Mueller seeks quiet retreat from public life

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE made clear this week that he’s no James ComeyJames Brien ComeyPress: Why do we need a new press secretary? Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House MORE.

Mueller for two years avoided the spotlight while running one of the most politically charged investigations in history.

On Wednesday, he suddenly appeared on Americans’ television screens — speaking tersely and carefully about the findings of his investigation. After talking for less than 10 minutes, Mueller left the podium, making it clear he didn't want to be back in the spotlight again.

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The moment was fitting for the former FBI chief, who has painstakingly sought to maintain his reputation as a just-the-facts, nonpolitical prosecutor amid frequent attacks on his credibility from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE and his GOP allies.

In a major contrast with Comey, the former FBI director who is often on social media and has done a number of high-profile interviews, Mueller has resisted being drawn into the raw political fight that has consumed Washington for the past two years.

Mueller didn't take sides in his comments or in his report, something that ultimately will leave both sides of the political aisle unsatisfied, but it's a position that former colleagues say will help him maintain his well-respected reputation.

“The reality is, it was very nonpolitical,” said Steve Gomez, a former FBI official who worked under Mueller at the bureau’s headquarters. He described Mueller as “very by the book, not looking to create any controversy, not looking to provide any political side any fodder to use for their purposes.”

Mueller, a registered Republican, doesn’t quite fit the mold in today’s Washington, where former officials such as Comey have frequented cable news to air their criticisms of Trump and his policies.

“He’s always been circumspect, understated. He’s always had an economy of words. That was pretty much exactly the guy I knew,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor in D.C. who worked with Mueller.

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“I know it’s frustrating for everybody because being careful, thoughtful and circumspect is not what the public is used to these days or expects,” he added.

Observers sought to translate Mueller’s legalese into easily digestible data points on Wednesday. Some Democrats interpreted his remarks as giving Congress the green light to begin an impeachment inquiry against Trump.

But at the end of the day, Mueller largely reiterated what was already laid out in his report. During restrained remarks from the Justice Department podium, he highlighted the “systematic” Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and said the evidence collected in the investigation was “insufficient” to charge a broader conspiracy involving members of Trump’s campaign. 

Mueller explained that he didn’t make a decision one way or another on whether Trump obstructed justice because of a Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. That interpretation has put him at odds with Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrForeign interference is a threat to the 2020 elections — presidential interference is, too Foreign interference is a threat to the 2020 elections — presidential interference is, too America's crisis of compassion is a Constitutional crisis, too MORE, who said in a CBS interview that aired Friday that he believed Mueller could have reached a conclusion on whether Trump committed a crime.

Mueller said his investigation did not clear Trump of criminal accusations — paraphrasing a line directly from his 448-page report — which opened him up to a fresh line of attacks from the White House.

But Mueller did not criticize Barr’s handling of the investigation’s findings, despite previous internal correspondence that laid bare his objections.

He also expressed reluctance to testify publicly before Congress — something that has forced Democrats to confront the possibility they may need to subpoena him.

“Beyond what I have said here today and what is contained in our written work, 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 or Congress,” Mueller said Wednesday, his last day as special counsel.

Mueller maintained a decidedly low profile throughout the investigation, something legal experts say was part of a deliberate effort to maintain an air of impartiality and seriousness. His office never issued public statements, except on occasion to rebut news reports that painted an inaccurate picture of the investigation.

He also did not respond to criticisms from Trump, even as they grew in frequency and fervency over the course of the 22-month probe.

“I think he did everything he could to depoliticize it,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “He seemed to just deflect all the politics of it.”

Trump, who has celebrated Mueller’s report as vindicating him of allegations of “collusion” with Russia, lashed out at Mueller again on Thursday, calling him a “conflicted person” and a “Never Trumper.” The president has frequently criticized Mueller’s team for the number of Democrats working in the office.

The relative silence from Mueller has drawn a stark contrast with Comey, who first came under significant scrutiny for his public pronouncements about the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBroadway play 'Hillary and Clinton' closing early due to low ticket sales Broadway play 'Hillary and Clinton' closing early due to low ticket sales Facing challenge from Warren, Sanders touts strength against Trump MORE email investigation in 2016 shortly before the election.

In the two years since being fired by Trump — an act examined by Mueller as possible obstruction — Comey has testified before Congress about his interactions with Trump and written a book that was critical of the president, ushering in an onslaught of attacks from the White House.

Mueller has also been less outspoken than other former special prosecutors, including Ken Starr, who was appointed under a different statute to investigate scandals during the Clinton administration.

“[Starr] actually spoke to the media some. He engaged with Congress. I remember being in a couple of meetings with him,” said Jack Sharman, a former special counsel to Congress for the Whitewater investigation. “It seems like Bob Mueller was having none of that.”

But the ex-special counsel may not get his wish to return quietly to private life.

Democrats have said for weeks they need to hear from Mueller in public, and several lawmakers have signaled they have many more questions for him after his public statement. Both the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees have sought Mueller’s testimony.

“I have the greatest respect for the special counsel, but he doesn't get to decide whether or not he testifies before the American people, and he doesn't get to decide which questions he can talk about,” Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyDems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Democrats lash out at Trump's bombshell remarks MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence panel, said on CNN. “He clearly can't decide that he's only going to talk about what's already in the report.”

Mueller is certain to face tricky questions from Democrats and Republicans alike if he testifies, putting his apolitical persona at risk if he appears for public testimony. It’s likely a major reason he is resistant to testify.

“Congress is an uncontrolled and entirely political environment. How can it not be a political circus?” said Kirschner, who believes Mueller would comply with a subpoena if one is issued.

Lawmakers could ultimately reach an agreement with Mueller to have him speak in private; however, Democrats are more keen on live, public testimony about the details of his report, which paints a damning picture of the Trump White House.

Democrats are eager to question Mueller further on his obstruction inquiry to elicit information about Trump’s actions. Republicans, meanwhile, are more likely to focus on the origins of the Russia investigation and allegations of impropriety there.

Still, Mueller has telegraphed that he does not intend to go further than the facts laid out in the report. 

“The report is my testimony,” he said Wednesday.