The special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections is an epic at 448 pages, including exhibits. It will take time to digest and analyze the document. Still, a few things have been clarified since the report’s publication this morning.
For starters, attorney general William Barr wasn’t entirely forthright in his defense of Donald Trump at a press conference this morning. He said that the president did not collude with the Russians, and that he cooperated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, not obstructed it. But Trump appears to have been quite active in his efforts to thwart the special counsel’s work. Trump repeatedly directed advisors to apply pressure on the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies, and White House counsel, according to Mueller’s report. The president also lied, most notably by editing a statement for his son Donald Trump Jr. about meeting with a Russian lawyer who allegedly had information helpful to the Trump campaign.
We also now know which specific events and issues Mueller investigated ahead of reaching the conclusion that the president didn’t obstruct justice. The report refers to Trump’s discussions with his advisors and with the DOJ, as well as work his personal attorneys did to influence witnesses involved in the investigation, like his once national security advisor Michael Flynn and his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
And lastly, Trump may not be charged with obstruction of justice, but the Mueller report doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the president and barely clears his name. Indeed, it’s quite damning.
This is how the Mueller Report categorized and outlined the factual findings about obstruction, which have been paraphrased here:
Trump’s two faces
During the 2016 presidential campaign, questions arose about the Russian government’s apparent support for Trump after WikiLeaks released politically damaging Democratic party emails hacked by Russian agents. Trump publicly expressed skepticism that Russia was responsible, yet privately sought information about future releases. He also denied having any business in Russia, despite pursuing a licensing deal for a skyscraper called Trump Tower Moscow as late as June of 2016. After the election, he told advisors he was concerned that reports of Russia’s election interference might lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election.
Asserting presidential influence
During a meeting with vice president Mike Pence in January 2017, incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn denied having talked to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about Russia’s response to US sanctions for its election interference. After the president discovered Flynn’s lie, he invited FBI director James Corney to a private dinner, where he sought his loyalty. On February 14, Trump met with Comey alone again, asking that he drop any investigation of Flynn and saying, “He is a good guy.”
Trump wanted Sessions to protect him
In February 2017, attorney general Jeff Sessions was considering whether he had to recuse himself from campaign-related investigations because of his role in the Trump election campaign. Trump instructed White House counsel Don McGahn to stop Sessions from recusing himself and was angry when Sessions did it anyway, telling advisors that he should have an AG who’d protect him. He urged Sessions to “unrecuse” himself. The president soon contacted US intelligence agency leaders to ask them to publicly dispel the suggestion that he was connected to the Russian election-interference effort. He also contacted Comey, asking that he “lift the cloud” of the Russia investigation by publicly stating that the president wasn’t being investigated personally.
The president fires the FBI director
In May 2017, FBI director James Comey testified in a congressional hearing, but declined to answer questions about whether the president was personally under investigation. Trump then decided to fire Comey, claiming the termination was based on his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Yet Trump told Russian officials that he had “faced great pressure because of Russia,” which had been “taken off” by Comey’s firing, He subsequently admitted in a television interview that he’d planned to fire Comey because “this thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
A special counsel was appointed in May 2017. Trump predicted to advisors that it would be “the end of his presidency.” The president told aides that the special counsel had conflicts of interest that barred him from serving, though these had already been considered by the Department of Justice and dismissed as meritless. On June 14, 2017, the media reported that the president was now being investigated for obstructing justice. Trump reacted with a series of tweets criticizing the DOJ and the investigation. Three days later, the president called White House counsel Don McGahn, directing him to call the DOJ about Mueller’s conflicts of interest, but McGahn declined, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Attempts to control the investigation
The president in May met with Corey Lewandowski, an advisor outside the government, directing him to tell Sessions to publicly announce that, notwithstanding his recusal from the Russia investigation, the investigation was “very unfair” to the president, who had done nothing wrong. The president followed up with Lewandowski later, and the private advisor told Trump that the message would be delivered. Soon after, Trump criticized Sessions in an interview with the New York Times, and issued a series of tweets making it clear that Sessions’ job was in jeopardy. Lewandowski asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to deliver Trump’s message to Sessions, but Dearborn did not follow through.
The president as editor
In the summer of 2017, Trump learned that reporters were asking questions about a 2016 meeting between senior campaign officials, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., and a Russian lawyer allegedly offering damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Trump directed aides not to publicly disclose the emails setting up the meeting. Before the emails became public, Trump edited a statement for Trump Jr. by deleting a line that acknowledged that the meeting was with “an individual who [Trump Jr.] was told might have information helpful to the campaign”. He instead said they met to discuss adoptions of Russian children. When reporters questioned whether Trump was involved in writing his son’s statement, his personal lawyer repeatedly denied he played any such role.
Trump keeps on pushing Sessions
In early summer 2017, Trump called Sessions, again urging him to reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions declined. In October, Trump met with Sessions privately to ask him to investigate Hillary Clinton. Two months later, in another meeting, Trump suggested again that Sessions “unrecuse” himself and supervise the Russia investigation, saying he would be a “hero.” Trump told Sessions, “I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” Sessions again declined.
Trying to falsify the record
In early 2018, the press reported that Trump directed McGahn to have Mueller removed, and that McGahn had threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. Trump reacted by directing White House officials to tell McGahn to dispute the story and create a false record. McGahn said the media reports were accurate. Trump then met with McGahn and pressured him to deny the reports, which McGahn perceived as the president “testing his mettle.”
Trump attorneys on the case
After Flynn began cooperating with the government investigation, Trump’s personal counsel called Flynn’s attorneys, asking for a “heads-up” if Flynn learned of “information that implicates the president.” When Flynn’s lawyer said the client could not share information, Trump’s attorney said he’d let the president know of Flynn’s “hostility.” Then, when his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was being tried, Trump publicly praised Manafort and declined to rule out a pardon. After Manafort was convicted, Trump said he was “a brave man” for refusing to “break.”
From praise to castigation
Trump praised Cohen when he falsely minimized the president’s involvement in the Trump Tower Moscow project but castigated him when he became a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation. From September 2015 to June 2016, Cohen had pursued the Trump Tower Moscow project on behalf of the Trump Organization and briefed candidate Trump on it numerous times. In 2017, Cohen lied to Congress about the project. While preparing for his congressional testimony, Cohen had extensive discussions with Trump’s counsel, who reportedly told him to “stay on message” and not contradict the president.
After the FBI searched Cohen’s home and office in April 2018, Trump publicly asserted that Cohen would not “flip.” He contacted him directly to tell him to “stay strong.” Cohen also discussed pardons with the president’s personal counsel. But after Cohen began cooperating with the government in the summer of 2018, Trump publicly called him a “rat,” and suggested that his family members had committed crimes.