Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, in his highly anticipated report, portrayed President Trump as a mercurial leader who repeatedly and frantically sought to undermine the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.
The only thing that seemed to thwart the president’s whims, Mueller wrote, was that advisors ignored his orders. The Justice Department released a redacted version of the report on Thursday.
Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation “were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” Mueller wrote.
“The President’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 or accede to his requests,” he continued.
The special counsel’s office would have exonerated Trump if the facts had supported that conclusion, Mueller’s report says, but it adds that “based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
In fact, the report says Mueller’s team unearthed “multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations.”
Mueller reached a firmer conclusion that his investigation could not establish that Trump and his associates had conspired with Moscow to tilt the election in his favor.
Trump’s campaign had “expected it would benefit” from Moscow’s meddling, particularly from “information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report says.
But it also says the 22-month investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
The report indicated that Mueller decided earlier in his investigation that he would not make a specific decision about obstruction charges and would, instead, defer to lawmakers.
“We determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes,” the report said. Because Justice Department policy holds that a sitting president can’t be subject to trial, an accusation of criminal conduct would put a president in limbo, under a cloud, but unable to clear himself, he wrote.
That problem doesn’t apply to congressional proceedings, Mueller wrote, and Congress has full power to judge the president’s conduct.
Even if a president exercised powers that came with his office, “Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice,” he wrote.
Mueller did not express an opinion on whether the evidence would add up to an impeachable offense but noted that “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.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said earlier this year that she opposed moving ahead with an impeachment effort, deeming it too divisive. On Thursday, Pelosi criticized Atty. Gen. William P. Barr for his statements that put a positive gloss for Trump on the report, but did not make any immediate comment on the substance of Mueller’s findings.
“As we continue to review the report, one thing is clear: Atty. Gen. Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding,” Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said in a joint statement.
House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose panel would handle any impeachment moves, said at a news conference Thursday in New York that an effort to remove Trump from office was “a possibility,” but “it’s too early to reach those conclusions.” Congress needs to study the report and hear directly from Mueller, Nadler said.
Nadler sent a letter Thursday formally asking Mueller to testify, and Barr said he had “no objection” to the special counsel doing so.
The report’s release by the Justice Department followed a news conference by Barr who noted that Mueller did not reach a final “prosecutorial judgment” on whether any of Trump’s actions amounted to illegal obstruction of justice. Barr repeated his own conclusion that they did not and said that Trump had “non-corrupt motives” for opposing the investigation.
Prosecution of a charge of obstruction of justice generally requires proof that the defendant acted out of a corrupt intent and that there was an underlying crime. In Trump’s case, “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency,” Barr said.
“As he said from the beginning,” the attorney general added, “there was, in fact, no collusion.”
The report provides a rare look at often minute-by-minute actions of the president’s interactions with aides and other officials. It even includes Trump’s initial reaction to learning Mueller had been appointed on May 17, 2017, to investigate the potential links between his campaign and the Russians.
Trump was meeting that day with Jeff Sessions, the attorney general’s chief of staff and then-White House counsel Don McGahn. Sessions stepped out of the room to take a call from Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein and returned to inform Trump that his deputy had tapped Mueller to launch the Russia probe.
“Oh, my God,” Trump exclaimed, according to notes taken by Sessions’ chief of staff. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency,” he said. “I’m fucked.”
“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency,” Trump continued. “It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“How could you let this happen, Jeff?” Trump demanded of Sessions. Trump would reiterate that complaint repeatedly over coming months, arguing that Sessions had let him down and he was supposed to have protected him. More than once, Trump asked Sessions to “un-recuse” himself from the Russia probe or quit. When that didn’t work, he directed his staff to fire Sessions or demand his resignation. Staffers either talked him out of it or ignored him.
The resignation of the embattled attorney general would not come until November of last year.
Several other incidents described in the report highlighted how uncomfortable top officials in Trump’s administration were with demands made by the president.
At one point, Trump asked Adm. Michael Rogers, then the director of the National Security Agency, to make a statement publicly rejecting news reports linking Trump to the Russia investigation. Disturbed, Rogers and his deputy wrote a memo documenting the conversation and put it in a safe. The deputy described it as his most unusual conversation in nearly 40 years of public service.
Former FBI Director James B. Comey also wrote memos about his interactions with Trump because he feared the president’s requests were inappropriate and that Trump would lie about them.
The special counsel’s office closely scrutinized contacts between Trump associates and Russians, which contradicted repeated denials from the president that he had “nothing to do with Russia.”
The contacts included efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, a topic the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted to lying to Congress about.
The investigation, however, did not establish that the contacts constituted a conspiracy involving the election. In fact, according to Cohen, Trump seemed to view the campaign as a boost for his business, instead of his business as a boost for his campaign.
Cohen told prosecutors Trump viewed his White House bid as an “infomercial” for his properties.
The report also details an extensive timeline of Trump’s activities that sought to limit the investigation. Shortly after his election, he expressed concerns to his advisors that reports of “Russia’s election interference may lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election,” the report said.
Trump sought to influence the FBI’s investigation of his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, by asking then-FBI Director Comey to consider “letting Flynn go,” the report said, siding with Comey’s account of a meeting that Trump previously has denied.
On a weekend in June 2017, Trump called McGahn at home and directed him to tell Rosenstein that Mueller must be removed because he had conflicts of interest.
McGahn did not follow through on the order. He worried it would spark an incident reminiscent of the “Saturday Night Massacre” in which top Justice Department officials resigned rather than carry out President Nixon’s orders to fire a special prosecutor investigating Watergate. McGahn decided he would resign instead.
In 2018, when news reports recounted the episode, Trump pressured McGahn to deny the allegations. McGahn refused.
The president also met privately with Sessions in the Oval Office in October 2017 and suggested, according to notes taken by a senior advisor, that Sessions would be a “hero” if he withdrew his recusal from overseeing the investigation.
“I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly,” Trump told Sessions.
The attorney general did not withdraw his recusal.
Mueller’s report says that one factor in Trump’s favor on the issue of obstruction of justice was that the investigation did not establish that “the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
Mueller also pointed to several unique circumstances surrounding the investigation of Trump: He was president and in charge of the executive branch, and he conducted many of his acts in public.
“The evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the President’s conduct,” the report said. “These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election.”
The Russia investigation started as a counterintelligence probe in mid-2016, and it eventually examined Moscow’s broader efforts to use social media, hack emails and influence American voters to depress support for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent for president.
The probe led to criminal charges against 34 people, including some of Trump’s closest associates.
The majority of people charged by Mueller were Russian nationals unlikely to ever see the inside of a U.S. court.
They include a dozen military intelligence officers who allegedly hacked Democratic Party computers and released tens of thousands of emails through WikiLeaks during key moments in the campaign.
Also indicted was Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and allegedly funds the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. A dozen employees of the organization were accused of spreading divisive and false content on social media.
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