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.
In the spring of 2017, President Trump was brooding. He had been in office fewer than four months, but he felt the weight of the Russia investigation hanging over his young administration.
As FBI Director James B. Comey prepared to testify to Congress in May, Trump saw an opening: The president told his advisers that he wanted Comey to state publicly that Trump was not a subject of the investigation, as the FBI director had previously told him in private. If Comey did not make such a statement, Trump said, it would be the last straw for the director.
Comey did not do as the president hoped. In his May 3 testimony, he confirmed that the FBI was investigating Russia and the 2016 election.
But under questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), he refused to rule out that the president was under scrutiny as part of the case.
During the hearing, Comey also mentioned his handling of another inquiry: the FBI’s investigation during the 2016 campaign of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, which many Democrats believed had contributed to Clinton’s loss in the election.
His testimony was not what the president wanted to hear.
Later that day, Trump met with White House Counsel Donald McGahn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt. McGahn told Trump that Comey had declined to answer questions about whether Trump was under investigation. The president grew angry and blamed his attorney general, who had removed himself from overseeing the probe because he and other Justice Department officials believed his role in Trump’s campaign could be a conflict of interest.
Trump told Sessions that the recusal was unfair and was undercutting his authority with foreign leaders. Sessions told the president that he had no choice. If Trump wanted a fresh start at the FBI, Sessions said, he should consider replacing Comey.
The president made up his mind: The FBI director had to go. That Friday night, Trump dined at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., with son-in-law Jared Kushner, adviser Stephen Miller and other aides and family members.
The president told them he wanted to remove Comey and had ideas about how to announce the decision in a letter. Trump began dictating as Miller took notes.
Based on those notes and further input from Trump, Miller prepared a letter that weekend firing Comey. To avoid leaks, the president was adamant that no one at the White House be told of the plan. He made it clear he wanted the letter to begin by stressing he was not under investigation.
On Monday morning, Trump met with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Miller and McGahn in the Oval Office and told them he had decided to fire Comey.
The president then read aloud from the letter he had dictated to Miller.
Some of Trump’s aides were concerned. The president had the power to fire the FBI director, but it had happened only once before in history. If it appeared Trump was dismissing Comey because of the Russia investigation, it could look like he was trying to meddle with the probe.
McGahn tried to stall. He noted that Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had also expressed displeasure with the FBI director and would visit the White House later that day. Shouldn’t Trump consult the two Justice Department officials, who were Comey’s supervisors, before moving forward?
At 5 p.m., Trump and several White House officials met with Sessions and Rosenstein. The president said he had watched Comey’s testimony. Something was “not right” with the FBI director. Trump told them Comey should be removed and asked Sessions and Rosenstein what they thought.
Sessions noted that he had previously recommended that Comey be replaced.
Rosenstein said he had concerns with how Comey handled the Clinton email investigation.
Trump distributed copies of the letter he had drafted. McGahn suggested Comey be allowed to resign, but Trump was adamant: He needed to be fired.
Trump asked Rosenstein to draft a memo recommending Comey’s removal; he wanted it first thing in the morning.
Rosenstein said that he did not think the Russia investigation should be mentioned because it was not the basis of his recommendation. Trump said he would appreciate him including it anyway.
After the meeting, Rosenstein knew Comey would be fired — but not for the reasons he thought the FBI director should go.
The next morning, May 9, Hunt delivered to the White House a letter from Sessions recommending Comey’s removal and a memo from Rosenstein titled “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI.” The memo argued that Comey had made “serious mistakes” in the handling of the Clinton matter and was unlikely to change his ways.
Trump liked the Justice Department letters, which did not mention Russia. He decided to present Comey’s firing as the result of a recommendation by the department.
The president’s actions made his aides nervous. In her daily notes, McGahn’s chief of staff, Annie Donaldson, described a fear that the handling of Comey’s firing could lead to the end of Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s original letter should not see the “light of day.”
She wrote that staff had determined that no rationales beyond what had been provided by the Justice Department should be cited to justify Comey’s firing.
Trump asked Miller to draft a new cover letter, but insisted it still have language noting that Comey told the president he was not under investigation in the Russia probe. McGahn and Priebus objected, but Trump insisted.
For the president, that was the most important part of the letter, his aides believed.
The White House released a statement saying Trump fired Comey at the Justice Department’s recommendation.
Comey learned of his firing while meeting with FBI staff members in Los Angeles. Suddenly, the words “Comey resigns” were stripped across TV screens on the back wall of the room, stopping the FBI director mid-sentence. He initially thought it was a prank.
Then the TV chyrons changed. They read: “Comey Fired.”
Trailed by news helicopters, the now-deposed Comey made his way to the airport and flew home on the FBI’s private jet.
After nearly four years leading the FBI, Comey returned to his home in Northern Virginia, now a private citizen.
The story exploded. Trump’s critics accused him of trying to hinder the Russia probe, and even his allies seemed worried. Watching the wall-to-wall coverage in the hours after he fired Comey, the president grew unhappy.
Trump called New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and told Christie that he was getting “killed” in the press. What should he do?
Christie encouraged Trump to draft Rosenstein to defend his decision.
That same night, the White House press office called the Justice Department: It wanted to put out a statement saying it was Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey. Rosenstein told his colleagues that he didn’t want to be involved in putting out a “false story.”
Trump then called Rosenstein directly and said he was watching Fox News. The coverage had been great, he said, but he wanted Rosenstein to do a news conference.
Rosenstein said that would be a bad move. If asked, he said, he would tell the truth: that firing the FBI director had not been his idea.
But the White House pushed ahead. Press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters gathered in the White House driveway that night that the decision to fire Comey had come from Rosenstein.
Privately, Trump told a different story the next day, May 10, when he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office.
The president also told the Russian officials he wasn’t concerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 campaign. The United States does the same in other countries, Trump said.
Later that morning, Trump called Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. With Comey gone, McCabe was in charge. Trump told him that he had received “hundreds” of messages from FBI employees supporting his decision to fire Comey.
In a meeting at the White House that afternoon, Trump told McCabe that at least 80 percent of the FBI had voted for him in 2016. Then he asked a strange question: Whom had McCabe voted for in the election?
McCabe was stunned. FBI directors are supposed to be nonpartisan. He dodged the question, responding that he always played it right down the middle.
When deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders briefed reporters that same afternoon, she echoed Trump’s assertions about FBI support for Comey’s firing, suggesting the views of rank-and-file agents contributed to the decision.
It wasn’t true. Sanders would later tell the special counsel’s office that the statements about rank-and-file FBI agents losing confidence in Comey were made “in the heat of the moment” and were not based on fact.
Sessions and Rosenstein each spoke to McGahn and expressed concern that the White House was promoting a false narrative that Rosenstein had initiated Comey’s firing.
Inside the White House counsel’s office, attorneys agreed it was a problem. They decided to work with the press office to get out a correct account.
Before they could, however, the president himself explained his real reasons for firing Comey. The next day, in a May 11 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump said he had the Russia investigation in mind.
For good measure, the president later tweeted an attack on the Russia investigation.
Meanwhile, the New York Times broke the news that Trump had tried to get Comey to pledge him his loyalty.
Now it looked like the president might have fired the FBI director because he rebuffed Trump’s efforts to control the investigation.
Trump, again, was furious.
The FBI director was gone. But the president’s troubles were just beginning.