I have been speaking to former federal prosectors — some of whom have themselves worked with special counsel Robert Mueller — to get their sense of what he was trying to say in his public remarks Wednesday. Even though most of his statements hewed pretty closely to what he already said in his public report, there was a lot that encouraged reading between the lines.
Here’s what stood out to the experts I spoke with:
An emphasis on the Russian ‘attack’ that hurt Clinton
As he spoke today, Mueller hung the first major point he made about his investigation not on the report, but on his indictments of Russians who sought to attack the political process, both by hacking email accounts and through a social media disinformation campaign:
The indictment alleges that they used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack into computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign. They stole private information, and then released that information through fake online identities and through the organization WikiLeaks. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.
And at the same time, as the grand jury alleged in a separate indictment, a private Russian entity engaged in a social media operation where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to interfere in the election.
According to Cynthia Alksne, who worked alongside then-FBI Director Mueller when she was assistant U.S. Attorney in D.C., that line was a shot at President Trump for repeatedly downplaying Russia’s role in the election.
“He is essentially saying, ‘Mr. President, your friend Putin helped you get elected,’ which puts an asterisk on his win, which he obviously doesn’t want,” Alksne said.
No ‘option’ to charge Trump
Mueller reiterated what his report said about the legal framework his team was working within, which he said on Wednesday left him in a position where “charging the President” was “not an option we could consider.” He pointedly repeated a point made in his report: “if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.”
This explanation was miles away from how Attorney General Bill Barr initially described Mueller’s approach to the obstruction of justice probe. Barr downplayed the role played by the DOJ policy against indicting a sitting president, and expressed skepticism about Mueller’s move to investigate obstruction, given that he wasn’t going to bring charges against Trump.
“I think he has got to be frustrated by Barr’s mischaracterization,” said Glenn Kirschner, who worked under Mueller when Mueller led the Homicide Division of the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office. Kirschner pointed specifically to the “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra Barr helped create.
Kirschner acknowledged that Mueller threw Barr a “conciliatory bone” in a remark that Barr’s decision to eventually make public most of the report, rather than immediately release certain summaries provided Mueller, was one made in good faith.
At one point in time I requested that certain portions of the report be released. The Attorney General preferred to make the entire report public all at once. We appreciate that the Attorney General made the report largely public. I do not question the Attorney General’s good faith in that decision.
Kirschner, however, called that a “compliment in the breach,” given how narrowly it was tailored to the release decision — a point Alksne also made.
“Every word matters with Bob Mueller,” Alksne said. “It was very limiting”
An investigation led by individuals ‘of the highest integrity’
Before closing his remarks, Mueller thanked the investigators who assisted in his probe.
“These individuals, who spent nearly two years with the Special Counsel’s Office, were of the highest integrity,” Mueller said.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor, paraphrased those remarks in an email to TPM: “Everybody who worked on this investigation was honest and followed the rules (so back the heck off Barr/Trump with your silly ‘spying’ nonsense).”
Pay ‘attention’ America — and Congress
Mueller ended on a plea that Americans pay attention to the central allegation that came out of his probe— “that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.”
But it was just as easy to read the entirety of his remarks as a plea to Congress as well.
“It was pretty obvious what he was saying in the nine minute speech today,” Kirschner said. “It was, Congress do your job.”
As Cotter interpreted that closing point: “Finally, did I mention that the Russians effectively attacked our election? Somebody (President/Congress) should damn well be doing something about that.”