President Trump was furious.
He had just learned that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation went beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign and into the White House — and that Trump himself was now under scrutiny for his actions in office. The next day, he attempted to oust Mueller, only to be thwarted by his White House counsel, according to the special counsel’s report.
So Trump turned to the one person he could long count on to do his bidding: Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, described by senior White House advisers to investigators as a Trump “devotee.” In a private Oval Office meeting, the president dictated a message he wanted delivered to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions: that he needed to give a speech announcing he was limiting the scope of the investigation.
Trump’s efforts to enlist Lewandowski as a back channel to try to curtail the probe, detailed in 10 pages of Mueller’s 448-page report, provides a new window into how far the president went in trying to hold back the special counsel.
The episode, which discomfited even some of Trump’s most loyal advisers, was read by some legal observers as one of the clearest cases laid out in Mueller’s report of potential obstruction of justice by the president. In unequivocal terms, the report states that there was “substantial evidence” that Trump hoped his actions would derail Mueller’s investigation and prevent further scrutiny of his campaign and his own conduct.
But senior Justice Department officials took a more skeptical view, which informed Attorney General William P. Barr’s later conclusion that Trump could not be charged with obstructing justice, according to people familiar with the thinking.
The differing interpretations might help explain how Barr ultimately came to his decision, despite the detailed evidence in Mueller’s report.
“All the attorney general was deciding was whether this was a prosecutable offense, and we don’t bring criminal charges at the department unless we believe we can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury,” a senior Justice Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The White House declined to comment.
The president has claimed that Mueller’s investigation resulted in his “complete and total exoneration.”
“Despite the fact that the Mueller Report was ‘composed’ by Trump Haters and Angry Democrats, who had unlimited funds and human resources, the end result was No Collusion, No Obstruction. Amazing!” he tweeted Thursday.
Through a combination of missed opportunities and personal hesitation, Lewandowski never executed Trump’s demand. But the roughly month-long period in the summer of 2017 depicted in Mueller’s report details repeated and escalating efforts by the president to stymie the Russia probe — laying out evidence that former prosecutors said meets the elements required in an obstruction-of-justice charge.
“This is a very significant episode,” said Barbara McQuade, who served as a U.S. attorney in Michigan during the Obama administration. “The question is, are all of the elements of obstruction of justice met? Was there an act, was there a sufficient nexus and was there a corrupt intent? Here, the answer is yes, yes and yes.”
She added: “There are several episodes where I am confident that if this were not the president of the United States, charges would absolutely be recommended. And this is one of them.”
Former independent counsel Robert W. Ray, however, said he believes the president’s conduct in office must be assessed with some nuance — not just to see whether it meets the technical case for obstruction.
“It’s the president. . . . You’ve got to have a certain amount of latitude for the president to roam and maneuver in the execution of his constitutional duties,” Ray said.
He said he was not arguing that the president is above the law but that prosecutors have discretion about whether to charge a crime and always look at more than merely whether the elements of a crime are present.
Trump was already unhappy about the special counsel’s investigation when The Washington Post reported on June 14, 2017, that Mueller had broadened his probe to include whether Trump had obstructed justice.
The president was now “facing what he had wanted to avoid: a criminal investigation into his own conduct that was the subject of widespread media attention,” the report stated.
Three days later, Trump called White House Counsel Donald McGahn and directed him to have Mueller removed, according to the special counsel’s report.
“Mueller has to go,” McGahn recalled the president telling him. The White House counsel contemplated resigning but ultimately was persuaded by other Trump aides to stay. He did not follow the president’s directive.
Trump denied the episode in a tweet Thursday, saying he never told McGahn to fire Mueller. “If I wanted to fire Mueller, I didn’t need McGahn to do it, I could have done it myself,” he wrote.
Since the release of Mueller’s report, congressional Democrats have focused on trying to get more information from McGahn, a participant in several key episodes who has drawn Trump’s ire for sharing potentially damaging information with prosecutors. But the report indicates that Lewandowski also provided revealing information about his interactions with Trump during an April 2018 interview with the special counsel’s office.
Lewandowski declined to comment.
On June 19, 2017, two days after his call to McGahn, the president summoned Lewandowski to the White House — going outside the government to execute a task his own White House counsel had refused to carry out.
Lewandowski had repeatedly proved his loyalty to Trump. He had signed on with the campaign when the New York mogul’s candidacy was widely dismissed as a joke. He followed the mantra of “Let Trump be Trump” and offered fiery defenses of his boss. When he was fired from the campaign, he appeared on television that day to praise Trump.
By the time he met with the president in the Oval Office that June day, he had refashioned himself as a Washington lobbyist, drawing on his Trump ties.
After some small talk, the president turned to the purpose of the meeting, according to the special counsel report. He was angry that Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation and had a message he wanted Lewandowski to pass along to the attorney general.
“Write this down,” the president ordered Lewandowski, prompting the former aide — who had never taken dictation from Trump before — to begin scribbling as fast as possible, to make sure he captured Trump’s torrent of frustration.
Trump wanted Sessions to deliver a speech declaring that the president was “being treated very unfairly” and that he should not be facing a special counsel investigation “because he hasn’t done anything wrong,” the report states.
Sessions should conclude the speech, Trump told Lewandowski, by announcing he planned to meet with Mueller in order to limit the investigation to future instances of meddling in U.S. elections.
The senior Justice Department official said bringing a prosecution on those facts would have been complicated because the obstruction “relies on multiple people in a chain all doing something,” including Lewandowski delivering the note, Sessions being persuaded by it and then Sessions moving on the special counsel.
“That’s a very attenuated chain,” the official said. “It’s even more attenuated given that the note isn’t even an order.”
McQuade said that Trump’s decision to turn to a supporter outside of government such as Lewandowski as his messenger was legally significant, indicating that the president viewed this as an action to be taken outside of official channels.
“It will be clear this is coming from Trump himself and not coming from another government official,” she said. “It makes the message more powerful. It provides a fair inference of corrupt intent.”
Ray took a different view, noting that the actions the Mueller report described are certainly within the purview of the president — giving orders to his attorney general, and even choosing to seek out private citizens to accomplish his goals. A president should be able to feel out his role and decide how he thinks it best to carry it out, he said.
The Justice Department official said prosecutors would have had to prove not just that Trump wanted to shut down the investigation but that he did so with corrupt intent. The official said there was some evidence that Trump wanted to end the investigation because of the effect it was having on his presidency, rather than to cover up another crime, and noted that Mueller did not conclude Trump coordinated with Russia to interfere in the election.
Lewandowski told the president he understood his request but felt uneasy, according to the report. He told investigators that he wanted to have the conversation with Sessions in person, rather than over the phone. He invited Sessions to his office the following evening because he did not want the public record of the meeting if he met with the attorney general at the Justice Department, the report said.
Because of a last-minute conflict, the attorney general canceled the meeting. Lewandowski said he stored his notes of Trump’s request in a home safe — his standard practice for items he believed were sensitive.
But he also began contemplating a way to hand off the task.
Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told Mueller’s team that he vaguely remembered Lewandowski telling him that Trump had asked him to get Sessions to resign — and that Lewandowski was befuddled by the request.
“What can I do?” Priebus recalled Lewandowski saying. “I’m not an employee of the administration. I’m nobody.”
Lewandowski approached Rick Dearborn, a former chief of staff to Sessions who served as a senior White House official, and asked him if he might deliver a message to Sessions, without describing the contents. Dearborn agreed.
Lewandowski told investigators that he believed Dearborn would make a “better messenger” than him because of Dearborn’s deep relationship with Sessions, but also because he was a government official.
On July 19, 2017, Trump and Lewandowski again met alone in the Oval Office. Their encounter came shortly after the New York Times reported that Donald Trump Jr. had met during the campaign with a Russian lawyer who he believed would provide damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
Trump again asked Lewandowski if he’d spoken with Sessions about the president’s previous request. Lewandowski promised he would soon. The president told his former campaign manager that if Sessions refused, Lewandowski should simply tell the attorney general he was fired, according to the special counsel’s report.
Before entering the Oval Office, Lewandowski had given his handwritten notes from the previous meeting to Hope Hicks, then the White House communications director, and asked her to type them up.
When he left the Oval Office, he ran into Dearborn, and handed him the typewritten version of the message Trump wanted delivered to Sessions.
It was the first time Dearborn learned of the contents of the missive. He told Mueller’s team that it “definitely raised an eyebrow” and made him uncomfortable. He said didn’t want to know where the directive came from — or even think about it anymore. He did not pass along the message to Sessions and discarded the notes.
Dearborn declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Trump was publicly ramping up his attacks on Sessions. Just hours later, in an interview with the Times that was originally supposed to be off the record, Trump lashed out at his attorney general. He criticized Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation and said had he known, “I would have picked somebody else.”
Later that day, Lewandowski and Hicks discussed the Times interview, according to the report. Lewandowski confided in Hicks about Trump’s request that he meet with Sessions, telling her that Trump had told him to tell the attorney general to do the “right thing” and resign, she told investigators. Lewandowski also joked about the absurdity of Trump telling him, a private citizen, that if Sessions refused to meet with him, he should simply tell the attorney general he was fired.
Hicks declined to comment.
Three days later, Trump ordered Priebus to force Sessions to resign — a directive the then-chief of staff also resisted.
But Trump’s ire with his attorney general resonated: For the rest of the year, Sessions carried a resignation letter in his pocket every time he visited the White House.
Three elements are required to prove an obstruction-of-justice charge. Prosecutors must show an act had a nexus to a particular proceeding or investigation, that it would naturally impede that proceeding and that it was undertaken with corrupt intent.
In the Lewandowski episode, the special counsel indicated there was strong evidence of all three elements, the report stated.
By the time Trump issued his directive to his former campaign manager, it had been widely reported that a grand jury investigation was underway as part of the special counsel’s investigation.
If the president’s efforts had been successful, he would have sharply curtailed the scope of Mueller’s probe.
Finally, the special counsel wrote that there was “substantial evidence” that Trump’s intent was to shield himself from scrutiny.
The investigation into potential obstruction of justice by the president ended without a final finding by Mueller. The special counsel decided that a Justice Department opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted limited him from even saying whether a charge should be brought.
But the report made it clear prosecutors believed there was evidence of a potential crime. “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,” it read, adding: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The Justice Department official said the special counsel’s report, though, was not in conflict with Barr’s ultimate conclusion.
“The special counsel never decided whether this is a prosecutable case, so there’s no conflict between the attorney general’s decision that it’s not and the special counsel’s report,” the official said.