Robert Mueller, the special counsel, on Wednesday reignited demands for Donald Trump’s impeachment by breaking his two-year silence to deny that the US president is innocent of a crime.
In a sudden and dramatic turn, Mueller, whose report on Russian election interference and Trump campaign links to Moscow was published last month, delivered a sombre nine-minute statement that many construed as a signal to Congress to act on his finding that Trump sought to obstruct justice.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that,” Mueller said from a podium at the justice department in his first public remarks since the investigation began. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
Mueller explained that his decision was based on longstanding justice department policy, rather than lack of evidence.
“A president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office,” he said. “That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view – that too is prohibited.”
The special counsel’s 448-page report did not establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump election campaign and Russia. It did identify 10 incidents in which the president attempted to obstruct justice, for example by firing the director of the FBI, though it stopped short of charging the president with a crime.
His statement on Wednesday contradicted Trump’s claims that Mueller’s report awarded him “total exoneration” and also William Barr’s bald assertion last month that Mueller’s decision was not based on justice department policy.
Mueller explained: “The 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.”
Less than half an hour later, Trump tweeted in response: “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.”
But others interpreted Mueller’s intervention as a not-so-subtle message that, while his hands had been tied by department policy, Congress’s are not. Calls for Trump’s impeachment, circulating for weeks, rapidly turned into a clamour, with several Democratic candidates for president leading the way.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said: “We have one remaining path to ensure justice is served. It is our legal and moral obligation to hold those who have committed crimes accountable. It’s clear that the House must begin impeachment proceedings. No one is above the law.”
Senator Kamala Harris of California tweeted: “What Robert Mueller basically did was return an impeachment referral. Now it is up to Congress to hold this president accountable. We need to start impeachment proceedings. It’s our constitutional obligation.”
Mueller’s statement was “an impeachment referral, and it’s up to Congress to act,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted.
And Beto O’Rourke, another Democratic presidential contender, added: “There must be consequences, accountability, and justice. The only way to ensure that is to begin impeachment proceedings.”
But first the burden lies with the House of Representatives, where the judiciary committee is leading oversight efforts. Its chairman, Democrat Jerry Nadler, stopped short of urging impeachment or calling for Mueller to testify.
He said: “Given that Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the president, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump – and we will do so. No one, not even the president of the United States, is above the law.”
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has so far resisted calls for impeachment, a difficult strategic calculation. If passed by the Democratic majority in the House, it would almost certainly fail in the Republican-controlled Senate, leaving Trump in office and possibly strengthened going into next year’s presidential election.
Pelosi said on Wednesday: “The Congress will continue to investigate and legislate to protect our elections and secure our democracy. The American people must have the truth.”
For their part, Republicans were mostly silent, suggesting that Mueller’s intervention had changed nothing about their support for the president.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said: “Today’s statement by Mr Mueller reinforces the findings of his report. And as for me, the case is over. Mr Mueller has decided to move on and let the report speak for itself. Congress should follow his lead.”
But one House Republican has recently defied the party line to emerge as an outspoken critic of the president. Justin Amash, from Michigan, tweeted: “The ball is in our court, Congress.”
Democrats in the House, whose subpoenas are being resisted by the White House, are pushing for Mueller to testify in person. On Wednesday Mueller made clear he has little desire to appear and, if obliged, he will have nothing to add to what is already stated in his report.
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself,” he said gravely. “The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
Mueller, who is closing his special counsel office, also defended the FBI and the integrity of the investigation, which have been under constant assault from the president and his rightwing allies.
And he emphasised that the first volume of his report, which details Russia’s attack on American democracy, deserves urgent attention despite the Washington’s partisan firestorms and Trump’s repeated attempts to ignore it or play it down.
“There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” he said, “and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”