This is why Mueller is tiptoeing around whether Trump committed a crime

Robert Mueller speaks rests his case
(Image credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has carefully avoided saying whether he thinks President Trump committed criminal obstruction of justice but also pointedly underscored that he isn't exonerating him. Because a longstanding Justice Department policy says "a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he's in office," charging Trump "with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider," Mueller said Wednesday. At the same time, he added, "if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so." He did not say so.

This awkward dance of double-negatives has exasperated both Trump's supporters and critics, but Mueller and his team are also "frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of public understanding about this point — that Justice Department policy and fairness prohibit the special counsel from reaching a decision, even secretly, on whether the president committed a crime," The Washington Post reports.

Having adopted that stance, Mueller and his team also concluded it would be improper for him to say that the president would be charged with obstruction if it were not for the Justice Department policy, because saying that would also amount to a criminal accusation against Trump, 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. [The Washington Post]

Attorney General William Barr was either among those who misunderstood Mueller's reasoning, or he chose to publicly massage it. New York's Jonathan Chait opts for the latter explanation. Mueller evidently believes he "can't explicitly say" whether he would have charged Trump or "explicitly tell Congress to impeach" him, though "he's heavily hinting at both points," Chait says. "And Barr, who has been using Mueller's restraint to mislead the country about what Mueller concluded, has been exposed as the liar he is."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.