Of course, by now you’ve heard that Robert Mueller’s report to Congress on the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections completely cleared Donald Trump and his campaign of all wrongdoing, and found neither collusion nor obstruction — if you’ve been listening to Fox News, the president’s Twitter feed, or your most alt-right pals. However, if you’re reading the report itself, you’ll see that it outlines a list of incidents in which Trump fought to prevent the investigation from completing the task assigned, and leaves Congress to decide whether to act.
In fact, the report devotes over 150 pages to discussing the evidence and facts around obstruction incidents, and whether or not they meet the requirements for prosecution. Ultimately, the report specifically explains that it does not draw a conclusion; and explicitly declares that they are unable to confirm that Trump did not commit obstruction.
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. 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. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
The Special Counsel’s report divides the potentially obstructive acts into sections that each cover one or more behaviors by the president, as well as some of the circumstances around it, media response where relevant, and analysis. In some cases, half a page is given over to footnotes, denoting which conversations or evidence support the information. With all of that drained away, here are fifteen of the specific acts by Donald Trump that the Special Counsel considered in the Obstruction of Justice portion of the investigation.
1. Demand for loyalty.
Expecting loyalty to himself as an individual, rather than to the office, the nation, or the people, is a pattern seen throughout the Trump presidency, but the first major incident comes only days after his swearing-in at a private dinner with James Comey, then the Director of the FBI. Trump has denied Comey’s assertion that he demanded loyalty from the head of a U.S. Intelligence agency, even denying that he extended the invitation to dinner. The investigators disagreed, saying “But substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account of the dinner invitation and the request for loyalty.”
The concerns about Trump’s dinner conversation aren’t just a call for loyalty. He also brings up the Steele Dossier, suggesting that he might order the FBI to prove the contents false, and tries to ferret out information about Michael Flynn. Weeks later, Trump contrives to speak to Comey privately and ask him to “see your way clear to letting…Flynn go.”
2. K.T. McFarland: Witness that I didn’t do it.
Trump sought proof that he wasn’t responsible for Flynn’s connections to Russia. He asked, through Reince Priebuse, for K.T. McFarland, in her role as Deputy National Security Advisor, to write an email stating that Trump didn’t direct Flynn to make contact. McFarland, who said she did not know whether Trump had directed Flynn to contact the Russian Ambassador about sanctions, sought advice from White House Counsel. She was advised there not to write the email.
3. Trump asks Intelligence officials to proclaim his innocence.
Over the course of a week, from March 22 2017 through the 26th, contact between the President and three intelligence officials is documented. Trump is documented as asking Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and CIA Director Michael Pompeo both on March 22, in the Oval Office, to publicly state that he has no connection to Russia. He later contacts Coats again, by phone, and then calls NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers, telling both that the investigation is making things difficult, and asking Rogers if there is any way to refute the stories.
Intelligence officials also remember Trump saying the investigation needed to “go away” and starting Daily Briefings with the suggestion that a press statement should be issued on his innocence.
4. Lift the cloud.
On March 30, Trump contacts Comey. He asks Comey if there’s a way to “lift the cloud” of the investigation, and suggests “getting that fact out” — the ‘fact’ being that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation. He called Comey back 12 days later to ask if Comey was working on publicizing that Trump wasn’t the subject of an investigation. Comey indicated he was the wrong person to contact about that, and Trump tried other avenues to get a public statement from the FBI, asserting that Comey had said it could be done.
5. Trump fires James Comey.
On May 3rd, James Comey testified before Congress — and did not state that Trump wasn’t personally being investigated. Those close to Trump say he became agitated, and was soon expressing intent to fire Comey. In his public termination letter, Trump noted that he himself was not under investigation, and cited Comey’s May 3rd testimony as evidence of his poor judgment and conduct.
6. Attempts to remove the Special Counsel.
After Comey was fired, Rod Rosenstein appointed a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, to lead the investigation. Trump, upon learning of this, reportedly became quite upset, saying this would be the end of his presidency. He set about the business of trying to discredit or have the Special Counsel removed. He claimed conflicts of interest, including an unpaid refund to Mueller’s family for an unused membership to Trump National Golf Club — something even Steve Bannon decried as too petty.
He reportedly asked advisors whether he could fire the Special Counsel, and after news reports were published saying that Mueller was investigating Trump on possible obstruction of justice charges, he called White House Counsel Don McGahn and began to demand that he have Mueller fired. (McGahn did not follow through with directives, and even considered resigning.) Trump also contacted Chris Christie to ask about having Mueller removed.
7. Tell Jeff Sessions to tell everyone this isn’t fair.
Trump’s next move to discredit the Special Counsel was to try to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions on board. He dictated a statement for Sessions to give publicly, asserting that Sessions had witnessed Trump not colluding with Russia, and that the investigation was very unfair, and that the investigation should focus on ensuring no interference in future elections.
Trump asked Corey Lewandowski to deliver the message with the dictated speech, and according to Lewandowski, warned that it would cost Sessions’ job if he refused to meet. However, the message was never delivered.
8. Public criticism of Jeff Sessions
Here’s where Trump starts publicly maligning Jeff Sessions. He gives an interview in which he says he never would have appointed Sessions if he’d known Sessions would recuse himself. He says it was unfair. He begins asking Reince Priebus about the possibility of firing Sessions or demanding a resignation. Ultimately, Priebus put Trump off, but Trump continued to tweet critically of Sessions.
9. Trump Tower Meeting: The cover-up.
In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials met with Russian agents at Trump Tower. In emails, the meeting was planned as an opportunity to hand over incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. The Russian government’s support of Trump was specifically mentioned.
Just over a year later, the Trump Administration learned of the contents of these emails, and debated how to handle it. Trump’s response was to try to cover it all up. Communications staff discussed the possibility of going public with the emails, and being prepared to answer questions. Trump refused, insisting on keeping the emails quiet in hopes they would never be public.
10. Trump Tower Meeting: In which Don Jr. is too honest for his dad
A written statement was produced to be Trump Jr.’s official response to the controversy, focusing on discussion of international adoption.
It was a short meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up.
Don Jr. requested to add the word “primarily” before “discussed,” in order to be slightly more accurate — and cover himself in case there was a leak and people realized Clinton information had been discussed.
11. Please excuse, unrecuse.
During these same months, Trump is actively trying to regain control of the investigation. He contacts Sessions in person and by phone to tell him he should reverse his recusal. He looks into replacing Sessions as Attorney General if he can’t get him to withdraw his recusal. On multiple occasions, by phone and in person, Trump is documented suggesting Sessions should “unrecuse,” take over the Russia investigation, and also investigate Hillary Clinton. In public interviews and tweets, Trump laments that Sessions isn’t ‘protecting’ him, and says that Sessions could put a stop to the investigation (or “witch hunt”).
12. Lie for me.
The investigation found that Trump asked McGahn to lie about a previous potential obstructive act — attempts to fire the Special Counsel. When it became public that Trump had contacted McGahn about firing Robert Mueller, and McGahn had considered resigning rather than carrying out the order, Trump decried it himself as fake news. McGahn was asked about giving a response and refused. Trump accused McGahn of leaking the story to make himself look good, and demanded a letter from McGahn declaring the reports false.
McGahn refused, and Trump met with him to put on more pressure. He insisted that McGahn’s recollection of the phone call was inaccurate, and complained that he took notes, and expressed irritation that McGahn had told the Special Counsel’s team Trump was trying to have Mueller removed. Ultimately, McGahn refused to issue a denial of the news stories, and Trump accepted it, though he had previously expressed that he might “get rid of” McGahn if he didn’t issue the required statement.
13. Witness tampering: Michael Flynn
The report puts some emphasis on witness tampering, spending a section explaining it and the relelvant statutes, noting that any attempt to “influence, delay, or prevent” testimony can fall into the category.
The section on Michael Flynn focuses on Trump’s conduct toward him before and after Flynn separated his defense from the Trump team.
Trump lavished Flynn with praise, publicly and through messages he conveyed. He said Flynn was “wonderful,” “good,” and “a fine person,” and that he should “stay strong.” After Flynn began to cooperate with the Special Counsel, he received a voicemail from a counselor to the President, asking if he was turning over anything that would implicate Trump.
Publicly, he spoke about the possibility of a pardon, saying, “We’ll see what happens,” and that Flynn wasn’t being treated fairly.
14. Witness tampering: Paul Manafort
Similarly, when Paul Manafort was indicted, there was discussion of whether Trump would come to the rescue. Manafort is cited as saying he’d spoken to Trump’s representation and the president would ‘take care of’ him and Gates. He specifically said they should ‘sit tight’ and not enter any deals.
Publicly, Trump said that Manafort was being treated unfairly, and said that the crimes had nothing to do with the Trump campaign. Privately, he reportedly asked aides if Manafort might be turning over information that would harm Trump.
Rudy Giuliani, speaking as Trump’s personal lawyer, suggested that when all was said and done, Trump could hand out pardons.
15. Witness tampering: Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen is the big one on tampering, because a lot more of Trump’s interactions with him and his family were either public or have been made public. For instance, Trump’s tweets declaring that Cohen wouldn’t flip — widely decried as obstruction in full public view.
The investigation found that Trump also contacted Cohen directly, warning him, also, to “stay strong.” Cohen also recieved messages from others telling him that Trump supported and cared about him, and “has [his] back.” Cohen reportedly took these messages and others to mean that he would have Trump’s support and protection as long as he continued to cover for Trump.
Once news broke that Cohen might be ready to cooperate with Mueller, Trump’s public response changed, too, accusing the attorney of making up stories to protect himself, and hinting at some deep secret connection to the Clintons. As Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, Trump called him weak and a liar. He also suggested that Cohen’s family members could be guilty of crimes.
Pattern of Behavior
Ultimately, Mueller’s team didn’t indict Trump, and left the decision to Congress about whether to act on any of the information uncovered in the investigation. However, the report “does not exonerate” Trump. Aside from listing numerous pieces of evidence considered as potential obstruction of justice, the report urges the reader to “view the President ‘s pattern of conduct as a whole,” in order to “shed light on the nature of the President’s acts….and his intent.”
Throughout, the report considers how each individual act meets legal standards for obstruction of justice, and reminds that a reasonable expectation that an act could obstruct an investigation is sufficient — the act doesn’t have to be successful. While it may reach no final conclusion, the report does assess Trump’s intent, on each case of potential obstruction. Moreover, when discussing that success isn’t necessary to meet the legal definition of obstruction, the report draws a firm inference about Trump’s intent on a broad scale:
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.
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Steph Bazzle reports on social issues and religion for Hill Reporter. She focuses on stories that speak to everyone's right to practice what they believe in and receive the support of their communities and government officials. You can reach her at Steph@HillReporter.com