Special counsel Robert Mueller wants you to know that he thinks President Trump committed obstruction of justice

Bob Mueller finally speaks. The main headline is “Mueller says he did not exonerate Trump!” This isn’t news though—Mueller already says this loudly and clearly in the written report. So does this press conference have anything to add to the written report? Yes and no. No in that, the content of what Mueller says is no different than what’s in the report, and in fact it seems that part of his goal in speaking is to restate the main findings of the written report, and to advertise the report itself. One could imagine an SNL skit reenacting the press conference in which Mueller walks up to the podium and shouts “Go read the report!”, before turning around and disappearing from public life forever.

Still, I think hearing Mueller give a very brief summary does add two things. First, the brevity of the spoken remarks forces Mueller to give the most succinct account of his results and reasoning to date. Having it all there in a few hundred words makes it easier to draw some pragmatic inferences about his unspoken thoughts on the basis of what he actually did say. Second, as a mode of communication, linguists take speech to be primary to writing. Part of the reason for that is that the unique medium of making vocal sounds offers the speaker tools of communication largely absent in writing, especially prosody--intonation and stress. Mueller makes interesting use of these at a key moment. I'll address each of these points in the following from a semanticist’s perspective.

You can read Mueller’s full comments here, and see the video here. You can find the full written report here. It will be helpful to have the relevant 348 words to refer to, so I reprint them just below:

The order appointing me Special Counsel authorized us to investigate actions that could obstruct the investigation. We conducted that investigation and we kept the office of the Acting Attorney General apprised of the progress of our work.

As set forth in our report, after that investigation, if we had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said that.

We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the President did commit a crime. The introduction to volume two of our report explains that decision.

It explains that under long-standing Department policy, a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view—that too is prohibited.

The Special Counsel’s Office is part of the Department of Justice and, by regulation, it was bound by that Department policy. Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.

The Department’s written opinion explaining the policy against charging a President makes several important points that further informed our handling of the obstruction investigation. Those points are summarized in our report. And I will describe two of them:

First, the opinion explicitly permits the investigation of a sitting President because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents are available. Among other things, that evidence could be used if there were co-conspirators who could now be charged.

And second, the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing.

And beyond Department policy, we were guided by principles of fairness. It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of an actual charge.

So that was the Justice Department policy and those were the principles under which we operated. From them we concluded that we wouldwould not reach a determination – one way or the other – about whether the President committed a crime.

First, inferring what Mueller thinks from what he said: About the crime of obstruction of justice, Mueller said, “If we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.” This amounts to the following:

(1) No exoneration: It’s not the case that Mueller believes that Trump didn’t commit the crime of obstruction of justice.

Does (1) mean that Mueller thinks that Trump is guilty, as in (2)?

(2) Guilty: Mueller believes that Trump did commit the crime.

In just a moment, I'm going to argue that Mueller is in fact trying to convey (2) without coming out and saying it. This argument will be based entirely on an analysis of Mueller's use of language in context. (A legal scholar might come to the same conclusions as I do on the basis of the obstruction facts that Mueller laid out, in combination with an understanding of whether those facts would ordinarily support an indictment. Such arguments and conclusions are interesting in their own right of course, but are different from what I have to offer here.) But to get there we need to move slowly by first noting that while (1) is consistent with (2), it definitely does not entail (2). In fact (2) entails (1). If Mueller believed Trump were guilty and therefore deserved to be indicted, it follows the Mueller does not exonerate Trump.

But the truth of (1) is consistent with another possibility, one that is mutually inconsistent with (2), namely (3):

(3) Inconclusive: It’s not the case that Mueller believes that Trump didn’t commit the crime AND It’s not the case that Mueller believes that Trump did commit the crime.

While (1) is consistent with (3), it does not entail it. Again, it is in fact the case that (3) entails (1). If Mueller thought that the evidence was inconclusive either way, then of course it follows that Mueller does not exonerate Trump.

So, (1) is consistent with either (2) or (3), and each of (2) and (3) entail (1). But of course (2) and (3) can't be true at the same time. Either Mueller has concluded that Trump is guilty or that the evidence is inconclusive, but not both.

Now, why didn't Mueller exonerate Trump? Is it because he thinks Trump is guilty (2), or because he thinks the evidence is inconclusive (3)? Remember the quote above (1). Mueller said that they “did not make a determination” either way. Does this mean that he thinks the evidence was inconclusive, as in (3)? No. Don’t forget that Mueller stressed that the reason that they didn't make a determination is that they're not allowed to accuse Trump due to Department of Justice (DoJ) policy:

(4) “A president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional... Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider.”

In other words, Mueller is going out of his way to remind everyone that he couldn't say (2) even if he wanted to. So it would be premature to conclude from the “did not make a determination either way" comment that Mueller is saying (3).

The upshot is, we just can’t tell from (1) alone whether it holds because (2) holds, or because (3) holds. Is there some way that we can figure out which one Mueller believes? Yes. Suppose for a moment that Mueller actually believed that the evidence was inconclusive, as in (3). If that were the case, then why didn’t he say that? He’s certainly allowed to say, “I am neither confident that he didn’t commit the crime, nor am I confident that he did.” It’s reminiscent of the standard GLOMAR response that government officials give all the time: I can neither confirm nor deny that he committed obstruction. Saying (3) would end speculation about whether Mueller actually believes that Trump committed an indictable offense, which would in turn help Americans turn the page on this mess. So why didn’t he do that?

The only reason I can imagine for Mueller not to say (3) is because he doesn’t believe it, in fact, he believes it is false. Again, there's no legal or policy reason why he can't say (3), and there's massive social pressure to say it if he thinks it's true. So he must not think it is true. What that means is that he has an opinion:

(5) Opinion: Mueller believes that Trump committed the crime OR he believes that he didn't. (For those familiar with logic, note that (5) is just the negation of (3), an instance of DeMorgan's laws)

Remember, Mueller told us (1): it's not the case that he believes that Trump didn't commit obstruction. That fact combined with (5) entails (2): Mueller believes Trump committed obstruction.

To recap: what Mueller has said publicly is the only thing he’s allowed to say that both respects DoJ policy and comports with his beliefs, namely that the evidence doesn't clear Trump, and that he’s not allowed to accuse him of obstruction. If he believed the evidence were inconclusive, as in (3), he could have and should have said that—there's no reason for him not to. Since he didn’t, we can infer that he think the evidence is conclusive, that is he has an opinion, as in (5). That combined with (1) means he believes (2), that Trump committed obstruction. The only reason he didn’t “make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime,” is because of (4), DoJ policy barred him from directly asserting (2).

Second, Mueller’s use of prosody further conveys his unspoken thoughts: I think the above by itself already strongly implies that Mueller thinks Trump’s actions would warrant an accusation of obstruction, if only he weren’t a sitting president. But, as if that weren’t enough, Mueller makes one final remark on the topic of obstruction, one that makes clever use of English to convey his unspoken intent, though it is easy to miss:

(6) “So that was Justice Department policy. Those were the principles under which we operated and from them we concluded that we wouldwould not reach a determination, one way or the other, about whether the president committed a crime.”

At first glance, the repetition of “would” in (6) seems like a verbal tic. Earlier in the press conference, Mueller seemed to stumble over his prepared remarks a few times, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the repetition was accidental on the first listen.

But watch the video again. The repetition is clearly deliberate. Mueller is stressing the word “would” as well as repeating it. Both behaviors are linguistic markers of emphasis in English. Now why would Mueller emphasize the word “would”? In linguistics, we have a notion called “contrastive focus”—when a word or phrase is phonologically stressed so as to contrast it with an alternative word or phrase that is salient in the context. In (6), Mueller is contrasting “would” with “could”. He is saying that the DoJ policy hamstrung him and his team, and forced them to conclude that they would not make a determination, but not that they could not make a determination. In other words, Mueller conveys that he could determine whether Trump committed obstruction, and that he did determine that Trump committed obstruction. He just couldn’t come out and say it.