Mueller grilled on conclusions about 'exoneration'

Kadia Tubman
Reporter

A Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee ripped into Robert Mueller at Wednesday’s hearing, claiming that the special counsel violated Justice Department principles when he failed to decide if President Trump committed a crime without exonerating him.

“Which DOJ policy or principle sets forth a legal standard that an investigated person is not exonerated if their innocence from criminal conduct is not conclusively determined?” asked Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, a former federal prosecutor. “Where does that language come from, director? Where is the DOJ policy that says that?”

When Mueller didn’t respond, Ratcliffe asked the 74-year-old former special counsel to “give an example other than Donald Trump where the Justice Department determined that an investigated person was not exonerated because their innocence was not conclusively determined.”

“I cannot, but this is a unique situation —” Mueller said before he was interrupted by Ratcliffe.

“Let’s just leave it at you can’t find it because — I’ll tell you why — it doesn’t exist,” said Ratcliffe.

Robert Mueller and Rep. John Ratcliffe. (Photos: Leah Mills/Reuters, Andrew Harnik/AP)

The special counsel report had two parts, one investigating Russian interference “in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” and the other evaluating potential obstruction by Trump. The probe found there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but the special counsel did not reach a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” as to whether Trump committed a crime, leaving it up to Attorney General William Barr to decide whether to move forward with charges. Barr and his then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred,” Mueller wrote. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

“Respectfully, director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence,” Ratcliffe said, raising his voice. “It exists for everyone. Everyone is entitled to it — including sitting presidents.”

Ratcliffe continued: “You didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says write a confidential report about decisions reached. Nowhere in here does it say write a report about decisions that weren’t reached.”

Mueller maintained that he did not answer the question of whether Trump engaged in criminal activity because of Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinions that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

The lawmaker argued that the second part of the report, which detailed 10 instances of potential obstruction by Trump, was written “in violation of every DOJ principle about extra-prosecutorial commentary.”

“I agree with Chairman [Jerry] Nadler this morning when he said Donald Trump is not above the law,” Ratcliffe said. “But he damn sure should not be below the law, which is where Volume II of this report puts him.”

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