20 Most Damaging Items From Mueller’s Report
Earlier today, amid considerable derision from Democrats and the American public, the Justice Department released a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, the culmination of 22 months of investigation. The special counsel determined there was insufficient evidence to establish that President Donald Trump or members of his campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russian operatives to subvert the 2016 presidential election.
But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Hill Reporter outlines 20 of the most damaging items from the Mueller report below.
1. The Trump campaign “expected it would benefit” from Russian hacking efforts.
Attorney General William Barr proved rather selective in his initial summary of the Mueller report, noting that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
What Barr omitted: That the investigation “identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.” The complete quote is below:
“The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. 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.”
2. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted to the special counsel’s investigators that she lied from the podium.
In an interview with investigators, Sanders admitted to misleading the public about the reason why President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey.
According to the report, “The President’s draft termination letter… stated that morale in the FBI was at an all time low and Sanders told the press after Comey’s termination that the White House had heard from ‘countless’ FBI agents who had lost confidence in Comey.”
But the evidence “does not support those claims.” Trump told Comey at a January dinner that “the people of the FBI really like [him].“ There is no evidence that “suggests that the President heard otherwise before deciding to terminate Comey, and Sanders acknowledged to investigators that her comments were not founded on anything.”
3. Trump ordered his White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in 2017, but McGahn refused.
President Trump’s opposition to the investigation was hardly more clear than when he ordered McGahn to terminate the special counsel. Upon hearing news on July 14, 2017, that the special counsel’s office was investigating him for obstruction of justice, Trump reacted to the news with a series of tweets criticizing the Department of Justice and the Special Counsel’s investigation.” Three days later, he “called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General [Rod Rosenstein] and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed.”
“McGahn,” the report continues, “did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.” McGahn considered resigning but was urged not to do so by former chief strategist Steve Bannon and then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
4. Trump made a heretofore unknown attempt to get his former Attorney General to shut down the investigation.
Almost immediately after issuing his directive to McGahn, Trump issued an order to adviser Corey Lewandowski to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the Russia investigation “to prospective election-interference only.” Lewandowski and Rick Dearborn, Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, refused to obey the order. Dearborn was “uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through,” according to the report.
5. Trump considered installing Rachel Brand, then the Department of Justice’s number three official, to spearhead the Russia probe.
“The president asked Staff Secretary Rob Porter what he thought of Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. Porter recalled that the president asked him if Brand was good, tough and ‘on the team,’ the report says.
Trump directed Porter to ask Brand about the position. Porter did not do so because he was “uncomfortable with the task,” according to the report. “In asking him to reach out to Brand, Porter understood the president to want to find someone to end the Russia investigation or fire the special counsel, although the president never said so explicitly.”
6. Another attempt to control McGahn also failed when Trump attempted to get McGahn to walk back the story.
In early 2018, the press reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump attempted to get White House officials “to tell McGahn to dispute the story and create a record stating he had not been ordered to have the Special Counsel removed.” McGahn refused, telling officials that these reports were “accurate.”
Trump then met McGahn in the Oval Office “and again pressured him to deny the reports.” Trump also asked McGahn during this meeting why McGahn had “told the Special Counsel about the President’s effort to remove the Special Counsel and why McGahn took notes of his conversations with the President.” McGahn again refused to comply “and perceived the President to be testing his mettle.”
7. The description of Trump’s reaction to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel in May 2017.
President Trump’s response to learning that Mueller had been appointed by then-Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate Russian interference appears at odds with his repeated denunciations of the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
The report incorporates notes written by Jody Hunt, the chief of staff of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Oh my God. This is terrible,” Trump said. “This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” He later added: “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Trump then reprimanded Sessions, demanding: “How could you let this happen, Jeff?”
8. Security contractor and former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, financed efforts to obtain Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails.
Much has been made of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Clinton was never prosecuted. Moreover, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General’s report found no evidence of political bias and supported the FBI and DOJ’s decision not to prosecute her. Despite these facts, President Trump has continued to assail Clinton, declaring her actions to be synonymous with an actual “witch hunt.”
Barbara Ledeen, an associate of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, spearheaded the effort to obtain Clinton’s deleted emails after Trump ordered Flynn to retrieve them from her private server. Ledeen claimed to have received “a trove of emails” that belonged to Clinton. She then reached out to Prince, who “provided funding to hire a tech advisor to ascertain the authenticity of the emails.”
Prince’s analysis determined the emails were not authentic, and he later recounted these efforts to the special counsel’s investigators.
9. Michael Flynn reached out to the late Peter Smith, a Republican activist and fundraiser, to aid in the search for Clinton’s emails.
In July 2016, Trump, then a presidential candidate, invited Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, asking the Kremlin to find “the 30,000 emails that are missing” from the personal server she used during her tenure as Secretary of State.
“I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” the Republican nominee said at a news conference in Florida. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
According to the report, Trump “asked individuals affiliated with his campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails … repeatedly.” Flynn, who would eventually become Trump’s first national security adviser, “subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails.”
Among these individuals was Smith, who committed suicide on May 14, 2017. Smith, the report notes, “created a company, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and recruited security experts and business associates.” Additionally, Smith “made claims to others involved in the effort (and those from whom he sought funding) that he was in contact with hackers with ‘ties and affiliations to Russia’ who had access to the emails.”
Smith’s effort was unsuccessful and “associates and security experts who worked with Smith on the initiative did not believe that Smith was in contact with Russian hackers and were aware of no such connection.” The report “did not establish that Smith was in contact with Russian hackers.”
10. The special counsel’s investigators concluded Trump intended to obstruct the probe when he tweeted support for Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman.
“Evidence concerning the President’s conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government,” the report stated. “Before Manafort was convicted, the President repeatedly stated that Manafort had been treated unfairly. One day after Manafort was convicted on eight felony charges and potentially faced a lengthy prison term, the President said that Manafort was “a brave man” for refusing to “break” and that “flipping” “almost ought to be outlawed.’ ”
11. Mueller says Trump’s power means his public comments could be considered obstruction.
“While it may be more difficult to establish that public-facing acts were motivated by a corrupt intent, the President’s power to influence actions, persons, and the events is enhanced by his unique ability to attract attention through use of mass communications,” the report observes. “And no principle of law excludes public acts from the scope of obstruction statutes. If the likely effect of the acts is to intimidate witnesses or alter their testimony, the justice system’s integrity is equally threatened.”
The report goes on to note that although “the series of events we investigated involved discrete acts,” such as President Trump’s statement ordering former FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, his termination of Comey and his efforts to remove Mueller altogether, “it is important to view the President’s pattern of conduct as a whole. That pattern sheds light on the nature of the President’s acts and the inferences that can be drawn about his intent.”
12. Trump’s attempts to obstruct the investigation were largely unsuccessful because his associates refused to “carry out his orders.”
“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.
The report goes on to add:
“[James] Comey did not end the investigation of [Michael] Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. [Don] McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the special counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. [Corey] Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President’s message to [Jeff] Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the special counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so. Consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the President’s aides and associates beyond those already filed.”
13. The Internet Research Agency, a team of Russian operatives, applauded Trump when he tweeted about an event in Miami.
The report notes that the IRA targeted “leaders of public opinion,” namely “various members and surrogates of the Trump campaign. In total, Trump Campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts, and other political content created by the IRA.” These materials were shared by President Trump, Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale, and Michael Flynn and “included allegations of voter fraud, as well as allegations that Secretary Clinton had mishandled classified information.”
Trump shared news of an event in Miami the Russians had organized in August 2016, by tweeting, “THANK YOU for your support Miami!… TOGETHER, WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Afterward, “Matt Skiber,” an “IRA-controlled persona” sent a message to an American Tea Party activist saying, “Mr. Trump posted about our event in Miami! This is great!”
14. Mueller’s office sought to interview Trump for more than a year, but he refused to do so voluntarily.
“Beginning in December 2017, this Office sought for more than a year to interview the President on topics relevant to both Russian-election interference and obstruction-of-justice.”
All attempts by the special counsel’s investigators to interview President Trump were rebuffed despite the special counsel office “had carefully considered the constitutional and other arguments raised by counsel… and they d[id] not provide us with reason to forego seeking an interview.”
The report continues that investigators stated that “it is in the interest of the Presidency and the public for an interview to take place.” Investigators offered “numerous accommodations to aid the President’s preparation and avoid surprise.”
15. Investigators examined 10 episodes for possible obstruction and make it explicitly clear that the investigation did not exonerate the president.
“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,” the report states. “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.”
This is a far cry from Attorney General Barr’s assessment. At the news conference before the Justice Department released the report, Barr said:
“After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report, and in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other department lawyers, the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense.”
Noting that he “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories” regarding obstruction, Barr said he would find no basis for a charge even if he had accepted them.
16. Mueller concluded that the Constitution does not shield Trump from obstruction of justice charges.
“The Constitution does not categorically and permanently immunize a president for obstructing justice,” according to the report, signaling that Congress has the power to act upon reviewing the report’s contents.
“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of the office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” the report continues, in direct opposition to the Trump camp’s argument that Congress lacks the authority to intervene.
17. Sections about the Trump campaign’s communications with Wikileaks are heavily redacted.
Of particular consternation is information related to the Trump campaign’s correspondence with Wikileaks, which Attorney General Barr says must be kept secret because it relates to an ongoing criminal matter, likely the case surrounding Republican operative Roger Stone, President Trump’s former adviser, who is charged with lying about these communications.
But did the Trump campaign communicate with Wikileaks? According to Barr, a case for criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks cannot be made because WikiLeaks’ publication of the emails was not a criminal act so long as it did not help Russia to obtain them.
18. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed back against Trump’s efforts to get him to walk back his recusal from all matters involving the Russia investigation.
White House counsel Don McGahn and other aides made numerous attempts at President Trump’s behest to convince Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
Questions about whether Sessions should recuse himself erupted after a Wall Street Journal report revealed that Sessions used funds from his Senate re-election campaign to cover travel expenses for the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he met with Sergei Kislyak, who was then the Russian ambassador to the United States. The news that Sessions met with Kislyak directly contradicted a White House statement that Sessions was not acting on behalf of the campaign at the time.
Despite this, Trump “urged” McGahn to contact Sessions “to tell him not to recuse himself.”
“McGahn understood the President to be concerned that a recusal would make Sessions look guilty for omitting details in his confirmation hearing; leave the President unprotected from an investigation that could hobble the presidency and derail his policy objectives; and detract from favorable press coverage of a Presidential Address to Congress the President had delivered earlier in the week,” the report says.
McGahn “continued trying on behalf of the President to avert Sessions’ recusal,” but was ultimately unsuccessful, much to Trump’s chagrin.
19. Russian leader Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to win the 2016 presidential election, but the Russians “struggled” to make contact with Trump’s associates.
According to the report, Putin’s “preference was for candidate Trump to win,” but Russians “appeared not to have preexisting contacts” with Trump’s campaign before the election “and struggled to connect with senior officials around the president-elect.”
Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks was skeptical on election night when she received a call from a foreigner claiming to be making a “Putin call.” After a Russian embassy official followed up with an email from his personal Gmail account, Hicks forwarded the email to Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, worrying that the team might “get duped but don’t want to blow off Putin!”
20. Mueller “declined” several prosecutions because several individuals made the investigation difficult for the special counsel’s office.
Mueller’s report notes that he only brought charges on “some” of the lies perpetrated by “several” individuals connected to the Trump campaign who lied to his office and to Congress about their contacts with Russians.
“Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference,” Mueller noted.
Among the individuals not charged for lying: former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Trump campaign adviser George Papadapolous, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and two individuals, one who is providing information to a grand jury and the other who is the subject of an ongoing investigation, whose details are redacted.
“In some instances, that decision was due to evidentiary hurdles to proving falsity. In others, the Office determined that the witness ultimately provided truthful information and that considerations of culpability, deterrence, and resource-preservation weighed against prosecution,” the report says about individuals who were interviewed by the special counsel’s office but who were ultimately not prosecuted.
“Given these identified gaps, the office 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 about those individuals who refused to speak or lied outright.
What Happens Next?
Speaking to reporters, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that Democrats are out to “destroy” the “sterling reputations” of Attorney General William Barr, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller because they are unhappy with the results of the probe.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has vowed to issue a subpoena for the full, unredacted version of the Mueller report.
The attorney general deciding to withhold the full report from Congress is regrettable, but not surprising,” Nadler said during a press conference. “Even in its incomplete form, the Mueller report shows disturbing evidence that President Trump obstructed justice.”
“Congress must get the full, unredacted report along with all the underlying materials from Special Counsel Mueller,” Nadler said, declining to respond to questions about whether Democrats have discussed filing articles of impeachment against Trump. “We have to get to the bottom of this and we’ll see what happens.”
Barr has said that a less redacted version of the Mueller report will be available to top lawmakers in both the House and the Senate with the authority to review classified information. The report will also be made available to chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Nadler has ordered Barr to make the complete and unredacted report available by May 23.