WASHINGTON — President Trump committed “multiple acts” aimed at obstructing the Russia investigation, but was ultimately saved from being charged with a crime in part because his top aides refused to carry out his orders.
That, in effect, is a principal conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that, while clearing Trump or his campaign officials of criminally conspiring with the Russians during the 2016 election, documents with damning new details the president’s efforts to impede and shut down the Russia probe after he took office.
“Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations,” Mueller writes in a key passage of his report, which was released in redacted form Thursday morning by the Justice Department.
But when faced with Trump’s demands that they protect him and shut down the Russia probe, the president’s minions repeatedly disobeyed him, the report states.
“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 found.
Still, the report spells out how an enraged president repeatedly sought to either shut down or curtail an investigation he was convinced from the outset was a “witch hunt” that was unfairly targeting him. Those new details help explain Mueller’s conclusion that while the investigation did not establish that the president committed a crime, “it also does not exonerate him.”
“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f***ed,” Trump vented to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions after learning that Mueller had been appointed as special counsel, according to notes taken by Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt, that are cited in Mueller’s report. “This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Trump’s efforts to improperly influence the probe had begun even before that. After national security adviser Michael Flynn was removed for lying about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak on Feb. 14, 2017, Trump ordered then deputy national security adviser KT McFarland to draft an internal letter stating that he had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions with Kislyak. McFarland refused to do so because “she did not know whether that was true,” the report states.
On June 14, 2017, after learning that Mueller was investigating him for obstruction, Trump called then White House counsel Don McGahn at home and directed him to have Mueller fired for supposed “conflicts of interest.” McGahn refused to do so, “deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” Mueller’s report states.
On June 19, 2017, Trump met in the Oval Office with his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and directed him to give a message to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had infuriated Trump when he recused himself from the Russia probe.
Sessions should publicly announce that the Russia investigation was “very unfair” to Trump and that the president had done nothing wrong, he told Lewandowski. Furthermore, Trump wanted Lewandowski to tell Sessions he should meet with Mueller and, notwithstanding his recusal, he should let the probe continue, but be restricted to “investigating election meddling for future elections.”
Trump repeated that request to Lewandowski a month later, on July 19, 2017. Lewandowski “did not want to deliver the president’s message personally,” so he asked senior White House aide Rick Dearborn to give the directive to Sessions. But Dearborn “was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through.”
As Mueller’s probe began to focus on actions by Trump’s family and close associates, Trump upped the ante and gave orders apparently aimed at concealing key evidence from the public and thwarting Mueller.
Mueller’s report, for example, sheds new light on what happened when the White House learned about damning emails concerning the notorious June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives offering incriminating information about Hillary Clinton straight from Kremlin files.
“On several occasions, the President directed aides not to publicly disclose the emails setting up the June 9 meeting,” according to Mueller’s report. Before the emails became public, Trump personally “edited a press statement” for Donald Trump Jr., who attended the meeting, promulgating a cover story that the meeting was about Russian adoptions. It was Trump himself who deleted a line in the press statement that acknowledged the meeting was with an individual who his son was told “might have information helpful to the campaign.”
Just as problematic was Trump’s attempt to influence the testimony of Michael Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer. While Cohen was preparing for congressional testimony, Trump’s personal lawyer had “extensive discussions” with him and directed him to “stay on message.” After Cohen’s home and office were searched by the FBI in April 2018, Trump contacted him directly and told him to “stay strong.” Cohen also discussed pardons with one of Trump’s lawyers and “believed if he stayed on message he would be taken care of.” But ultimately Mueller shrunk from recommending that Trump be charged with obstruction — even while rejecting the argument by the president’s lawyers that he was immune from such a charge because many of his actions were covered by his constitutional authority to oversee the executive branch of government.
It is clear the president was saved, in large part, by the previously unheralded actions by McGahn, Lewandowski, McFarland and others in refusing to carry out Trump’s demands.
But Mueller cites other reasons as well: In the introduction to his volume on obstruction, he cites a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that sitting presidents could not be charged with a crime. Beyond that, Mueller writes, “we recognized that a federal criminal accusation against a sitting President would place burdens on the President’s capacity to govern and potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct”—a reference to Congress’ power to impeach.
But in the absence of a clear recommendation from Mueller, Attorney General William Barr took it upon himself to decide the obstruction question. Barr explained his reasoning in a morning press conference that amounted to a vigorous defense brief for Trump, saying that Trump was “frustrated and angered by his sincere belief” that he was being unfairly targeted.
“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation,” Barr said during his press conference. “As he entered office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.
“And as the special counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks. ... Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.”
In focusing on Trump’s lack of “corrupt motives” in thwarting a criminal investigation, Barr did not address the question of possible political motives in wanting the probe ended.
Nonetheless, for all of Trump’s unfulfilled orders and demands, the White House “fully cooperated” with the Mueller probe and allowed his aides to testify, Barr maintained. But that conclusion clearly didn’t satisfy Democrats. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, noted Trump “refused to be interviewed” by Mueller and, after responding to the special counsel’s questions in writing, refused to provide written answers to follow up questions. Now, Nadler said, he has called Barr to testify before his panel on May 2 and, perhaps even more significantly, intends to call Mueller himself “as soon as possible.”
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