US special counsel Robert Mueller has said he believed he was constitutionally barred from charging President Donald Trump with a crime but pointedly emphasised that his Russia report did not exonerate the president.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mr Mueller said.
He cautioned politicians who have been negotiating for his public testimony that he would not go beyond his report in the event he appears before Congress.
But he also signalled that Congress was the proper venue, not the criminal justice system, for deciding whether action should be taken against the president in connection with allegations that Mr Trump and aides obstructed the investigation of Russian interference to help the Republican in the 2016 election campaign.
Mr Trump, who has repeatedly and falsely claimed that Mr Mueller’s report cleared him of obstruction of justice, modified that contention somewhat shortly after the special counsel’s remarks.
He tweeted: “There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed!”
Mr Mueller’s comments were his first public statements since his appointment as special counsel two years ago.
His remarks, one month after the public release of his report on Russian efforts to help Mr Trump win the presidency, appeared intended to both justify the legitimacy of his investigation against complaints by the president and to explain his decision to not reach a conclusion on whether Mr Trump had obstructed justice.
Indicting Mr Trump, he said firmly, was “not an option” in light of a Justice Department legal opinion that says a sitting president cannot be charged.
But, he said, the absence of a conclusion should not be mistaken for an exoneration of the president.
“The opinion says the constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” Mr Mueller said, referring to the Justice Department legal opinion.
It falls to Congress to respond to the “crimes, lies and other wrongdoing of President Trump – and we will do so”, said New York Representative Jerrold Nadler.
Mr Trump has blocked the committee’s subpoenas and other efforts to dig into the Trump-Russia issue, insisting Mr Mueller’s report has settled everything.
Mr Mueller’s statement came amid demands for him to give evidence on Capitol Hill about his findings and tension with attorney general William Barr over the handling of Mr Mueller’s report.
That report found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to tip the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in Mr Trump’s favour over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
But it also did not reach a conclusion on whether the president had obstructed justice.
Mr Barr has said he was surprised Mr Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether the president had criminally obstructed justice, though Mr Mueller in his report and again in his public statement said that he had no choice.
“Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office,” Mr Mueller said.
“That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that too is prohibited.”
Mr Mueller, for his part, complained privately to Mr Barr that he believed a four-page letter from the attorney general summarising his main conclusions did not adequately represent his findings.
Mr Mueller also appeared to put Congress on notice that he would not break new ground in the event he gives evidence on Capitol Hill.
“I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further about the investigation or to comment on the actions of the Justice Department before Congress,” he said.