Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III spent nearly two years investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump obstructed the inquiry. When his 448-page report was released in April, Mueller left one major question unanswered: whether the president broke the law.
The special counsel determined that because Justice Department policy states that a president cannot be indicted, it would not be fair to take a position on whether Trump committed a crime. But his report laid out possible evidence of obstruction of justice, as well as a dramatic narrative of an anxious and angry president who tried to control a criminal investigation — even after he knew he was under scrutiny.
This six-part series is drawn directly from episodes detailed in the Mueller report in which prosecutors found possible evidence of obstruction of justice, as well as congressional testimony and Washington Post reporting. Dialogue in text bubbles is taken verbatim from Mueller’s report, which cited text messages, contemporaneous notes and investigative interviews with first-hand witnesses who described conversations among key players. Words within quotation marks reflect exact dialogue included in the report, or comments made at public events or in media interviews.
Links throughout each chapter refer to the specific pages of Mueller’s report that describe the scenes, as well as news stories. Illustrations of public events are based on news photographs taken at the time. The president’s tweets have been reproduced as they were written, although the number of “likes” and “retweets” may have changed over time.
By the winter of 2018, President Trump had been in office a full year, dogged by the Russia investigation virtually from the start. His staff repeatedly warned him that his attacks on the probe would only prolong it. But the president would not listen.
On Jan. 25, the New York Times broke the news that, during the previous summer, Trump had ordered White House Counsel Donald McGahn to get the Justice Department to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The Times said McGahn threatened to quit rather than follow the order.
The Washington Post quickly followed with its own report, clarifying that while McGahn had told colleagues he planned to resign rather than follow Trump’s orders, he had never informed the president that he was going to walk. Trump had dropped the idea, The Post reported, and McGahn had stayed in his job.
The news stories were a problem: They indicated that if not for the reluctance of one of his top advisers, the president would have fired the special counsel – a move that would have been seen as an attempt to impede the investigation.
Publicly, the president denied he had called for Mueller’s firing.
The next day, Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd called William Burck, McGahn’s attorney, and told him that the president wanted McGahn to put out a statement denying he had been asked to fire the special counsel.
After consulting with McGahn, Burck told Dowd that the stories were correct in reporting that Trump had wanted Mueller removed. McGahn would not put out a statement.
Trump also asked press secretary Sarah Sanders to contact McGahn about the story. McGahn repeated to Sanders that the thrust of the story was accurate.
Trump knew the special counsel was already focused on whether the president was trying to block the inquiry. Trump also knew Mueller was interviewing White House staffers like McGahn. Pressing a key witness to change his story could look like an attempt to tamper with the investigation once again. But the president wouldn’t let it go.
In early February, Trump complained to White House staff secretary Rob Porter that he had never tried to fire Mueller and that McGahn had leaked the information to make himself look good.
The president then gave Porter a job: He needed to get McGahn to write a letter “for our records” stating that the president never directed him to fire Mueller. The letter would prove the reporting was inaccurate, Trump said.
Later that day, Porter delivered the message to McGahn. But the White House counsel refused to write the letter Trump wanted. The news reports were accurate, he told the staff secretary. Trump had indeed wanted him to fire Mueller, and McGahn had in fact planned to resign instead of carrying out the order.
Porter said the president might fire him if he didn’t write the letter. McGahn dismissed the threat. He knew the optics of such a move would be terrible.
Trump kept pressing the matter.
On Feb. 6, 2018, McGahn was set to meet with the president and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly in the Oval Office to discuss the story. Trump’s advisers fretted about what could happen if the president kept pushing McGahn to change his account. What would the White House counsel do then?
Before the meeting, Dowd called Burck with a message: No matter what happened, McGahn could not resign.
The president began the meeting by complaining about the New York Times story.
McGahn responded that while he had not told the president directly that he planned to resign, the New York Times story was otherwise accurate.
Trump insisted that he had just wanted McGahn to raise the issue of Mueller’s conflicts of interest with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and let him decide what to do.
McGahn said he heard it differently — that the president said: “Call Rod. There are conflicts. Mueller has to go.”
McGahn said no.
Trump asked McGahn why he told the special counsel’s office about the incident. McGahn said he had no choice.
He was the White House counsel, not the president’s personal lawyer, so their conversations were not protected by attorney-client privilege, he explained. That meant that when federal investigators asked McGahn about it, he was required by law to answer truthfully.
Then Trump asked why McGahn took notes in meetings, creating a record of what went on in the White House that Mueller could review.
After the meeting, Kelly and McGahn talked separately.
McGahn told Kelly that he and Trump “did have that conversation” about removing Mueller. Kelly responded that he had pointed out to the president that McGahn was not backing down.
Trump had pushed and pushed, but he wasn’t able to get McGahn to retract his account. Stymied, the president gave up.
His personal attorney, Dowd, called McGahn’s lawyer, Burck, with a new message: Trump was “fine” with McGahn.
Other witnesses in the special counsel investigation would soon consume the president’s attention.