If Donald Trump isn’t guilty of obstruction of justice, who ever could be?
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report, made public Thursday in redacted form (on CD, natch), outlined over nearly half of those pages how the president reacted to and fumed over the Russia probe, seeking to undermine it, curtail it, and even fire the special counsel himself.
The first section of the Mueller report details Russia’s efforts to upend the 2016 presidential campaign, and scrutinizes the many interactions between Trump associates and Russia. But it’s in the second half, which provides a litany of instances in which Trump may have obstructed justice, that the real bombshells await.
According to the report, Trump reacted to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in May 2017 as follows: “Oh my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
And then, as Mueller lays out in sometimes lurid detail, in at least 10 episodes over the ensuing months Trump sought to block or stop that very investigation. He did so even as Mueller doggedly made public the “sweeping and systematic fashion” in which the Russian government attacked the 2016 presidential election, and brought serious criminal charges—and won guilty pleas—from a half-dozen of the president’s top campaign aides.
Little if any of those revelations had made their way into US attorney general William Barr’s four-page summary of the Mueller report last month. Even as he correctly summarized that Mueller did not find that Trump’s campaign conspired—distinct from colluding, which the report makes clear—with the Russian government, Barr appears to have misled the public about the severity of the evidence on obstruction of justice. He also misrepresented Mueller’s reasoning for not making a “traditional prosecutorial decision” on the obstruction half of his investigation.
The attorney general has implied that Mueller left that choice to Barr. In truth, the report makes clear that Mueller felt constrained by the Justice Department policy that a sitting president could not be indicted. Don’t mistake lack of prosecution, in other words, for absence of wrongdoing. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president did not obstruct justice, we would so state,” Mueller’s report says. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Mueller then points to Congress, not the attorney general, as the appropriate body to answer the question of obstruction. As Mueller wrote in what seems to be all but a referral for impeachment proceedings, “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 the contents of the Mueller report diverge so sharply from Barr’s portrayal has long seemed possible, based on his initial summary and subsequent appearance before Congress. Barr was appointed, after all, after writing a memo casting the Mueller investigation as illegitimate. In the hours leading up to the report’s release, that suspicion increased sharply.
Ninety minutes before the public had a chance to read the report, Barr held an odd and at times curt 22-minute press conference, in which he resummarized his views, presenting an argument that made him sound more like the president’s personal defense attorney rather than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. “The special counsel found no collusion,” said Barr. “That’s the bottom line.” Barr went on to stress how frustrating the Russia probe was to the president, asking reporters to consider Trump’s emotions and mental state.
Barr further praised Trump for “fully cooperating,” ignoring the president’s refusal to sit for an interview with Mueller’s investigators, along with the fact that Trump tried at least once to fire the special counsel, consistently attacked the legitimacy of the investigation in public, and openly encouraged witnesses not to cooperate. Barr also never mentioned that a half-dozen of the president’s top campaign aides—including the former campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, national security advisor, and personal lawyer—have all pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from the probe.
The true scope and implications of Mueller’s work didn’t sink in until over an hour later, when the report itself was posted to the Justice Department’s website. It quickly became clear that the report didn’t line up with the rose-colored picture that Barr had painted over the preceding month.
The contrast was especially stark in the matter of obstruction. The 10 episodes the report details include a Trump lawyer’s attempt to keep national security advisor Michael Flynn from implicating the president; Trump’s attempts to pressure White House counsel to cover up or stall the investigation of Flynn in the opening days of the presidency; and Trump instructing White House counsel Don McGahn to deny that he had ever ordered him to fire Mueller. The president also complained, the report says, that McGahn kept notes of their meetings.
There was, Mueller also concludes, good reason for Trump to attempt to obstruct the ongoing FBI probe. “The evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the president personally that the president could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal or political concerns,” Mueller wrote.
After reading through the numerous episodes, it seems almost nothing short of a miracle that Mueller’s probe appears to have wrapped up on his own terms—though not for lack of effort on Trump’s part to derail it. Instead, Mueller paints a picture of a commander in chief who fought back in private and public against the probe, but was ultimately saved from his worst instincts by aides like McGahn, who cooperated extensively with Mueller’s probe and testified for some 30 hours before his team. “The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” the report reads, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
The Russia probe
The question of obstruction will rightly take much of the spotlight Thursday. But the Mueller report also clarifies some questions about the Trump campaign and Russia—again offering a corrective to Barr’s enthusiastic exoneration of Trump.
The report’s first volume is a highly detailed and deeply informed investigation of the two-pronged attack by Russia on the 2016 campaign. It encompasses both the information influence operations of the Internet Research Agency and the active cyberthefts and document dumps of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, funneled through WikiLeaks using the thinly veiled online personalities of DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0. As Mueller wrote, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
In the report’s first 200 pages, Mueller walks through Moscow’s efforts, as well as the various odd instances where Trump campaign officials or Trump aides met with Russian-linked individuals. While none of the interactions between Trump associates and Russians apparently rose to the level of a prosecutable conspiracy, Mueller himself set a high bar for such charges—defining such applicable charges as only arising out of an agreement, tacit or explicit, with the Russian government itself. Mueller was careful to say, though, that the Trump campaign apparently “expected” to benefit from Russia’s help.
Barr previously had quoted in his summary the second half of a single sentence on the first page of volume I, telling Congress that "the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference efforts." The full sentence is decidedly more troubling. As Mueller actually wrote: "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 efforts."
Moreover, Mueller makes clear that part of the reason he couldn’t find a prosecutable conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia was because he was stymied by lies, obstruction, and evidence deleted by his investigative targets. “The office [of the special counsel] cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report,” Mueller wrote. In one specific example, Mueller says he was unable to reconcile the purpose of a long-mysterious meeting in the Seychelles because two key figures, campaign chair Paul Manafort and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, had deleted their exchanges about the meeting.
What happens next
There were countless moments—some accounted in great detail in the Mueller report—where it seemed that Mueller himself might be axed or his investigation hamstrung, including threats from the president and the still-inexplicable appointment of Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general. Yet in the end, despite all the breathless cable coverage and breaking news headlines, both Mueller and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein endured through to the completion of the investigation on Mueller’s own terms. In Barr’s first letter to Congress announcing the end of the probe, he—as legally required to do—explained that there were no significant areas where he or Rosenstein blocked Mueller.
Given the nearly 200 pages of obstruction-related episodes and evidence that Mueller amassed, including confirmation that Trump tried to remove Mueller and gain control of the probe himself, that fact alone seems like a testament to the resiliency of the country’s democratic institutions.
But the report’s release also made clear just how much more investigation there may be still to unfold, even as Mueller himself prepares to wrap up work in the days ahead and return to private life. Mueller has evidently referred at least 14 ongoing investigations onto other prosecutors, including 12 that are redacted in the report to prevent harm to ongoing cases. The other two, which focus on Michael Cohen and former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig, have been publicly known for some time.
Beyond those, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler has already requested that Robert Mueller testify before Congress no later than May 23. Nadler has also said that he plans to issue a subpoena for the full, unredacted report, as well as any underlying materials. Which is to say: This is far from over. The long-awaited “Mueller time” may have come Thursday, but the investigation's impact will reverberate for some time to come.