WASHINGTON — Rep. Ken Buck, a Republican from Colorado, thought he had former Special Counsel Robert Mueller cornered on Wednesday. It backfired spectacularly.
Before Buck, the marathon grilling of Mueller had followed a familiar pattern: Democrats fired off quick questions designed to elicit yes or no answers regarding some of the most damning passages of the special counsel’s 448-page report, while Republicans tried to catch Mueller in a lie or call out his supposed hypocrisy for not investigating the far right’s favorite bugbears like the so-called Steele Dossier or the opposition research firm Fusion GPS.
When it was his turn to speak, Rep. Buck pressed Mueller on why he reached a conclusion on whether members of the Trump presidential campaign conspired with Russian officials (they did not, according to Mueller) but did not reach a similar determination on whether President Trump obstructed justice.
By highlighting the fact Mueller did not recommend bringing or declining charges, Buck aimed to bolster his accusation that Mueller had flaunted DOJ rules by throwing “a bunch of stuff up against the wall to see what would stick” — moving from the legal realm to the political one.
But Mueller, who disputed Buck’s characterization of the obstruction piece of the report, said the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had made it clear that a sitting president could not be charged with a crime. “So one of the tools a prosecutor would use is not there,” he said. Mueller and his team did not conclude whether the president committed obstruction — they could not. That didn’t mean the president was innocent; as Mueller explained earlier in the hearing, his report also did not exonerate the president of obstruction either. (Later in the day, during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller cleared up a misconception from his previous remarks that suggested the special counsel’s office found Trump had committed obstruction but couldn’t indict because of DOJ policy. In fact, Mueller clarified, the special counsel’s office “did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”)
But Buck, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department, wasn’t finished with his questioning.
“Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?” Buck asked.
“Yes,” Mueller replied instantly.
Buck went on: “You believe that he committed — you could charge the President of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?”
“Yes,” Mueller said again.
Here’s the exchange:
Congressman: "Could you charge the President with a crime after he left office?"
— Josh Campbell (@joshscampbell) July 24, 2019
To be clear, Mueller does not appear to have said Trump specifically could be charged post-presidency for obstruction. Still, Democrats can now thank Buck for getting Mueller on the record saying that a sitting president could be indicted post-presidency for obstruction crimes — crimes that some legal experts believe President Trump has committed as described in the Mueller report.
Needless to say, however, this isn’t the what House Republicans — who tend to act more like the president’s de facto defense attorneys — were hoping to get out of Mueller’s hearing in any way, let alone as a result of questioning from one of their own members.
The reaction to Buck’s rhetorical flub was immediate:
Did Ken Buck just get Mueller to confirm that Trump can be charged with crimes for what he's done after he leaves office?
A Republican did that?
— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) July 24, 2019
Mueller just confirmed to Ken Buck that the president could be charged with obstruction of justice after he leaves office: pic.twitter.com/7VJIQ8QVYy
— The Moscow Project (@moscow_project) July 24, 2019
Wow, not sure this was intended, but in the #MuellerHearing a Republican Congressman got Robert Mueller to say that President Donald Trump could be prosecuted after he leaves office.
Ken Buck: "Could you charge the President with a crime after he left office?"
— Michael Knigge (@kniggem) July 24, 2019
— PFAW (@peoplefor) July 24, 2019