Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election details 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by President Trump that prosecutors examined. Mueller did so even as he declined to make a traditional judgment about whether Trump committed a crime.
“The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the report stated. “At the same time, 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, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Attorney General William P. Barr and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, examined the obstruction evidence laid out by Mueller’s team and concluded that it did not rise to the level of obstruction of justice — a controversial decision, given that Trump recently appointed Barr and Barr had criticized Mueller’s obstruction probe.
At a news conference Thursday, Barr said he and Rosenstein disagreed with “some of the special counsel’s legal theories” but ultimately found the evidence was “not sufficient” to allege that the president engaged in criminal obstruction. Barr defended Trump’s actions, saying the president was frustrated and angry about the probe.
What follows is a breakdown of the 10 episodes examined by the special counsel’s office.
1. “Conduct involving FBI Director [James B.] Comey and Michael Flynn”
Flynn, the White House’s national security adviser, had lied about his interactions with the Russian ambassador during the transition period between Trump’s election and his inauguration. When Trump fired him, he said, “Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over.” This matches how Trump adviser and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has portrayed things.
The report also confirms reporting about a request Trump made to Comey shortly thereafter: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Trump has denied saying such a thing, but Mueller says it happened.
Trump also directed deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland to send an email denying that Trump had instructed Flynn to have such conversations. McFarland declined to do so, because she didn’t know whether it was true.
2. “The President’s reaction to the continuing Russia investigation”
Trump attempted to prevent Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the investigation before the special counsel was appointed. The president said he needed an attorney general who would protect him.
Trump also tried to get top intelligence officials and Comey to publicly distance Trump from the investigation. His outreach to Comey came despite guidance from then-White House counsel Donald McGahn not to get involved in internal Justice Department matters.
3. “The President’s termination of Comey”
The report indicates that the breaking point for Trump was when Comey testified to Congress that there was a Russia investigation but declined to elaborate or say whether anyone on the Trump campaign was a target — including whether he had ruled out Trump personally.
Trump quickly declared to Sessions: “This is terrible, Jeff. It’s all because you recused.” Then the next weekend, the report says that “the President stated that he wanted to remove Comey and had ideas for a letter that would be used to make the announcement.”
A memo was drafted explaining Comey’s firing, but one aide wrote at the time that the White House Counsel’s Office had decided that it should “[n]ot [see the] light of day” and that they should instead rely on justifications offered by Sessions and Rosenstein.
4. “The appointment of a Special Counsel and efforts to remove him”
Trump responded to the May 2017 appointment of Mueller as special counsel by saying he was “fucked” and that it was “the end of his presidency.” Trump insisted that Mueller had conflicts of interest but was told they were meritless and that they had already been a part of his consideration.
Three days after the media reported that Mueller was looking into potential obstruction, Trump called McGahn and told him to have Rosenstein publicly attack Mueller’s alleged conflicts and call for his removal. McGahn declined.
5. “Efforts to curtail the Special Counsel’s investigation”
The report says Trump, two days after the above event, also tried to get Sessions to attack the investigation:
On June 19, 2017, the President met one-on-one in the Oval Office with his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, a trusted advisor outside the government, and dictated a message for Lewandowski to deliver to Sessions. The message said that Sessions should publicly announce that, notwithstanding his recusal from the Russia investigation, the investigation was “very unfair” to the President, the President had done nothing wrong, and Sessions planned to meet with the Special Counsel and “let [him] move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections.” Lewandowski said he understood what the President wanted Sessions to do.
But Lewandowski dragged his feet. Eventually, when Trump followed up a month later, Lewandowski asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to do it. “Dearborn was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through,” the report says.
6. “Efforts to prevent public disclosure of evidence”
Mueller fills in the details of previous Washington Post reporting that Trump sought to mislead about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer:
On several occasions, the President directed aides not to publicly disclose the emails setting up the June 9 meeting, suggesting that the emails would not leak and that the number of lawyers with access to them should be limited. Before the emails became public, the President edited a press statement for Trump Jr. by deleting a line that acknowledged that the meeting was with "an individual who [Trump Jr.] was told might have information helpful to the campaign and instead said only that the meeting was about adoptions of Russian children.
7. “Further efforts to have the Attorney General take control of the investigation”
Trump called Sessions at home in summer 2017 to ask him to un-recuse himself and take control of the Russia probe. Sessions declined. Trump asked Sessions in October 2017 to take another look at investigating Hillary Clinton. He also told him in December 2017 that if he un-recused, he would be a “hero.”
Trump told Sessions, “I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything, I just want to be treated fairly.”
8. “Efforts to have [White House counsel Don] McGahn deny that the President had ordered him to have the Special Counsel removed”
This episode was originally reported by the New York Times in March 2018, but Mueller fills in the details:
On January 26, 2018, the President’s personal counsel called McGahn’s attorney and said that the President wanted McGahn to put out a statement denying that he had been asked to fire the Special Counsel and that he had threatened to quit in protest. McGahn’s attorney spoke with McGahn about that request and then called the President’s personal counsel to relay that McGahn would not make a statement. McGahn’s attorney informed the President’s personal counsel that the Times story was accurate in reporting that the President wanted the Special Counsel removed. Accordingly, McGahn’s attorney said, although the article was inaccurate in some other respects, McGahn could not comply with the President’s request to dispute the story. [White House spokeswoman Hope] Hicks recalled relaying to the President that one of his attorneys had spoken to McGahn’s attorney about the issue.
9. “Conduct toward [Michael] Flynn, [Paul] Manafort, [REDACTED]”
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying and cut a deal with Mueller to cooperate — and accordingly had to withdraw from his joint defense agreement with Trump’s legal team. But Trump’s personal lawyer reached out to Flynn’s team and assured them that Trump still had warm feelings for Flynn. The lawyer also asked for a heads-up in case Flynn had any “information that implicates that President.” When Flynn’s lawyer said such information couldn’t be shared, Trump’s lawyer said he would relay the message of “hostility” to Trump.
The report also noted Trump’s continued praise for former campaign chairman Manafort during his trials and his leaving open of the possibility of a pardon. Manafort also agreed to cooperate before he voided his deal by lying to investigators.
10. “Conduct involving Michael Cohen”
While Michael Cohen has said Trump didn’t directly tell him to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow effort lingering into the 2016 campaign, Cohen accuses Trump’s lawyers of guiding his testimony. And one key figure declined to dispute that.
“While preparing for his congressional testimony, Cohen had extensive discussions with the President’s personal counsel, who, according to Cohen, said that Cohen should ‘stay on message’ and not contradict the President."
When Cohen didn’t contradict Trump (by lying), he earned praise:
Cohen recalled that the President’s personal counsel said 'his client’ appreciated Cohen, that Cohen should stay on message and not contradict the President, that there was no need to muddy the water, and that it was time to move on. Cohen said he agreed because it was what he was expected to do. After Cohen later pleaded guilty to making false statements to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, this Office sought to speak with the President’s personal counsel about these conversations with Cohen, but counsel declined, citing potential privilege concerns.