On Wednesday morning, Robert Mueller stood behind a podium and drily summarized the findings of a report that was released over a month ago. His remarks included no new information about his office’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, or President Trump’s alleged efforts to obstruct that investigation.
But his statement was massive, “game changing” news, nonetheless — because virtually all Americans hate reading long documents (and American journalists and politicians are, apparently, no exception). Specifically, Mueller’s words caused a large segment of mainstream media pundits and Democratic members of Congress to see the immediate commencement of impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump as a legitimate course of action.
As his office had done in its report in mid-April, Mueller said Wednesday that “if we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” The (as of this morning) former special counsel then reiterated his rationale for declining to bring a charge of obstruction of justice against the president:
We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime. The introduction to the volume two of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing Department policy, a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that too is prohibited. 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.
The critical point here is that Mueller presented the Justice Department’s prohibition on indicting the president as the explanation for the investigation’s failure to produce charges. In his summary of the Mueller report and its implications, by contrast, Attorney General William Barr argued that the evidence produced by the special counsel would be insufficient to sustain a charge of obstruction of justice, even if it were permissible to indict a sitting president. Mueller offered no explicit opinion on whether his office would have indicted Trump were he not the president. But Mueller’s omission of any reference to ambiguities in the existing evidence — along with his emphasis on DOJ policy — conveyed the impression that he saw probable cause for believing the president had obstructed justice.
And this impression was cemented moments later, when, paraphrasing his report, Mueller observed that “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrong doing.” In other words, the ex-special counsel suggested that it was, at a minimum, plausible that the president had committed a serious crime, and that impeachment was a proper means for litigating that possibility.
Finally, Mueller eliminated Nancy Pelosi’s primary excuse for holding off on impeachment, in the only genuinely newsy bit of his remarks: The ex-special counsel announced that he did not wish to testify before Congress because “any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully and the work speaks for itself.” Pelosi has insisted that more investigation is necessary before making a determination on impeachment. Mueller’s excuse for evading testimony undercuts that rationale by suggesting that the relevant facts have already been gathered.
Of course, the last bit of Mueller’s argument on this point is clearly false: The work does not, in fact, speak for itself. During and after Mueller’s statement, Politics Twitter was replete with major reporters quoting recitations of key findings from the special counsel’s report as though they were novel revelations.
Meanwhile, a whole host of Democratic politicians suddenly decided that these month-old conclusions left their party with no choice but to launch impeachment proceedings.
The facts of the matter didn’t change. But the way a prominent Justice Department official chose to summarize those facts in front of television cameras did. And since very few American journalists (let alone American voters) were willing to read Mueller’s 400-page opus — but a great many Americans will make time to watch Mueller reciting his key findings in a clip on the nightly news — Wednesday’s events significantly changed the politics of impeachment. The non-Fox News media now appears inclined to treat impeachment proceedings as a logical response to Mueller’s findings. And the pro-impeachment faction within Pelosi’s caucus appears newly emboldened. The combination of Mueller’s remarks, and Republican congressman Justin Amash’s endorsement of impeachment, gives the cause a sheen of bipartisan legitimacy.
Whether popular opinion on impeachment — or, more important, swing-voter opinion on the matter — will change is far from clear. It’s possible that impeachment remains a political loser for Democrats, and is now merely an own goal that Pelosi will have greater difficulty avoiding.
Regardless, the impact of Mueller’s statement utterly refutes his rationale for declining to provide Congress with testimony. As the ex-special counsel explained Wednesday morning, the mechanism for holding the president accountable for crimes is not a criminal justice one, but rather, the fundamentally political process of impeachment. The bare facts of the matter might be sufficient for adjudicating cases in a court of law. But to properly litigate Trump’s actions in the court of public opinion, the facts must be presented to the public in a manner that ordinary voters find digestible. Video highlights of Mueller patiently clarifying his key points to the people’s representatives meet would that threshold; a 400-page pdf clearly did not.