Special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report is more damning than President Donald Trump has publicly claimed, detailing Trump’s aggressive efforts to interfere in the Justice Department’s Russia probe and declining to rule out that Trump obstructed justice.
Far from the “complete and total exoneration” the president has declared in recent weeks, the report depicts a president who made repeated moves to thwart the investigation into his campaign and presidency, possibly because Trump was trying to hide other, potentially criminal behavior — although Mueller found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy to help Russia influence the 2016 election.
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The report, which riveted Washington Thursday, recounts Trump’s repeated attempts to fire Mueller and his anger when those efforts became public. It also details an effort to pressure staffers to send an email exonerating him and notes that the president had more knowledge of an aide’s potentially criminal behavior than he may have let on.
One implication of the report is that Trump may have escaped a finding that he obstructed justice only because his top aides refused to carry out his most dramatic orders. Indeed, Mueller’s team describes several of Trump’s actions as satisfying all the legal elements of obstruction.
The 448-page report is the culmination of a nearly two-year-long investigation that has cast a shadow over Trump’s time in office as questions swirled around whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow intermediaries to sway the 2016 election, and whether the president tried to impede an investigation into the matter.
While the exhaustive document confirms that Mueller found no conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin, it contains numerous unfavorable observations regarding potential obstruction of justice and sheds light on why the special counsel chose to neither exonerate Trump nor conclude that he committed a crime.
Perhaps most notably, Mueller’s prosecutors said that while Trump seemed confident the FBI would not uncover a conspiracy between his campaign and Moscow, he was still concerned about what else they might find. Among his anxieties were the ongoing attempts during the 2016 campaign to seek business in Russia, including an attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
“The evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns,” the report states.
The passage could speak to Trump’s intent when he took several actions that investigators and some of his own aides flagged as potential attempts to impede the authorities.
In recent weeks, Attorney General William Barr has emphasized Trump’s intent as he explained his decision to not pursue an obstruction case against the president, even though Mueller chose not to make such a definitive conclusion.
“It is important to bear in mind the context,” Barr said at a Thursday morning press conference. “There was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability,” Barr added. “Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.”
Mueller’s team seemed far less definitive about Trump’s mindset regarding potential obstruction.
“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, however, we are unable to reach that judgment,” the report says in a 182-page section dedicated to obstruction.
“Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” it continues.
The passage is particularly notable as it contains the full context of a line Barr used in an initial March 24 letter he released summarizing the principal conclusions of Mueller’s report. Barr chose only to include a portion of the final sentence, frustrating Democrats, some former DOJ officials and even some on Mueller’s team, who felt that the selective editing narrowly presented the special counsel’s findings.
Barr also proactively announced in his March letter that he would not bring an obstruction case against the president, further irritating Democrats.
Mueller’s report leaves open the possibility that Trump could at least in theory face prosecution for criminal acts after he leaves office. Mueller’s prosecutors decided, therefore, that a criminal investigation of the president was appropriate.
However, Mueller’s team said making a decision about whether crimes were committed would have gone too far. Long-standing DOJ legal guidance dating to Watergate says a sitting president can’t be indicted.
In a lengthy analysis, the report explains that claiming the president obstructed justice without the ability to charge him would taint his presidency and damage his ability to govern — leaving him with no legal recourse to clear his name or protections normally afforded to criminal defendants.
“Fairness concerns counseled against potentially reaching that judgment when no charges can be brought,” the report says.
Still, the report details a number of incidents of presidential meddling that Mueller and even Trump’s own aides found troubling.
The obstruction section is one of the less-redacted sections in a report that includes 954 total redactions, mostly centered on withholding secret grand jury material and information that could harm ongoing investigations. In total, 40 percent of pages have at least one redaction, although only 14 percent of the obstruction pages have blacked out passages.
The obstruction section unveils new details about a much-scrutinzed discussion Trump had with former FBI Director James Comey. According to Comey, Trump leaned on him to drop an investigation into one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn regarding an untruthful interview with the FBI.
The Mueller report says when that conversation occurred, Justice Department officials had already told White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn’s conduct could be considered unlawful, and that McGahn related that information to the president.
The report also says that Trump repeatedly directed McGahn to dissuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Trump-Russia probe, given his integral role in the Trump campaign.
“McGahn continued trying [on] behalf of the President to avert Sessions’ recusal by speaking to Sessions’s personal counsel, Sessions’s chief of staff and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and by contacting Sessions himself,” Mueller’s team wrote.
After the recusal was announced, Trump pulled Sessions aside during a weekend visit to Mar-a-Lago and suggested he “unrecuse,” the report says.
Trump’s ire for McGahn is apparent in several of the document’s passages. One section recounts that after The New York Times reported that Trump had requested McGahn fire Mueller, the president few into a rage, calling McGahn a “lying bastard” in a conversation with White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Trump demanded that McGahn write a letter denying the firing request, but McGahn declined.
Indeed, the report recounts at least two occasions in June 2017 when Trump asked McGahn to order that DOJ dismiss Mueller.
Trump said firing Mueller was justified because of what the president considered conflicts of interest, like an alleged dispute related to Mueller’s membership in a Virginia golf club Trump acquired and issues raised by Mueller being briefly considered for a Trump nomination as FBI director.
McGahn told Mueller’s office that he viewed those supposed conflicts as “silly” and “not real,” and resolved not to carry out Trump’s directive. After a second phone call from Trump in one day about the issue, McGahn began to take steps to resign, the report says. “McGahn recalled feeling trapped. … McGahn decided he had to resign,” Mueller’s team wrote. “He then drove to the office to pack his belongings and submit his resignation letter.”
While McGahn was talked out of resigning at that point, he eventually left the administration in October 2018.
The report also said Trump once dressed down McGahn for his note-taking practice. “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? I never had a lawyer who takes notes,” the president declared, according to McGahn.
McGahn said he replied that he keeps notes because he’s a “real lawyer,” the report says.
Trump also once tried to get a senior adviser to send an email insisting that he had not ordered Flynn to discuss economic sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition period.
Questions have long lingered about how much involvement Trump had in the incident, which Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying about to the FBI amid questions about whether the incoming Trump administration was seeking to undermine economic penalties the Obama administration had just imposed on Moscow.
According to Mueller’s report, Trump asked his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, to get Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, to “draft an internal email that would confirm that the President did not direct Flynn to call the Russian Ambassador about sanctions.”
“MacFarland told Priebus she did not know whether the President had directed Flynn to talk to [the Russian ambassador] about sanctions, and she declined to say yes or no to the request.”
McFarland and another official considered the request “sufficiently irregular” to document it and raise concerns about it, the report says.
Mueller’s team concluded that some of Trump’s suspect actions seemed to have multiple motivations, which made it difficult to conclude whether the president had corrupt intent when he took certain steps, like firing Comey in May 2017.
“Evidence indicates that the President was angered by both the existence of the Russia investigation and the public reporting that he was under investigation, which he knew was not true based on Comey’s representations,” the report says. “Other evidence indicates that the President was concerned about the impact of the Russia investigation on his ability to govern.”
Mueller’s report found that the initial explanation Trump and the White House gave for firing Comey was “pretextual” and that Trump had already decided to fire Comey before Justice Department officials like Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein weighed in with critiques of Comey’s actions during an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
The report also indicates that Rosenstein provided information to Mueller’s team that may have been unhelpful to Trump.
After White House officials asked the Justice Department to issue a statement saying it was Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey, the deputy attorney general told aides that he wouldn’t put out a “false story,” according to the report.
Trump then called Rosenstein directly and urged him to hold a press conference about his role in the firing. “Rosenstein responded that this was not a good idea, because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea,” the report says, citing accounts from Rosenstein and another DOJ lawyer.
Although Trump eventually conceded that he decided to fire Comey before getting those recommendations, “he did so only after DOJ officials made clear to him that they would resist the White House’s suggestion that they had prompted the process that led to Comey’s termination,” the report states.
Mueller’s report also addresses a major question that has lingered since the public got the first glimpses of his findings in late March — why the special counsel’s team didn’t push for an interview with the president. The question took on greater importance Thursday morning, when Barr emphasized at a news conference that he believed Trump’s intent was critical to determining whether the president was trying to stymie the Russia probe with his actions.
“We also sought a voluntary interview with the President. After more than a year of discussion, the President declined to be interviewed,” Mueller’s team wrote. Just after that statement, however, a portion of the report was redacted on grand jury secrecy grounds.
Trump ultimately agreed to answer written questions on Russia topics, but declined to answer questions about “obstruction topics” or about the transition period.
“Ultimately, while we believed that we had the authority and legal justification to issue a grand jury subpoena to obtain the President’s testimony, we chose not to do so,” the report states. “We made that decision in light of the substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation.”
Mueller’s team also felt it had “sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President’s testimony,” according to the report.
Mueller’s investigators faced challenges along the way, including unnamed individuals who invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Witnesses also gave false testimony, leading to some charges. It also “faced practical limits” on getting information and documents from “numerous witnesses and subjects” who live outside the U.S.
Some individuals, including some on the Trump campaign also “deleted relevant communications” or used encrypted apps to shield their chatter.
The Mueller probe will live on in various incarnations.
The report includes an index listing 14 cases in all that the special counsel saw as outside the scope of its jurisdiction but worth a referral to other law enforcement officials. Two cases are public — one involving former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and another involving Greg Craig, the former Obama White House counsel charged earlier this month with violating foreign lobbying requirements.
The other 12 cases are redacted with no information released publicly.
Jordyn Hermani and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.