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’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017 sparked a firestorm. Days later, the Russia investigation took a new and more dire turn for the president.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who had been in charge of the probe since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, was unnerved by how the president pushed out Comey, and the criticism he and the Justice Department faced in the aftermath. He decided to appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation – putting it at arm’s length from the Justice Department and Trump’s control.
For the job, Rosenstein selected Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director who had served presidents of both parties and was widely respected on both sides of the aisle.
Trump learned the news on May 17, 2017, while meeting with Sessions, Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt, and White House Counsel Donald McGahn.
Sessions stepped out to take a phone call: It was Rosenstein calling with the news.
The attorney general returned to the Oval Office and informed the president. Trump immediately understood the threat posed by a special counsel.
Trump told Sessions he should resign as attorney general. Sessions agreed to submit his resignation, leaving a seething president in the Oval Office.
The next day, Sessions finished his letter of resignation.
Sessions went to the White House and gave Trump the letter. Instead of accepting the resignation, Trump asked his attorney general several times whether he wanted to leave his job.
Sessions said he preferred to remain, but that the decision was up to the president. Trump said he wanted the attorney general to stay on.
But the president did not return Sessions’s resignation letter.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon learned that Trump had kept Sessions’s letter. They grew worried the president could use it as leverage over the Justice Department.
Priebus told Sessions that the letter was a “shock collar” that Trump could use whenever he wanted.
Priebus and Bannon agreed they would try to get the letter back from the president.
The following day, Trump left for the Middle East.
Aboard Air Force One, the president took Sessions’s letter out of his pocket and showed it to adviser Hope Hicks and other senior aides, asking what he should do about it.
Later during the trip, Priebus asked the president for the letter so he could return it to Sessions. Trump told his chief of staff that he didn’t have it. Trump said the letter was back at the White House, somewhere in the residence.
Finally, three days after returning from the Middle East, Trump gave the letter back to Sessions.
Trump had written across the paper: “Not accepted.”
The president continued to stew about Mueller’s appointment. He repeatedly told aides that the new special counsel had conflicts of interest. Trump noted that attorneys at Mueller’s former law firm had represented Trump associates. And he cited the fact that, six years earlier, Mueller tried to get a refund when his family resigned its membership at a Trump golf course in Northern Virginia.
Bannon and other Trump advisers pushed back, saying the issues he was raising were not serious.
Five days after Mueller was appointed, the Justice Department announced that ethics officials had cleared him to serve as special counsel.
Nevertheless, Trump urged McGahn to complain to Rosenstein about Mueller’s possible conflicts. McGahn refused, saying Trump could take up the matter with the president’s personal attorney — but advised him against doing so.
McGahn told the president that pushing out the special counsel could be seen as obstruction. And Trump was already at risk because of his request to Comey to lay off national security adviser Michael Flynn, McGahn told him.
Trump’s critics were already questioning whether the president was seeking to derail the probe. Their voices grew louder after Comey testified before Congress in June 2017 about the conversations he had with Trump before he had been fired.
A few days later, Christopher Ruddy, Trump’s friend and Newsmax Media’s chief executive, met at the White House with Bannon and Priebus.
They told him they were worried that the president was strongly considering firing Mueller — and could do so abruptly. Ruddy asked if he could talk about the issue publicly, and Priebus agreed.
Ruddy’s comments drew extensive news coverage. In response, Trump told spokeswoman Sarah Sanders to release a statement saying that while he had the power to fire Mueller, he had “no intention to do so.”
The president’s pressure did not work. On June 13, as Rosenstein testified before Congress, Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a Trump ally, quizzed him about Mueller’s appointment.
On June 14, The Washington Post broke a bombshell story.
In “a major turning point,” The Post reported, the special counsel was investigating the president himself for possible obstruction of justice.
What Trump had feared most had come to pass: His own actions were under scrutiny.
Early the next day, the president began tweeting.
Trump’s anger continued unabated the following day.
This was it. Mueller had to go, the president had decided.
From there, he called McGahn at home and directed him to have the special counsel removed.
McGahn tried to put off the president, telling him he would see what he could do. To get Trump off the phone, he left him with the impression he would call Rosenstein. But he had no intention of doing so.
The White House counsel felt trapped. He didn’t know what he would say if the president called again.
He decided he had to resign.
McGahn called his personal attorney, William Burck, to tell him of his difficult decision. He also told his chief of staff, Annie Donaldson.
To try to keep her out of the investigation, McGahn did not want to tell Donaldson exactly what Trump had asked of him. But he said that the president had asked him to call the Justice Department and do something he did not want to do. In one call, he told her, Trump asked him, “Have you done it?”
Donaldson guessed that Trump’s request had something to do with Russia. She decided to resign along with her boss.
That evening, McGahn called Bannon and Priebus and told them he planned to quit.
Bannon and Priebus urged him to reconsider.
McGahn thought about his options. By Monday, he had decided to try to stick it out and returned to work.
When McGahn saw Trump, the president did not mention his order to get rid of Mueller. And McGahn did not tell the president that he had planned to resign rather than comply.
The crisis had passed — but only for the moment.