Apr 18, 2019

What Trump did, and why Mueller didn't reach conclusions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Special counsel Robert Mueller's report explored 10 episodes where actions by President Trump could have been considered obstruction of justice — but then explains why he couldn't reach a conclusion in each case.

The big picture: If you've been wondering what all of this actually adds up to, this is your best place to start. It gives the clearest picture yet of Trump's actions as well as why Mueller didn't take a position on them — though the report comes close to rendering judgment on Trump's attempts to oust Mueller or rein him in.

  • Michael Flynn: In February 2017, Trump talked to then-FBI director James Comey about the investigation of Flynn, saying of the former national security adviser: "I hope you can let this go."
    • Between the lines: Mueller noted that the evidence was "inconclusive" as to whether Trump knew about Flynn's calls to Russian ambassador Sergei Kisylak about the Obama administration's sanctions against Russia.
  • The Russia investigation: Trump reached out to intelligence agency leaders in March and April 2017 about the FBI's Russia investigation.
    • Between the lines: Witnesses had different recollections about whether Trump had specifically asked the agency officials to stop the investigation. The report does note that Trump was angry about the investigation and "concerned about the impact of the Russia investigation on his ability to govern."
  • Comey's firing: When Trump fired Comey in May 2017, it would have qualified as obstruction "if it had the natural and probable effect of interfering with or impeding the investigation," the report stated.
    • Between the lines: The firing didn't stop the investigation, and the report establishes that Trump and his team were aware of that. The report says "substantial evidence" shows that the biggest reason for the firing was that Comey wouldn't say publicly that Trump wasn't under investigation.
  • The attempt to get rid of Mueller: In June 2017, Trump called White House counsel Don McGahn and told him to have Mueller removed as special counsel, arguing that he had conflicts of interest. McGahn refused "for fear of being seen as triggering another Saturday Night Massacre."
    • Between the lines: Mueller notes that it would only count as obstruction if it interfered with the investigation and grand jury proceedings. But even though the probe could continue under someone else, the report stated, "a factfinder would need to consider" whether Trump's action would have delayed the probe or had a chilling effect on a new special counsel.
  • The attempt to curtail Mueller's investigation: Two days after the McGahn incident, Trump told former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the Russia investigation to future election interference. Lewandowski never delivered the message.
    • Between the lines: Mueller doesn't really let Trump off the hook here. Limiting the scope of the probe would likely end investigations into Trump's conduct and possible obstruction of justice, the report states, and "the timing and circumstances of the President's actions support the conclusion that he sought that result."
  • Trump Tower meeting: Trump told communications director Hope Hicks and others not to disclose information about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and a Russian attorney. He also told them to take out a line in a draft statement by Donald Trump Jr. acknowledging that the meeting was with "an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign."
    • Between the lines: "The evidence does not establish" that Trump was trying to prevent Mueller's team or Congress from obtaining the emails setting up the meeting — which is the only way his actions could have been considered obstruction.
  • The attempt to reverse Sessions' recusal: Trump tried to convince Sessions to end his recusal from the Russia probe, take over the Mueller investigation, and investigate Hillary Clinton.
    • Between the lines: The report says a "reasonable inference" would be that Trump "believed that an unrecused Attorney General would play a protective role and could shield the President from the ongoing Russia investigation."
  • Ordering McGahn to deny Mueller firing attempt: In January 2018, Trump tried to convince McGahn to deny that Trump had ordered him to have Mueller removed. McGahn refused, insisting that it was true.
    • Between the lines: Mueller wrote that there is "some evidence" that Trump just remembered the conversation differently ("I never said 'fire'") — but also said "substantial evidence indicates" that Trump was trying to influence McGahn's statements "to deflect or prevent further scrutiny of the President's conduct toward the investigation."
  • Conduct toward Flynn: When Flynn's attorneys said they could no longer share confidential communications with the White House or Trump, Trump's personal lawyer became "indignant and vocal" — according to Flynn's attorneys — and said he interpreted that as "a reflection of Flynn's hostility toward the President."
    • Between the lines: The sequence of events "could have had the potential to affect Flynn's decision to cooperate," the report stated — but "because of privilege issues," Mueller's team couldn't determine whether Trump knew about the exchange with Flynn's lawyers.
  • Conduct toward Michael Cohen: When Trump's former personal lawyer started cooperating with the government — after giving false statements to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project — Trump called him a "rat" and hinted that members of his family had committed crimes.
    • Between the lines: Mueller writes that the evidence "does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen's false testimony" — but it does suggest that he started using "attacks and intimidation" to undermine Cohen after he started cooperating with the government.

The bottom line: Mueller just handed House Democrats enough material to keep them busy for months.

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