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.
Even as President Trump railed against the investigation, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team of prosecutors moved forward. Beginning in 2017, they quickly uncovered possible crimes committed by several of Trump’s advisers, including some acts unrelated to the 2016 campaign.
With his own associates in jeopardy, the president blasted those who cooperated with Mueller and left open the possibility of pardons for those who did not — raising fears that he was trying to influence their testimony and tamper with witnesses.
The first to feel the pressure was former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When Flynn was forced to step down in February 2017 after lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Trump publicly offered warm remarks about the retired general.
Nine months later, Flynn began cooperating with the special counsel’s office. On Nov. 22, 2017, Flynn’s attorney informed the president’s lawyers that Flynn was withdrawing from an agreement to share information with the president’s legal team. It was a sign that Flynn was switching sides and planned to help Mueller.
That night, Trump’s lawyer John Dowd left a voicemail for Robert Kelner, an attorney for Flynn.
The next day, Flynn’s attorneys returned the call. They repeated that they could no longer have confidential communications with the president’s team. Dowd was indignant. He told Flynn’s lawyers that he planned to tell the president Flynn was now hostile toward him.
Flynn’s attorneys saw Dowd’s call as an attempt to get Flynn to reconsider his cooperation.
Dowd later said the special counsel did not provide the full context of his message in his report and changed “the tenor and the contents” of what he said.
Flynn didn’t buckle. Within days, on Dec. 1, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
Trump expressed sympathy for Flynn. The president suggested he hadn’t ruled out using the powers of his office to pardon him.
His former national security adviser had admitted to a felony, a disturbing development for the president. But if Flynn knew he was likely to be pardoned, he might give investigators less information.
In the days that followed, the president left the door open to a possible Flynn pardon.
A few months after they were indicted, Manafort told Gates that he had spoken to the president’s personal lawyer. It would be stupid to plead guilty, Manafort said.
Gates asked Manafort whether anyone had specifically mentioned that the two would be pardoned. Manafort responded that no one had used that word.
On Feb. 22, 2018, additional charges were filed against Manafort and Gates in Virginia. The next day, Gates pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Trump seemed anxious about the development.
He told aide Rob Porter that he never liked Manafort. He began asking aides whether Manafort might also cooperate with the investigation and whether the former campaign chief knew of anything that could hurt him.
In June 2018, prosecutors accused Manafort of trying to tamper with witnesses in his case. They asked a judge to revoke his bail and send him to jail while he awaited trial. On the day of a hearing in the matter, Trump spoke publicly about the case.
Trump was asked if he was considering a pardon for Manafort. He demurred — but did not rule it out.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington agreed with prosecutors, revoking Manafort’s bail and ordering him to jail while he waited for his trial.
In interviews, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani seemed to reassure Manafort that Trump was on his side. While the president shouldn’t issue any pardons during an ongoing investigation, he said, Trump might pardon Manafort at some point in the future.
As Manafort’s criminal trial opened in Alexandria, Va., on July 31, Trump repeatedly tweeted that his former campaign chairman was being treated unfairly.
Manafort’s situation upset the president. But nothing, it appeared, got him as worked up as the investigation of Michael Cohen, his longtime personal counsel. Cohen had been at his side for more than a decade and was intimately familiar with Trump’s personal and financial dealings. In 2016, the lawyer had led failed negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow — an effort that persisted through much of the campaign, even as Trump said he had no business interests in Russia.
In May 2017, Congress asked Cohen to provide documents and testimony about the Moscow project.
In a May 18, 2017, meeting, Trump told Cohen to cooperate with Congress. Cohen entered into an agreement to share information with the president’s legal team and began to speak frequently with them. At the same time, Cohen’s legal bills were being paid by the Trump Organization.
Cohen later recalled that one of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, told him that he would be protected as part of the group, but he would not be if he “went rogue.”
Cohen recalled that he was told that if he stayed on message, the president would have his back. Sekulow has denied Cohen’s account of their conversations, calling Cohen a liar whose “instinct to blame others is strong.”
Cohen spent 10 days in August 2017 drafting his statement for Congress. Phone records show that he and Sekulow spoke nearly every day.
The day before Cohen submitted his written testimony, he and Sekulow spoke numerous times, in calls ranging from three to 18 minutes.
In late October, Cohen testified to lawmakers behind closed doors. Cohen later admitted his testimony included key falsehoods about the negotiations for the Moscow Trump Tower and how long they lasted.
Cohen said later that he was adhering to a “party line” designed to obscure Trump’s ties to Russia and that his statement was reviewed by the president’s lawyers before its submission.
Cohen was not done lying on behalf of his boss.
In early 2018, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Cohen paid $130,000 to adult-film star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet before the election about an affair she claimed she had with Trump years earlier.
Cohen issued a statement in February saying he used his own money for the payoff.
That was not true. But the president was grateful, according to a text from a Trump lawyer to Cohen.
The pressure on Cohen soon escalated dramatically. On April 9, 2018, FBI agents investigating his finances and the payment to Daniels, among other issues, raided his home, hotel room and office in New York.
Trump was enraged.
A few days later, Trump called Cohen to check in and ask whether Cohen was okay.
But after the raid, the New York Times reported that Cohen felt isolated and could turn on the president.
Outraged, Trump insisted that would never happen.
Cohen later told investigators that he received messages from people close to Trump and Giuliani. Cohen said these people stressed to him that the president loved him and had his back. Cohen decided he should stay on message, believing if he did so, Trump would protect him.
Several weeks later, Trump was asked if he might pardon Cohen or Manafort.
As Cohen’s legal woes intensified, the president’s words were not enough.
On July 2, he publicly turned on his longtime boss. Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he would cooperate with the government and that he had hired a new lawyer: Lanny Davis, a longtime confidant of former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s posture toward his longtime lawyer abruptly changed.
Critics feared the president was trying to bully Cohen and affect his testimony.
On July 31, 2018, Manafort went on trial in Virginia for bank and tax fraud. Two weeks later, his case in federal court was submitted to the jury. Trump could not resist commenting on the trial, though there were fears that the president’s words could influence the jury.
Trump was asked whether he would pardon Manafort.
Aug. 21, 2018, was a grim day for the president. A jury in Washington found Manafort guilty on eight felony counts — increasing the pressure on him to cooperate with Mueller in the hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
Minutes later, in Manhattan, Cohen pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud, as well as campaign finance violations related to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and another woman.
Cohen implicated Trump directly, telling the judge he committed the campaign finance violations “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Trump immediately began contrasting Cohen, who was assisting the government, with Manafort, who was proving more difficult for prosecutors.
Days later, Giuliani told The Washington Post that Trump had asked his lawyers about pardoning Manafort. Trump was advised against considering a pardon — but not necessarily forever, Giuliani said. The president was told he should put the idea on hold until the investigation had ended.
On Sept. 14, 2018, Manafort pleaded guilty to a second set of charges in Washington. At that point, he also began to work with prosecutors, sitting for multiple interviews and appearing before the grand jury. News organizations, however, reported that Manafort’s attorneys remained in an agreement to share information with Trump’s lawyers and regularly briefed them about what Mueller’s investigators asked and how Manafort answered.
On Nov. 26, the special counsel’s office informed a federal judge that Manafort had breached his plea agreement by lying to investigators.
Rather than criticize Manafort for being untruthful, Trump told two reporters for the New York Post that his former campaign chairman had been “very brave” not to “flip.” He said he believed Manafort was telling the truth.
In the interview, Trump was again asked if he would pardon Manafort.
On Nov. 29, Cohen again pleaded guilty — this time to making false statements to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow, saying he lied to protect Trump.
The president went on the attack.
Trump then began to publicly suggest that Cohen’s family members were guilty of crimes.
On Dec. 12, 2018, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison. Before he reported to serve his time, he spent a day before Congress, offering withering testimony about his former boss.
Mueller would ultimately indict or convict six Trump associates for a wide variety of crimes — though none were charged with conspiring with Russia to interfere in the 2016 campaign.
Along with Cohen, there was former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who served 12 days in prison for lying to the FBI. Manafort was sentenced to 7½ years in prison. Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone was convicted of lying, obstruction and witness tampering. Gates, who had assisted the government, was still awaiting his sentencing as the end of 2019 approached.
Two years after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents, he switched course and changed his legal team. In October 2019, his new attorneys argued that Flynn had not intended to lie and had instead been entrapped by the FBI. They asked the judge to toss out his case.
For Trump, the question remained: would he pardon his former aides?
As for the president himself, the special counsel stopped short of declaring whether he had broken the law.
“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Mueller wrote, “it also does not exonerate him.”