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.
President Trump had just learned in June 2017 that he was under investigation by Robert S. Mueller III. He had tried and failed to get his White House counsel to order Mueller’s removal. Two days later, he sought another way to rein in the special counsel.
On June 19, Trump met alone in the Oval Office with his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.
After some small talk, Trump turned the conversation to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He told Lewandowski that Sessions was weak. The president said Sessions should not have recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, a decision the attorney general had announced a few months earlier.
Trump said he never would have appointed Sessions if he’d known he would take that step. The president then told his former campaign manager to deliver a message to Sessions: The attorney general should give a speech. Trump dictated what it should say.
Trump wanted Sessions to limit Mueller’s investigation to examining only future election interference — a move that would prevent the special counsel from scrutinizing the president’s 2016 campaign.
Trump told Lewandowski that it would be good for Sessions if he gave such a speech.
Lewandowski told his former boss that he knew what the president wanted Sessions to do.
The request was extraordinary. The president wanted his attorney general to interfere in an investigation — one examining Trump’s own conduct and that of his campaign.
Lewandowski decided he wanted to give Sessions the message in person, but he didn’t want to meet at the Justice Department. That was Sessions’s home turf and would give the attorney general an advantage. Lewandowski also didn’t want to sign in to enter the government building, which would leave a record of his meeting.
He called Sessions and the two men agreed to meet the following evening at Lewandowki’s office.
At the last minute, Sessions canceled the meeting. Lewandowski left Washington, having failed to deliver the president’s message.
Lewandowski knew the notes he had taken in the Oval Office were sensitive. He placed them in a safe at his home.
Lewandowski came up with another plan: He called Rick Dearborn, a senior White House official, and asked if he could pass a message to the attorney general. Lewandowski figured the message would be better coming from Dearborn, who had been Sessions’s chief of staff and — unlike Lewandowski — worked in the White House.
Dearborn agreed — without knowing what the message said. He planned to give it to Sessions at a dinner in late July.
On July 19, Lewandowski was back at the White House. The Russia investigation was heating up. A few days earlier, the media had reported for the first time that Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had met during the campaign with a Russian lawyer who he was told would help his father’s presidential bid.
As he walked into the Oval Office, Lewandowski handed the speech that Trump had written for Sessions to Hope Hicks, a top communications adviser. He asked her to type it up while he met with the president.
Trump asked Lewandowski if he had spoken to Sessions. Lewandowski promised he would deliver the message soon.
The president told his former campaign manager that if Sessions did not meet with him, Lewandowski should tell Sessions he was fired.
It was an odd request for Lewandowksi. He was not the attorney general’s boss. He didn’t even work for the government.
Leaving the meeting, Lewandowski ran into Dearborn in the anteroom of the Oval Office and gave him the notes that Hicks had typed.
Lewandowksi explained this was the message for Sessions they had discussed.
Dearborn was wary and did not feel comfortable carrying a message to Sessions. He decided he didn’t want to know any more and threw away the notes without ever speaking to the attorney general.
Dearborn told Lewandowski he had handled the situation.
Lewandowski would later be asked about the episode on Capitol Hill. “I didn’t think at the time that the president asked me to deliver a message that anything was illegal about it. I didn’t have the privilege to go to Harvard Law. So if you’re telling me that in your opinion, that would have been illegal, then that’s your opinion to it. But I never assumed that, never thought about it at the time and I haven’t thought about it now,” he told members of Congress in September 2019.
After his meeting with Lewandowski, the president was still consumed with Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Hours later, he brought up the topic in an impromptu interview with three New York Times reporters.
Hicks was deeply worried about the president’s critical comments about Sessions, which immediately spurred public questions about whether he was trying to bully his attorney general into interfering with the Russia investigation. But later that day, Trump called her to say how happy he was with the coverage.
Three days later, on July 21, The Washington Post reported that Sessions had discussed campaign-related matters with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to what Sessions had said publicly.
The focus on his interactions with Kislyak made the embattled attorney general even more vulnerable.
That evening, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus called Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt, to talk about whether Sessions might be fired or resign.
Hunt told him that Sessions had no intention of resigning — and noted that even if Trump fired Sessions, the special counsel investigation would continue.
The next day was Saturday. Aboard Marine One bound for Norfolk, Va., that morning, Trump told Priebus that the country had lost confidence in Sessions and the negative publicity surrounding the attorney general was intolerable. The president wanted Sessions out.
Priebus warned the president that if he fired Sessions, they would never get another attorney general confirmed by Congress. But Trump suggested he could appoint a replacement without congressional approval. He wanted it done.
Priebus believed Trump’s order was driven not by Sessions’s job performance as attorney general, but by Trump’s fury that Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Priebus thought Trump’s order was a problem. He called White House Counsel Donald McGahn for advice.
McGahn told Priebus he should not follow the order.
The two men discussed possibly resigning together rather than carry out the president’s demand to fire the attorney general.
That afternoon, Trump met with Priebus again and pressed him for Sessions’s resignation.
Priebus believed his own job depended on securing Sessions’s resignation. He told the president he would get Sessions to step down, even though he did not plan on following the directive.
Later that day, Priebus called the president and told him that firing Sessions would be a calamity.
Other Justice Department officials would also resign, he told Trump. Trump would not be able to get anyone else confirmed.
Trump relented — slightly. He agreed to put off his demand for Sessions’s resignation until after the Sunday news shows aired the following day, to prevent them from focusing on the firing.
By the end of the weekend, Trump had backed down and allowed the attorney general to remain in his job. But he kept up the pressure on Sessions in a series of tweets.
For the second time, Sessions prepared a resignation letter.
For the rest of the year, he carried it in his pocket every time he visited the White House — just in case.