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Mueller report shows how Trump’s panic over the Russia probe worsened his situation

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President Trump speaks during an event in Washington on Wednesday on the eve of the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

For more than two years, President Trump repeatedly ignored his lawyers and scratched an itch that wouldn’t go away, responding to developments from the special counsel’s investigation by trying desperately to bring it to an end.

He wanted former FBI Director James B. Comey to end the investigation altogether. Then he fired Comey, prompting the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel.

He lashed out at former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions — publicly and privately — for relinquishing oversight of the probe. He dictated a misleading statement about a key meeting with Russian officials in 2016 and dangled pardons to associates ensnared in the probe.

And he went so far as to direct former White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller.

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These findings from Mueller’s 22-month investigation were among those that paint a picture of a president who time and again acted impulsively based on his fears and insecurities and, in so doing, made his situation ever worse.

In fact, the report makes clear, the only thing that may have saved Trump from an obstruction of justice charge was the remarkable willingness of many of his subordinates to refuse to act on his directives.

“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,” the report said.

One event seems to have triggered Trump most — his attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.

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Even before Sessions announced that action on March 2, 2017, Trump urged McGahn to call Sessions and convince him to not recuse. Sessions replied that he intended to follow the rules.

The day after Sessions did recuse himself, Trump laced into McGahn about how he didn’t “have a lawyer.” He said he wished Roy Cohn, a notorious lawyer and figure with close ties to Trump and the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was his attorney.

A few days later, Trump met with Sessions at his resort Mar-a-Lago in Florida and urged him to “un-recuse.” Sessions told investigators he “had the impression that the President feared that the investigation could spin out of control and disrupt his ability to govern,” the report says.

Sessions’ action shouldn’t have come as a shock to Trump, according to Mueller’s report. Stephen Bannon, his former campaign strategist, told investigators that “before the inauguration they had discussed that Sessions would have to recuse from campaign-related investigations because of his work on the Trump campaign.”

The other key event provoking Trump’s anger came when then-FBI Director Comey testified to Congress in March 2017 and confirmed the existence of an FBI probe into whether links existed between Trump associates and Russia.

The president is “getting hotter and hotter,” said notes from the White House counsel’s office from that period.

Trump pressed McGahn to call top officials at Justice Department to have them correct the impression that the president was under investigation. Then-acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Dana Boente refused.

The president then began asking intelligence community officials to issue statements that he had no connection to Russia. They refused to do so or to intercede on his behalf with Comey.

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Dan Coats, the nation’s top intelligence official, indicated to staffers that the president had wanted him to speak to Comey to end the investigation. He told a top aide shortly after meeting with the president that Trump’s request was “somewhere between musing about hating the investigation” and wanting him “to do something to stop it,” the report said.

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Trump also called National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers and expressed frustration with the Russia probe and how it was making it difficult for him to govern and “get things done” with Moscow. He asked Rogers if there was anything he could do to refute news stories about the probe.

Rogers said he did not take the president’s irritation and frustration to be an order. His deputy director, who was part of the call, told the special counsel that the conversation “was the most unusual thing he had experienced in 40 years of government service,” the report stated.

When Trump eventually fired Comey in May 2017, he claimed he was acting on a recommendation from Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein; the special counsel determined he’d simply made up his mind to do so and requested the written recommendation as political cover.

“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,” the report said.

“Because of his own personal insecurity about his election win and his own internal guilt mechanism, he was constantly nudging people to exonerate him early on, even as no one had said the president was a target,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

If Trump had simply done nothing, “the Russian interference investigation is probably over in the summer of 2017. He inflicted all of this on himself through a lack of discipline and self-control,” Watts said.

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McGahn remained in his position until October, shortly after he had helped shepherd through the Senate the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. By then, he’d already spoken to Mueller’s team about what took place inside the West Wing.

“Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked to the Special Counsel’s oversight of investigations that involved the President’s conduct — and, most specifically, to reports that the President was being investigated for obstruction of justice,” the report stated.

“There is also evidence that the President knew he should not have made those calls to McGahn.”

More stories from Eli Stokols »


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