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How To Think About Mueller’s Statement

After two years of drama, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election ended on Wednesday morning with a quiet, even anticlimactic coda. In his first (and what appear to be his last) comments about his team’s findings, Mueller announced that he was officially resigning. He also dashed hopes that he might voluntarily testify before Congress about the investigation, saying, “The report is my testimony.”

In some ways, Mueller’s statement felt out of sync with the current political moment — particularly since it came more than a month after the report was released by Attorney General William Barr and more than two months after Barr’s much-criticized summary initially relayed Mueller’s findings. But now that Mueller has exited the political fray, it’s entirely up to Congress as to what happens next — and many 2020 hopefuls are using it in a new push for impeachment, which could complicate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda.

Here are three takeaways from Mueller’s press conference:

Mueller quietly rebuked Barr, repeating that he did not exonerate the president

Underneath the polite, straightforward summary of his findings, Mueller poked holes in Barr’s presentation of his findings in March. In contrast to Barr, who said he had concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge President Trump with obstruction of justice, Mueller said that if his team “had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

He added that charging the president with a crime was a non-starter from the beginning, thanks to Department of Justice guidelines that bar prosecutors from indicting a sitting president. But he also stressed that he did believe he had the authority and the obligation to investigate potential obstruction. Barr, meanwhile, suggested in congressional testimony earlier this month that Mueller should not have continued his investigation if he felt he couldn’t make a “traditional prosecutive decision” about whether the evidence supported criminal charges.

Mueller — true to his reputation as a law enforcement veteran who dislikes the public spotlight — didn’t openly engage with the political theatrics that have consumed his investigation, adding that he “didn’t question [Barr’s] good faith” in choosing to release the report publicly, and stressed that he would have nothing to say to Congress that wasn’t already in the report.

Mueller may have realized congressional testimony could undermine his credibility

Testifying before Congress was always going to be a tricky tightrope walk for Mueller, who has so far managed to produce a report that majorities of Republicans and Democrats think is fair — even though, as FiveThirtyEight’s Dhrumil Mehta wrote last month, there’s deep disagreement between the parties about whether the report actually showed that Trump interfered with the investigation in a way that amounted to obstruction of justice.

Partisans don’t agree on what Mueller’s report said

Responses by party to a question asking whether Americans believe Trump interfered with the Mueller investigation in a way that amounted to obstruction of justice

Democrats Republicans
yes no yes no
August 2018 80% 10% 19% 71%
March 2019 80 16 21 77
April 2019 81 10 13 77

Source: Washington Post/ABC and Washington Post/Schar School Polls

Given the partisan rift about what the report actually concluded, it would have been hard for Mueller to avoid undermining the report’s credibility among some segment of Americans if he opined about it at length. Take one of Mueller’s predecessors, Ken Starr, for example. He investigated several scandals under President Bill Clinton, including whether Clinton lied under oath about an affair with a White House intern. He was much more outspoken than Mueller, outlining a case for Clinton’s impeachment in his final report, and he agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee after impeachment proceedings against Clinton began. But Starr was ultimately tarred as a partisan warrior trying to undermine Clinton’s presidency. Mueller seems likely to avoid that fate if he can avoid public testimony.

Congress is now in the driver’s seat

House Democrats have been pushing for Mueller to testify, but now that he’s publicly announced that he doesn’t want to, the ball is even more firmly planted in Congress’s court. And this could complicate Pelosi’s efforts to tamp down an impeachment push and intensify party infighting about whether starting impeachment proceedings would hurt Democrats electorally.

Pelosi has long warned about the political risks of impeachment but may face additional pressure to begin impeachment proceedings now that Mueller has officially bowed out. In a tweet on Wednesday morning, Sen. Cory Booker urged impeachment for the first time, saying: “Robert Mueller’s statement makes it clear: Congress has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings.” Several other presidential candidates — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who in April was the first to say Trump should be impeached — also reiterated their call for House Democrats to begin the impeachment process.

By emphasizing that he was barred from pursuing charges against the president by Justice Department policies, Mueller may have given Democrats who support impeachment a little more ammunition than they had before. But he also made it clear that he’s not going to offer more guidance to the Democrats than he already has. He wrote the report, and now it’s up to Congress to figure out what to do with his findings.

From ABC News:

Mueller speaks out for first time since ending Russia Probe

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.