WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation leaves open the question of whether President Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice, making clear that Trump was not exonerated.
That was one of many takeaways after a redacted version of the highly anticipated document was released to the public on Thursday, captivating Congress, the news media and much of Washington for what it said about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, and the behavior of President Trump and members of his team.
Mueller’s team did not find that members of Trump’s team conspired or cooperated with Russian interests.
But the report, which you can read here, shows the extent to which Trump was rattled by Mueller’s appointment to be special counsel, shortly after the president fired FBI director James Comey. “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f—ed,” Trump said, according to notes taken by Jody Hunt, who was then-attorney general Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff.
In the report, Mueller examined 10 incidents of possible obstruction of justice, but he and his team did not “draw ultimate conclusions about the president’s conduct.”
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“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the report stated. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that conclusion. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
In one of the instances, on June 17, 2017, just weeks after Mueller was appointed special counsel, Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to contact deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to have Mueller removed on the basis that Mueller had conflicts of interest. “McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request,” the report stated.
“McGahn was concerned about having any role in asking the Acting Attorney General to fire the Special Counsel because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Robert Bork and not ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ Bork.’ McGahn considered the president’s request to be an inflection point and he wanted to hit the brakes.”
The reference to Bork was of his role in ultimately carrying out President Richard Nixon’s order to fire independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating Watergate. The episode came to be known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” after attorney general Elliot Richardson and deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than conduct the firing.
In another call with Trump, McGahn recalled that the president told him that “Mueller has to do” and “call me back when you do it.”
“To end the conversation with the president, McGahn left the impression with the president that McGahn would call Rosenstein,” according to the report. “McGahn recalled that he already said no to the president’s request and he was worn down, so he just wanted to get off the phone.”
Feeling “trapped,” McGahn decided that he would resign rather than carry out the order. He told then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon that he planned to resign, but did not share details. Yet the next time he saw the president, Trump did not ask whether he carried out the order. In fact, around the same time, Chris Christie advised Trump not to fire Mueller. McGahn stayed.
When reports of Trump ordering to have Mueller fired surfaced in the Washington Post and the New York Times in January 2018, he asked McGahn to dispute the story, but McGahn declined. In a meeting with McGahn, Trump “indicated that he knew that McGahn had told the Special Counsel’s Office about the president’s effort to remove the special counsel. The president challenged McGahn for disclosing that information and for taking notes that he viewed as unnecessary legal exposure.” According to the report, Trump told McGahn, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”
Trump, though, called the Times and Post reports “fake news.”
The report says Trump’s “efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders.”
Mueller’s report also examined Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. In the fallout afterward, the White House asked the Justice Department saying that it was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey, but Rosenstein refused. Trump called Rosenstein directly, and recommended that he hold a press conference, but Rosenstein said that it was not a good idea “because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea.”
Then deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in a press conference the next day, told reporters that they had heard “from countless members” of the FBI that they had lost confidence in Comey. She later told Mueller’s team that the reference to “countless members” was a “slip of the tongue,” and that a statement she made in an interview about the loss in confidence in Comey was “in the heat of the moment,” and, according to Mueller’s report, “not founded on anything.”
Mueller’s team wrote that “substantial evidence indicates that the catalyst for the president’s decision to fire Comey was Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the president was not personally under investigation, despite the president’s repeated requests to make such an announcement.”
Earlier on Thursday, attorney general William Barr, who released the report, reiterated multiple times that Mueller did not find evidence of illegal collusion or conspiracy by members of Trump’s campaign and Russian sources. Barr also defended his conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice, even though Mueller’s team made clear in his report that they could not conclude that the president did not commit such a crime.
Instead, Mueller’s report accepted a Justice Department conclusion that a sitting president could not be charged or indicted. And they also indicated that the question of obstruction of justice could be left to Congress.
“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” the report stated.
In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “as we continue to review the report, one thing is clear: Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding.”
As the 448-page report was posted online shortly after 11 a.m. ET, reporters raced to read through its two volumes, quickly zeroing in on the questions of obstruction, and then to the extent of interactions that members of Trump’s campaign had with sources linked to the Russian government.
Mueller’s team did not find that the campaign engaged in a conspiracy with Russian interests, but the report details the extensive Russian effort to influence the election. That came not only via hacking of members in the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, but also state and local entities, including boards of elections, secretaries of state and county governments.
Although the report did not establish that members of the Trump team did not conspire, it did show how officials with the campaign saw how the release of Russian-hacked material could be to their benefit.
The report details Donald Trump Jr.’s interaction with WikiLeaks, which published the stolen emails.
The report also notes that on July 27, 2016, Trump said publicly, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” a reference to those deleted from Hillary Clinton’s server. Michael Flynn, who would go on to serve a brief tenure as Trump’s national security adviser, said Trump then repeatedly asked to find the deleted emails.
Also, within five hours of Trump making the remark, Russian intelligence for “the first time” targeted Clinton’s personal office for hacking.
Trump reacted to the release of the report by tweeting out a video of news personalities and late-night host James Corden talking about the finding of no collusion. The clips were taken from initial media reports on the results of the Mueller investigation, revealed in a letter that Barr sent to members of Congress on March 24.