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4 takeaways from the Mueller report

Attorney General William P. Barr discussed releasing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's redacted report on April 18, before the actual report release. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

This post will be updated.

After nearly two years of awaiting the fruits of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, we finally have them, in the form of a 400-plus-page, lightly redacted report issued Thursday by Attorney General William P. Barr.

The report (full text here) includes lengthy narratives about key events in Russia’s 2016 election interference, the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians, and President Trump’s potential obstruction of justice during the probe. Mueller found that the Trump campaign did not conspire with Russia, but he opted to neither accuse nor exonerate Trump of obstruction.

Below are some of the big sections and lessons from the report.

1. The real story on obstruction

Ever since we found out Mueller had neither accused nor exonerated Trump of obstruction of justice, the question was why. Was it because:

  1. The evidence was so inconclusive, or
  2. Existing Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president can’t be indicted?

At a news conference before the report was released, Barr suggested it was the former. That would be better for Trump, because it would suggest his conduct wasn’t clearly criminal.

But the report is much more nuanced on this point. In fact, it seems Mueller decided he could clear Trump of obstruction, if warranted, but that he couldn’t accuse him because of those DOJ guidelines.

In saying why it didn’t make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment,” Mueller cites that policy but not the inconclusiveness of the evidence. He does, however, cite that evidence when explaining why he didn’t clear Trump:

... If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.

Mueller didn’t accuse Trump of a crime, in large part, because he didn’t think he could — and not necessarily because the evidence was so inconclusive. That’s hugely significant, because it takes some sting out of the argument that Mueller didn’t find a crime — or, as Trump has claimed, “totally exonerated” him.

2. More lines between Russians and the Trump campaign

Mueller found no conspiracy. But he did find unknown events on the collusion side of things.

For instance, we knew that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had shared polling data with a business associate, Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is a man who the U.S. government said had ongoing ties to Russian intelligence. We also knew they met during the campaign. Now we know it went beyond that.

When the two met in August 2016, according to the report, they discussed not just a pro-Russian Ukraine “peace plan” but also how they “believed the plan would require candidate Trump’s assent (were he to be elected president).” They also discussed Manafort’s plan to win voters in key Midwestern states. And importantly, the report says, “the sharing (of polling) continued for some period of time after their August meeting.”

Also, we learned for the first time, definitively, that Russia attacked the Clinton campaign’s email system after Trump publicly suggested it should:

On July 27 2016 Unit 26165 targeted email accounts connected to candidate Clinton’s personal office [REDACTED]. “Earlier that day, candidate Trump made public statements that included the following: ‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.' ”

We knew they were attacked around the time Trump made this statement. Now we know they came the same day and after Trump said it.

Again, none of these apparently rose to a criminal level. But it seems possible Russia was taking public direction from Trump, and Trump’s campaign chairman was having extended interactions about the campaign and Trump’s potential presidency with someone with alleged ties to Russian intelligence.

3. Aides often ignore Trump’s false and dubious directives

One of the most intriguing parts of this report is the window it provides into how Trump’s aides view him. We’ve had many leaks suggesting internal discord in the White House, but here the aides were compelled to tell the truth.

And a common thread is forming: Trump often asks aides to falsely deny things or do things that make them uncomfortable. Oftentimes, they simply didn’t follow through.

In one section, then-White House counsel Donald McGahn got a message from Trump’s personal lawyer saying Trump wanted McGahn to put out a statement denying a New York Times report that said Trump had tried to fire Mueller. McGahn declined, because Trump had in fact tried to fire Mueller.

In another instance, Trump asked outgoing deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland to draft an internal email stating Trump hadn’t instructed national security adviser Michael Flynn to speak with the Russian ambassador about sanctions during the transition period. (This is the episode that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about.) But McFarland didn’t know that to be true, so she didn’t do it.

Trump also asked former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to reach out to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get him to attack the Mueller probe, but Lewandowski simply dragged his feet. After Trump brought it up again a month later, Lewandowski asked senior White House aide Rick Dearborn to do it. Dearborn didn’t do it either, because he was uncomfortable.

The Mueller report summarizes it thusly: “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”


4. Many of Trump’s “fake news” claims are disproven

One of the unhelpful realities of the Russia probe thus far has been that so many revelations were based upon anonymous sources. That has allowed Trump to argue to his supporters that the stories were wrong, totally made-up “fake news.”

Except now many of them have been confirmed by the Mueller report.

For one, Mueller seems to believe Trump falsely denied asking Comey for loyalty:

After Comey’s account of the dinner became public, the President and his advisors disputed that he had asked for Comey’s loyalty. The President also indicated that he had not invited Comey to dinner, telling a reporter that he thought Comey had “asked for the dinner” because “he wanted to stay on." But substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account of the dinner invitation and the request for loyalty. The President’s Daily Diary confirms that the President “extend[ed] a dinner invitation” to Comey on January 27. With respect to the substance of the dinner conversation, Comey documented the President’s request for loyalty in a memorandum he began drafting the night of the dinner; senior FBI officials recall that Comey told them about the loyalty request shortly after the dinner occurred, and Comey described the request while under oath in congressional proceedings and in a subsequent interview with investigators subject to penalties for lying under 18 U.S.C, g 1001. Comey’s memory of the details of the dinner, including that the President requested loyalty, has remained consistent throughout.

For another, Trump claimed he never asked McGahn to fire Mueller, but Mueller details how he did.

And in another case, Trump denied that he asked Comey to let the Flynn matter go. Mueller has lots of detail on that.

The report also indicates White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted she made up things she said from the White House podium:

The President’s draft termination letter also stated that morale in the FBI was at an all-time low and Sanders told the press after Comey’s termination that the White House had heard from “countless” FBI agents who had lost confidence in Comey. But the evidence does not support those claims. The President told Comey at their January 27 dinner that “the people of the FBI really like [him],” no evidence suggests that the President heard otherwise before deciding to terminate Comey, and Sanders acknowledged to investigators that her comments were not founded on anything.