. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party have debated the possible, perhaps probable, political costs an impeachment might entail if it’s undertaken before the 2020 presidential election.

The political calculus, however, is distinct from the legal realities. Mueller has laid out for the public, again, what he thinks his investigation means. He’s documented ample collusion between Trump’s advisers and Russia, but he couldn’t tie that into a criminal conspiracy. He also documented ample obstruction by the president, obstruction so obvious that he couldn’t absolve Trump of a crime.

And by acknowledging that he wasn’t empowered to charge Trump with a crime to begin with, Mueller put the legal onus back on Congress today. Republicans aren’t going to stand up for principle here. Democrats, on the other hand, will have to decide whether their party and politicians exist to win elections or to uphold the old-fashioned principle that everybody — including the president — should obey the law.

— Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”