The comedy team Key and Peele had a running gag in which the always-calm President Barack Obama used an “anger translator” named Luther to interpret Obama’s calm language into appropriate outrage. For example, when Obama’s character would serenely express his wishes for the conduct of foreign allies, Luther would rant about their actions with profanity.
Allow me to do the same for Robert Mueller.
On Wednesday, the special counsel spoke for the first time, using respectful and nuanced language, but his message was clear: “It’s about Russia, stupid!”
The internecine wars between Democrats and Republicans trying to interpret his report must enrage the veteran U.S. Marine. As members of Congress debate whether he should testify at an open or closed hearing, Mueller spoke for the first time—and what he apparently hopes will be the last time—about his report. He seemed determined to avoid further delay and political gamesmanship, suggesting that all he has to say appears in his report. Translation: You don’t need me to testify if you will just read the damn report!
In his remarks, first and foremost, Mueller sought to emphasize that his investigation and report were about Russia. He started and ended his comments with Russia. Mueller stated that “Russian intelligence officers who were part of the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system.” He concluded the press conference by “reiterating the central allegation of our indictments—that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere with our elections. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.” In other words, this was a military attack by a hostile foreign adversary. This was not a hoax! We need to take action to prevent it from happening again instead of worrying about whether that conclusion diminishes the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.
Second, Mueller discussed his obstruction of justice investigation. He explained the importance of investigating obstruction, even when no underlying crime is established: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” Translation: Yes, you can be guilty of obstruction even when no underlying crime is established. Stop saying there can be no cover-up if there was no crime to cover up.
Mueller also explained that he did not make a prosecutorial decision about obstruction because he believed from the outset that he could not file charges, citing the DOJ opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”
When Mueller declined to reach a conclusion about obstruction, Attorney General William Barr did it for him, stating that prosecutors make binary decisions: charge or don’t charge. But this is a nonsensical position if you believe, as Mueller did, that you cannot charge a sitting president with a crime. In that scenario, a prosecutor can’t decide to charge.
Instead, the binary choice of a special prosecutor investigating the president is exonerate or don’t exonerate. Mueller demonstrated that he is comfortable exonerating, as he did with regard to conspiracy. It is significant that he declined to do the same with obstruction. As he said at the press conference, “If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”
So if no charges were ever possible, what was the point of investigating at all? At the press conference, Mueller explained that while the DOJ opinion prohibits the indictment of a sitting president, it permits the investigation of the chief executive. And so Mueller did investigate “to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents are available.” The reason for this permission is twofold: because other individuals besides the president can be and were charged, and because the “Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
Translation: Obstruction is a big deal. We did not clear the president of obstruction, but we did not think we could charge a president. You know who can? Congress! So we preserved the evidence for Congress to consider impeachment.
Finally, Mueller thanked the attorneys, FBI agents, analysts and professional staff for their “fair and independent manner.” He referred to them as individuals “of the highest integrity.” In fact, it was out of fairness that Mueller and his team declined to even “potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no resolution of an actual charge.” Translation: This was a fair investigation by honorable people, so knock off all the talk about a coup.
He ended with, “Thank you.”
What he meant was, “You’re welcome.”