When former special counsel Robert Mueller testifies on July 24 before the House Judiciary Committee, he will be answering questions about whether the US president obstructed justice by thwarting Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. Let’s brush up on the evidence ahead of his testimony, which may well determine whether American representatives will move to impeach president Donald Trump.
The report on the investigation was divided into two parts. The portion on obstruction of justice discusses Trump’s efforts to prevent and influence Mueller’s inquiry. It expressly states that special counsel was unable to charge Trump for technical reasons but couldn’t clear the president substantively, based on the evidence.
These are the findings, delivered to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in March and released publicly in April, which lawmakers will be questioning the investigator about:
Trump’s two faces
- Trump publicly expressed skepticism that Russia was responsible for the WikiLeaks release of hacked Democratic National Committee documents during the 2016 presidential campaign, 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 up to June 2016.
- After the election, he privately expressed concern that Russia’s interference could cause the public to question his presidency’s legitimacy.
- 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 election interference. Aware of Flynn’s lie, Trump invited FBI director James Comey to twice meet in private, first seeking his loyalty, and next asking that he drop any investigation of Flynn.
- In February 2017, attorney general Jeff Sessions was considering recusing himself from election-related investigations because of his role in Trump’s campaign. The president instructed White House counsel Don McGahn to stop Sessions from recusing himself.
- He was angry that Sessions disobeyed, telling advisors his attorney general should “protect” him.
- Trump urged Sessions to “un-recuse” himself.
- The president contacted US intelligence agency leaders, asking them to publicly dispel any suggestion that he was connected to the Russian interference.
- He called FBI chief Comey again, requesting that he “lift the cloud” by stating that the president wasn’t being investigated personally.
- In a May 2017 congressional hearing Comey declined to answer questions about whether the president was personally under investigation. Trump fired Comey, first claiming publicly that 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.
- Trump subsequently admitted in an interview that he’d planned to dump the FBI head because “this thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
- Special counsel was appointed in May 2017. Trump predicted to advisors that it would be “the end of his presidency.”
- He told aides that Mueller had conflicts of interest that barred him from serving, though the claim had already been dismissed as meritless by the DOJ.
- When the media reported in June that the president was being investigated for obstructing justice, Trump criticized the probe and DOJ in a series of tweets.
- He then directed White House counsel Don McGahn to pressure the DOJ about Mueller’s alleged conflicts of interest, but McGahn declined.
Attempts to control the investigation
- The president in May 2017 met with Corey Lewandowski, a private advisor, directing him to tell Sessions to publicly announce that the Russia investigation was “very unfair” to the president, who had done nothing wrong.
- Soon after, Trump criticized Sessions in an interview with the New York Times and in tweets, making it clear that the attorney general’s job was in jeopardy.
- Lewandowski then asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to deliver Trump’s message to Sessions, but Dearborn ultimately did not.
- In the summer of 2017, Trump learned that reporters were inquiring into 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 disclose the emails setting up the meeting.
- Before the emails became public, Trump edited his son’s statement, deleting a line acknowledging that the meeting was with “an individual who…might have information helpful to the campaign.” The president instead claimed they met to discuss adoptions of Russian children.
- When reporters questioned Trump’s involvement in writing his son’s statement, his personal lawyer repeatedly denied it.
Pressure for protection
- 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 “un-recuse” himself and supervise the Russia investigation, saying he’d be a “hero.” Trump said, “I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” Sessions again declined.
Falsifying the record
- In early 2018, journalists reported that Trump had earlier directed McGahn to have Mueller removed from the investigation, and that the White House counsel had threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. Trump told officials to tell McGahn to dispute the story and create a false record.
- McGahn confirmed the accuracy of the reports.
- Trump then met with McGahn personally, pressuring him to deny what happened.
Seeking secret information
- After Flynn began cooperating with Mueller’s probe, Trump’s personal counsel called his attorneys asking for a “heads-up” if they learned of “information that implicates the president.”
- When Flynn’s lawyers said they could not share data, Trump’s attorney threatened that he’d let the president know of Flynn’s “hostility.”
- In contrast, when his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was on trial, Trump publicly praised Manafort and teased a presidential pardon. After Manafort was convicted, Trump said he was “a brave man” for refusing to “break.”
Flipping on Cohen
- From September 2015 to June 2016, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen pursued the Trump Tower Moscow project and briefed him on it repeatedly.
- In 2017, Cohen lied to Congress about the project after Trump’s counsel told him to “stay on message” and not contradict the president.
- In April 2018, the FBI searched Cohen’s home and office. Trump publicly asserted that Cohen wouldn’t “flip” and contacted him to say “stay strong.”
- Cohen discussed a future presidential pardon with Trump’s personal counsel.
- But after Cohen began cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry in the summer of 2018, Trump publicly called him a “rat.”
Politicians will likely be hoping to hear Mueller’s assessment of whether all this activity adds up to a crime. But he’s said before and will no doubt say again that he has no intention of elaborating on the report. Ultimately, lawmakers will have to decide what to do with the evidence he has presented, if anything at all.