Special counsel Robert Mueller stepped down Wednesday after concluding Donald Trump didn’t conspire with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election — but also detailing what critics called a range of troubling conduct.
Mueller addressed reporters at the Justice Department in his first public statement since taking over the Russia investigation, ending one of the most unusual periods of silence by such a high profile public official.
Mueller, 74, is one of the most decorated law enforcement officers of his generation and was the longest-serving FBI leader since J. Edgar Hoover.
He was appointed in the spring of 2017 to take over the FBI’s inquiry into whether Trump’s campaign had conspired with Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In a word, the answer was no, according to the special counsel’s findings.
Nor did Mueller decide whether to bring criminal charges in connection with Trump’s attempts to frustrate that investigation. So Attorney General William Barr concluded there would be none.
In the end, the decision was “binary,” as Barr later told lawmakers: Did Mueller’s findings have sufficient weight to justify criminal charges? No, concluded Barr.
That announcement was hailed by Trump and his supporters and met with deep skepticism by Democrats and Trump’s other opponents.
Mueller, who had become a cult figure for members of a self-styled “resistance” who prayed — in some cases, literally — that he could bring Trump down, instead delivered what Republicans called a political inoculation of a kind seldom enjoyed by a president.
The company man
A longtime registered Republican, Mueller served under presidents from both political parties, winning the confidence of attorneys general from John Ashcroft under George W. Bush to Eric Holder under Barack Obama.
“I don’t know a person more dedicated to the concept and ideal of justice,” Ashcroft told NPR after Mueller was named special counsel in May 2017. “Mueller is a person of character and insight, industry and integrity.”
Under Trump, however, Mueller and his office endured withering criticism from the president himself and Republican allies who accused the special counsel of assembling “angry Democrats” to perpetuate a “witch hunt.”
Mueller’s investigation led to charges against some two dozen Russians for allegedly interfering in the 2016 election.
Mueller’s work also led to guilty pleas from or criminal charges against a number of people tied to Trump’s 2016 campaign, including his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates.
Trump’s former longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty in a federal case in New York City that had been referred by Mueller’s office, and he later entered a second guilty plea for lying to Congress.
Cohen and Manafort were sentenced to prison. Flynn and Gates are awaiting the resolution to their cases as they continue to cooperate with authorities.
But the president described Mueller’s inquiry as a “hoax,” rejecting the need for an investigation into whether there were any “links and/or coordination,” as Mueller’s commission described it, between the Trump campaign and the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Ultimately, Mueller did not charge any Americans with a crime connected to his initial mandate — “collusion,” as it became known — but he did establish many previously unknown ties between Trump’s camp and Russia, even as Trump was denying any communication or business links.
At the same time Trump was denying any business relationship with Russia, for example — as he was campaigning on the need to improve ties between Washington and Moscow — Cohen was negotiating a big potential real estate deal in the Russian capital.
Trump’s allies also said prosecutors and FBI agents on the special counsel team had demonstrated “bias” by making political contributions to candidates or expressing private disdain for Trump in text messages.
Sword of Damocles
Mueller’s removal had been threatened for months, as a pressure campaign intensified after the special counsel team advanced to interview members of Trump’s inner circle in the White House.
At least one of Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller was rejected by then-White House counsel Don McGahn — but the president didn’t press the issue. He did, however, later ask McGahn to create a document denying the earlier incident had taken place, according to Mueller’s report.
Critics called that obstruction of justice.
Trump has said all along that he did nothing wrong and he pointed to the cooperation his administration gave to Mueller. All those witness interviews, including with McGahn, and documents could never amount to obstruction, Trump argued.
Even so, Trump said he also maintained that he had the power to fire Mueller, as he had fired former FBI Director James Comey, and remain within his power under the Constitution.
“I could fire everybody right now,” Trump said. “But I don’t want to stop it because politically, I don’t like stopping it.”
Mueller made virtually no public statements to defend himself. Apart from a few comments in response to press reports by a spokesman, Mueller’s office was a black box.
The unfinished work
Mueller’s resignation does not mean the end of cases connected to Trump.
Trump’s friend and GOP political consultant Roger Stone, for example, is set to go on trial in the autumn in connection with charges that he engaged in witness tampering, lied to Congress and obstructed its inquiry into the role he played in 2016 as an alleged conduit to WikiLeaks.
Stone has pleaded not guilty and says he did nothing wrong.
U.S. attorneys offices up and down the East Coast also are believed to be investigating Trump, as are some state law enforcement officials — for example, those with jurisdiction over Trump Tower in New York.
And Democrats are using their majority in the House to pursue a number of their own inquiries into Trump and Russia, Trump’s business practices, Trump’s inauguration committee and other subjects.
Members of Congress also want to hear from Mueller himself.
The leaders of the House Judiciary Committee have agreed they want to call Mueller to testify about the conduct of his investigation.
What hasn’t been arranged is when such a hearing might take place or whether Mueller would even agree to appear. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said last week he believed Mueller wanted to talk with members of Congress behind closed doors.
Burning down the bureau
Trump opposed Mueller and targeted federal law enforcement from the beginning. For example, in December 2017, Trump said in a tweet that the FBI’s reputation was “in Tatters.”
And in early February 2018, he maintained that leaders at both the FBI and the Justice Department “have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.”
Former FBI director Comey, whose firing in May 2017 prompted the appointment of Mueller, complained that the president and his allies had chosen a strategy to defend themselves that prompted them to decide to “burn down the entire FBI.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who handpicked Mueller for the job to instill public confidence in the Russia investigation, defended Mueller amid attacks from Trump and Republicans in Congress.
Rosenstein pointed out that the special counsel had moved an FBI agent off the team quickly after his disparaging texts came to light.
“He is running that office appropriately, recognizing that people have political views but ensuring that those views are not in any way a factor in how they conduct themselves in office,” Rosenstein testified before Congress in December 2017.
He had said that no one was more qualified for the complex and sensitive job than Mueller and that he had seen no “good cause” to fire him.