WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Mueller III said Wednesday that his office could neither clear nor accuse President Donald Trump of obstructing justice, leaving room for Congress to make a call where he would not and fueling impeachment demands among some Democrats.
In his first public remarks on the case since he concluded his investigation, Mueller said that if his office "had 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 a sitting president of wrongdoing."
But if Mueller was trying to suggest that Democrats could initiate impeachment proceedings, he also seemed to dash any hopes they might have had that he would be their star witness, ready and willing to detail new and unflattering information his office had uncovered about Trump.
The special counsel - who noted he was closing up shop and formally resigning from the Justice Department - said that he hoped the news conference would be his last public comments and that 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 time Mueller has spoken on live television since his investigation began - mostly reemphasized what the special counsel already had said in his report, and they instantly fueled partisan infighting in Washington.
Some Democrats intensified their calls for impeachment, though their leadership in the House remained noncommittal.
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has resisted a move toward such a step, merely 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."
Several Democratic presidential contenders - including Sen. Kamala Harris of Calif., Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg - said Mueller's comments were akin to an impeachment referral. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said Congress "has a legal and moral obligation to begin impeachment proceedings immediately."
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the only Republican to call for impeachment, tweeted, "The ball is in our court, Congress."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the administration was "prepared" for an impeachment fight, though she called on Democrats to move on. "After two years, the special counsel is moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same," she said.
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 attorney, said Mueller's statement "puts a period on a two-year investigation that produced no findings of collusion or obstruction against the President."
That sentiment 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 vowed to press ahead with their investigations of Trump, and they did not immediately abandon the idea of compelling Mueller to testify. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement after the news conference that Mueller "needs to testify before Congress" and that Mueller's full, unredacted report needs to be turned over to lawmakers. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said, "While I understand his reluctance to answer hypotheticals or deviate from the carefully worded conclusions he drew on his charging decisions, there are, nevertheless, a great many questions he can answer that go beyond the report, including any counterintelligence issues and classified matters that were not addressed in his findings."
A House Democratic leadership aide said the chamber still intends to call the special counsel to appear before Congress - even if lawmakers have to compel his testimony. Should Mueller refuse, Democrats could issue a subpoena, though they were hoping to avoid such a measure.
Asked Thursday whether he would take such a step, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., paused, flashing a pained expression face before responding, "Mr. Mueller told us a lot of what we need to hear today."
The aide, who follows the House investigations closely and was speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, argued that there is value in having Mueller appear in public, even if he refuses to answer questions beyond what is in the report. Most Americans, Democrats note, have not read Mueller's findings - but potentially millions would tune in to a hearing broadcast on national television to hear him review 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.
Mueller's highly anticipated public statement was observed by about a dozen government lawyers who stood in the back of the room on the Justice Department's seventh floor as Mueller spoke alone at a lectern. Attorney General William Barr was traveling in Alaska. The White House was notified Tuesday night that Mueller planned to make the statement, according to a senior White House official. Trump held a conference call with his lawyers before and after Mueller's remarks, according to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and told them that he did not think Mueller made any news or broke new ground. Giuliani said the phrase used by the president and his team was, "Nothing new."
Speaking softly and with an occasional rasp in his voice, Mueller laid out his reasons for not wanting to testify - mainly his belief that his 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 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 characterizing Mueller's work. After Mueller had finished his investigation, but before his report was released, Barr had sent lawmakers a four-page letter describing the special counsel's principal conclusions. That led Mueller to write his own missive to Barr in which he alleged that 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.
After the news conference, spokespeople for the Justice Department and the special counsel's office issued a joint statement saying there was "no conflict" between Barr's and Mueller's previous statements on how Mueller decided he would not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Mueller noted that his team found "insufficient evidence" to accuse Trump's campaign of conspiring with Russia to tilt the 2016 election but emphasized that investigators 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 that others could be charged. He did not say what prosecutors might have done if the law allowed a president to be charged, but he 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 against Trump.
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 think it would be improper for Mueller to say that the president would be charged with obstruction were it not 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-and-forth in congressional testimony that could be tantamount to accusing the president of a crime, these people said.
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The Washington Post's Rachael Bade, Carol D. Leonnig, Karoun Demirjian and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.
This article was written by Matt Zapotosky, Devlin Barrett and Felicia Sonmez, reporters for The Washington Post.