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.
The investigation that shadowed the first two years of President Trump’s administration began quietly during the 2016 campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies suspected Russia was behind efforts to sway American voters, such as WikiLeaks’ release of hacked Democratic emails. The FBI began examining ties between Trump associates and the Russian government.
Donald Trump won the election on Nov. 8, 2016. By that time, U.S. intelligence officials had publicly blamed Russia for the release of the hacked emails, describing it as an effort “to interfere with the US election process.”
Trump scoffed at that conclusion, calling it “ridiculous.” He said the intelligence agencies did not know who was really responsible. “It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place,” he said.
The way Trump and his top advisers responded to the Russia attack set in motion a crisis that would consume his White House — and it led to the investigation of the president himself for obstruction of justice.
The first test came in late December 2016. Barack Obama was still president. With just weeks to go until Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration announced it was imposing sanctions on Russia in response to its interference in the campaign.
Trump’s advisers were concerned the fallout would hurt the United States’ relationship with Russia. The president-elect saw the move as an attempt to embarrass him by suggesting his election was not legitimate.
Michael Flynn, the incoming White House national security adviser, on vacation in the Dominican Republic, told colleagues he planned to speak with Russia’s man in Washington, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
He texted an aide.
Flynn also spoke by phone to his deputy, K.T. McFarland, who was with the president-elect and other advisers at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private Florida estate.
McFarland told Flynn that the president-elect’s team didn’t want things with Russia to heat up.
Flynn immediately called Kislyak.
They discussed the sanctions — and Flynn asked Russia not to escalate the situation. It was a highly unorthodox request. Flynn was not yet representing the U.S. government.
The next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement saying Russia would not retaliate.
Back in Washington, national security officials in the Obama administration were surprised by Russia’s mild reaction. But Trump tweeted an appreciative response.
The following week, the president-elect was briefed by intelligence agencies on Russia’s efforts in the previous months to bolster his candidacy. After the meeting, Trump said in a statement that the hacks had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
On Jan. 12, 2017, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken on the day the sanctions were announced. Ignatius wrote that it was unclear what they had discussed, but he questioned whether Flynn had said something to undercut the Obama administration.
The revelation caused a stir. Trump was already facing questions about Russia’s interference in the election, and now it appeared his incoming national security adviser might have secretly undermined Obama’s attempts to hold the Russians accountable.
Trump called incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus.
After speaking with Trump, Priebus called Flynn and told him he needed to “kill the story.” The “boss” was angry about The Post column.
Flynn directed his deputy, McFarland, to call Ignatius and inform The Post columnist that no discussion of sanctions took place.
McFarland made the call, even though she said later that she knew it was not true.
Flynn then told other Trump advisers, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, that he had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
In a round of media interviews, Pence, Priebus and incoming press secretary Sean Spicer denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions.
Senior Justice Department officials were alarmed by their statements, especially the one by Pence. The United States routinely monitors communications of Russian officials. The Justice Department officials knew what Flynn said about his conversations with Kislyak was not true. They feared Flynn’s lies gave Russia leverage over him.
Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president on Jan. 20, 2017.
Four days later, Flynn was interviewed by FBI agents in his White House office.
On Jan. 26, senior Justice Department officials Sally Yates and Mary McCord met with White House Counsel Donald McGahn at the White House. They warned him that Pence’s public statements defending Flynn were not true and could make Flynn a target of blackmail by the Russians.
Yates also revealed that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI.
This was serious: The White House now knew that the FBI was examining Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador. McGahn immediately told Trump about the Justice Department warnings and that Flynn had been interviewed.
Trump told McGahn, Priebus and senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon to look into the situation — and to keep it quiet.
The president was unhappy with Flynn.
The next day, Jan. 27, Trump invited FBI Director James B. Comey to dinner at the White House. Trump made it clear to aides that he wanted to be alone with Comey, rejecting a suggestion by Bannon that he or Priebus also attend.
Comey was uncomfortable and felt Trump was trying to secure a promise that he would protect the president’s interests over anything else.
Days later, Trump and Flynn had a one-on-one conversation in the Oval Office. The president was upset about the stories and asked his national security adviser what he told the Russian ambassador.
Flynn acknowledged to Trump that he might have discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
On Feb. 9, The Washington Post broke the news that Flynn had in fact discussed sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office, despite the denials from the vice president and top Trump aides.
McGahn and Priebus decided Flynn could not have forgotten about the details of his conversation with Kislyak and must have lied about them. They told Trump that he should fire the national security adviser.
On an Air Force One flight from Mar-a-Lago to Washington on Feb. 12, Trump asked Flynn whether he lied to Pence. Flynn told him that he might have forgotten details, but he did not think he lied.
But others in the White House doubted Flynn’s story.
The next day, Priebus told Flynn he had to resign. Flynn said he wanted to say goodbye to the president. Priebus brought Flynn into the Oval Office.
The following day, Feb. 14, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came to the White House to visit Trump.
The two men had known each other for years, and Christie was an informal adviser.
Toward the end of lunch, Trump asked Christie to call Comey and tell him the president “really” liked him, adding: “Tell him he’s part of the team.” Christie thought the suggestion was a bad idea and would put Comey in an uncomfortable position. He decided not to pass along the message.
At 4 p.m. that day, the president met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Comey, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and other officials for a homeland security briefing in the Oval Office.
At the end, Trump asked to speak to Comey alone. Sessions and Kushner tried to stay, but the president excused them.
At one point, Priebus opened the door, but the president did not want to be interrupted. He sent his chief of staff away.
Comey felt that was as much as he could say. He did not commit to “letting Flynn go” — which he saw as an inappropriate directive to end the investigation.
After his Oval Office meeting with the president, Comey began drafting a memo documenting their conversation.
He also asked Sessions, who as attorney general supervised the FBI, not to leave him alone with Trump again.
About a week later, Bannon and Priebus told McFarland that the president wanted her to resign as deputy national security adviser, but they suggested that she could be appointed ambassador to Singapore.
At Trump’s direction, Priebus asked McFarland to put in writing that Trump did not direct Flynn to talk to Kislyak. She refused, saying she did not know whether that was true. She consulted a White House lawyer for advice, who also urged her not to write the letter. He was concerned it could be seen as a quid pro quo for the ambassador position.
McFarland resigned her White House post as requested, but did not write the letter. Trump still nominated her for the ambassadorship, but she ultimately withdrew her name from consideration amid questions about her interactions with Flynn.
Publicly, Trump raged against his enemies.
But the FBI and congressional investigations were ramping up and, privately, Trump appeared concerned about what his ousted national security adviser would say.
Around that time, Trump asked McFarland to pass a message to Flynn.
The president felt bad for Flynn, Trump told McFarland. He should stay strong.