A detailed report from special counsel Robert Mueller said investigators struggled with both the legal implications of investigating President Donald Trump for possible obstruction of justice, and the motives behind a range of his most alarming actions, from seeking the ouster of officials to ordering a memo that would clear his name.
“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the report stated. “At the same time, 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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Since Mueller ended his investigation last month, a central question facing the Justice Department has been why Mueller’s team did not reach a conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice. The issue was complicated, the report said, by two key factors – the fact that, under department practice, a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, and that a president has a great deal of constitutional authority to give orders to other government employees.
Trump ultimately submitted written answers to the investigators. The special counsel’s office considered them “inadequate” but did not press for an interview because doing so would cause a “substantial delay,” the report says.
The report said investigators felt they have “sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President’s testimony.”
A copy of the report was delivered to Congress Thursday morning.
Trump’s legal team called the report “a total victory for the President. The report underscores what we have argued from the very beginning – there was no collusion – there was no obstruction.” In their statement, Trump’s lawyers also attacked former leaders at the FBI for opening “a biased, political attack against the President – turning one of our foundational legal standards on its head.”
If Mueller’s report was a victory for the president, it was an ugly one.
The investigators paint a grim, unflattering portrait of a president who believes the Justice Department and the FBI should answer to his orders, even when it comes to criminal investigations.
During a meeting in which the president complained about then-attorney general Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse from the Russia investigation, Trump insisted that past attorneys general had been more obedient to their presidents, referring to the Kennedy brothers and the Obama administration.
“You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations? Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?” Trump told senior White House staffers Stephen Bannon and Donald McGahn, according to the report.
“Bannon recalled that the President was as mad as Bannon had ever seen him and that he screamed at McGahn about how weak Sessions was,” the report said.
Repeatedly, it appears Trump may have been saved from more serious legal jeopardy by his own staffers, who refused to carry out orders they thought were problematic or legally dangerous.
For instance, in the early days of the administration, when the president was facing growing questions concerning then-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversation about sanctions with a Russian ambassador, the president ordered another aide, KT McFarland, to write an email saying the president did not direct those conversations. She decided not to do so, unsure if that was true and fearing it might be improper.
“Some evidence suggests that the President knew about the existence and content of Flynn’s calls when they occurred, but the evidence is inconclusive and could not be relied upon to establish the President’s knowledge,’ ” the report said.
The special counsel’s report on possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russians to interfere in the 2016 election is extremely detailed with only modest redactions – painting a far less flattering picture for Trump than the attorney general has offered and revealing new details about interactions between Russians and Trump associates.
Mueller’s team wrote that though their investigation “did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” that assertion was informed by the fact that coordination requires more than two parties “taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”
And Mueller made abundantly clear: Russia wanted to help the Trump campaign, and the Trump campaign was willing to take it.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller’s team wrote.
The report detailed a damning timeline of contacts between the Trump campaign and those with Russian ties – much of it already known, but some of it new.
For example, Mueller’s team asserted that in August 2016, Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has assessed as having ties to Russian intelligence, met with Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, “to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine.”
The special counsel wrote that both men believed the plan would require candidate Trump’s “assent to success (were he elected President).”
“They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states,” the special counsel wrote. “Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting.”
Mueller’s report suggests his obstruction of justice investigation was heavily informed by an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel opinion that says a sitting president cannot be indicted – a conclusion Mueller’s team accepted.
“And apart from OLC’s constitutional view, 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,” Mueller’s team wrote.
That decision, though, seemed to leave investigators in a strange spot. Mueller’s team wrote that they “determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.” They seemed to shy from producing even an internal document that alleged the president had done something wrong – deciding, essentially, that they wouldn’t decide.
“Although a prosecutor’s internal report would not represent a formal public accusation akin to an indictment, the possibility of the report’s public disclosure and the absence of a neutral adjudicatory forum to review its findings counseled against determining ‘that the person’s conduct constitutes a federal offense.’ ”
Attorney General William Barr said during a news conference Thursday that Justice Department officials asked Mueller “about the OLC opinion and whether or not he was taking the position that he would have found a crime but for the existence of the OLC opinion.”
“He made it very clear, several times, that he was not taking a position – he was not saying but for the OLC opinion he would have found a crime,” Barr said.
Mueller did not attend the news conference.
Barr addressed the media before releasing the nearly 400-page report, describing how the nation’s top law enforcement officials wrestled with investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice. He and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law” but that they accepted the special counsel’s “legal framework” as they analyzed the case, Barr said.
It was the first official acknowledgment of differing views inside the Justice Department about how to investigate the president.
Barr also spoke about the president’s state of mind as Trump responded to the unfolding investigation. “As the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,” he said.
Ahead of the report’s release, the president lobbed another attack on the investigation. “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” he tweeted Thursday morning. “The Greatest Political Hoax of all time! Crimes were committed by Crooked, Dirty Cops and DNC/The Democrats.”
The Mueller report is considered so politically explosive that even the Justice Department’s rollout plan sparked a firestorm, with Democrats suggesting that the attorney general was trying to improperly color Mueller’s findings before the public could read them.
Prompted a reporter, Barr responded to a call earlier Thursday from the top two Democrats in Congress to have Mueller appear before House and Senate committees. “I have no objection to Bob Mueller personally testifying,” the attorney general said.
In a letter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said they wanted testimony “as soon as possible” from Mueller. And after Barr’s news conference, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Congressional Democrats have vowed to fight to get the entire report, without redactions, as well as the underlying investigative documents Mueller gathered.
The report has been the subject of heated debate since Barr notified Congress last month that Mueller had completed his work.
Barr told lawmakers he needed time to redact sensitive information before it could be made public, including any grand jury material as well as details whose public release could harm ongoing investigations.
Barr also said he would review the document to redact information that would “potentially compromise sources and methods” in intelligence collection and anything that would “unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”
That language suggests Barr wants to keep secret any derogatory information gathered by investigators about figures who ended up not being central to Mueller’s investigation.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky