Mueller report suggests Congress should judge whether Trump obstructed justice

Washington — Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III explicitly did not exonerate President Donald Trump of allegations that he tried to obstruct the Russia investigation, and found that his 2016 campaign “expected it would benefit” from Russian effort to influence the election.

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mueller wrote in his report, which the Justice Department released in redacted form on Thursday.

“Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment,” the report said.

Mueller did not conclude that the president committed a crime. Instead, in its 448 pages of legal analysis and supporting evidence, his report detailed “multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations.”

“The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels.”

“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.

Rather than make a judgment about whether those actions amounted to a crime, Mueller appeared to defer to lawmakers. Even if a president exercised powers that come 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.”

That could apply to any effort Trump might make to pardon associates charged by Mueller’s office, the report noted. “The offer of a pardon” would be “within Congress’s power to regulate even if the pardon itself is not,” Mueller wrote.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said earlier this year that she opposed moving ahead with an impeachment effort, deeming it too divisive. On Thursday, Pelosi criticized Attorney General 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: Attorney General 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, whose panel would handle any impeachment moves, said at a news conference Thursday in New York that such an effort to remove Trump from office was “a possibility” but added, “It’s too early to reach those conclusions.” Congress needs to study the report and hear directly from Mueller, Nadler said.

Nadler, D-N.Y., sent a letter Thursday formally asking Mueller to testify, and Barr said he had “no objection” to the special counsel doing so.

Barr’s description of what he called the report’s “bottom line” was a purely positive one for Trump: “After nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 president election, but it did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts.”

But while the two-year investigation did not find evidence that Trump or his associates cooperated with Russian plots, it did make clear that campaign officials wanted to capitalize on them, especially Russia’s efforts to hack into and release Democratic Party emails.

“The campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report said.

Trump has continued to publicly question whether Russia was even involved in efforts to influence the election.

Last July, at his joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, Trump said he accepted Russian denials of any effort to influence the election.

“I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said then.

The report provides several behind-the-scenes looks at Trump and his associates, including 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 Attorney General 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 Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and returned to inform Trump that his deputy had tapped Mueller to launch the Russia probe.

Trump reacted with fury.

“Oh, my God,” he said, according to notes taken by Sessions’ chief of staff. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency,” he said. “I’m (expletive).”

“How could you let this happen, Jeff?” Trump demanded of Sessions, telling the attorney general that he had let Trump down and that he was supposed to have protected Trump.

“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.”

Several other incidents described in the report highlight how uncomfortable Trump’s demands made top officials of his administration.

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.

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 that the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted to lying to Congress about.

However, the investigation did not establish that the contacts involved 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 that 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 advisers 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 adviser, 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 Richard Nixon’s orders to fire a special prosecutor investigating Watergate. McGahn decided he would resign rather than follow through with such an order, the report said.

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 adviser, 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.

One factor in deciding whether the president obstructed justice, however, was that Mueller and his team did not establish that “the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference,” the report noted.

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 report added.

In his news conference, Barr 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, saying that Trump had “noncorrupt 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. 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 Mueller investigation has already spawned a series of legal and political threats that will continue to shadow Trump. Other federal investigations remain underway in several jurisdictions — most notably New York — and House Democrats have launched inquiries into Trump’s finances, business dealings, relationships with foreign banks and other concerns.

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.

Flynn admitted lying to federal agents about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to 7 [1/2] years in prison for tax evasion, bank fraud and conspiracy charges related to his work as a political consultant in Ukraine.

Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow. He was also ensnared in a parallel investigation into election-year payments of hush money to two women who said they had slept with Trump.

The majority of people charged by Mueller were Russian nationals who are 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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