Mueller report says investigators struggled with whether Trump committed crime of obstruction

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APRIL 18, 2019

Update: In May 2017, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had just appointed Mueller as special counsel. Trump slumped back in his chair, according to notes from Jody Hunt, Sessions’s chief of staff. “Oh my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f—ed,” Trump said. Trump further laid into Sessions for his recusal, saying Sessions had let him down.

“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency,” Trump said, according to notes. “It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.” The next morning, Trump tweeted, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Previous report:

A detailed report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III said investigators struggled with both the legal implications of investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice, and the motives behind a range of his most alarming actions, from seeking the ouster of former officials to ordering a memo that would clear his name.

“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.”

Since Mueller concluded his investigation last month, a central question facing the Justice Department has been why Mueller’s team did not reach a conclusion about whether the president obstructed justice. The issue was complicated, the report said, by two key issues — the fact that under department practice, a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime, and that a president has a great deal of constitutional authority to give orders to other government employees.

Trump ultimately submitted written answers to the investigators. The special counsel’s office considered them “inadequate” but did not press for an interview because doing so would cause a “substantial delay,” the report says.

The report said investigators felt they have “sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President’s testimony.”

A copy of the report was delivered to Congress Thursday morning.

Repeatedly, it appears Trump may have been saved from more serious legal jeopardy by his own staffers, who refused to carry out orders they thought were problematic or legally dangerous.

For instance, in the early days of the administration, when the president was facing growing questions about then-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s conversation about sanctions with a Russian ambassador, the president ordered another aide, KT McFarland, to write an email saying that the president did not direct those conversations. She decided not to do so, unsure if that was true and fearing it might be improper.

“Some evidence suggests that the President knew about the existence and content of Flynn’s calls when they occurred, but the evidence is inconclusive and could not be relied upon to establish the President’s knowledge,’ the report said.

The special counsel’s report on possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russians to interfere in the 2016 election is extremely detailed with only modest redactions — painting a far less flattering picture for Trump than the attorney general has offered and revealing new details about interactions between Russians and Trump associates. Mueller’s team wrote that though their investigation “did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” that assertion was informed by the fact that coordination requires more than two parties “taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”

And Mueller made abundantly clear: Russia wanted to help the Trump campaign, and the Trump campaign was willing to take it.

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller’s team wrote.

The report detailed a damning timeline of contacts between the Trump campaign and those with Russian ties — much of it already known, but some of it new. For example, Mueller’s team asserted that in August 2016, Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has assessed as having ties to Russian intelligence, met with Manafort “to deliver in person a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the Special Counsel’s Office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine.”

The special counsel wrote that both men believed the plan would require candidate Trump’s assent to success (were he elected President).”

“They also discussed the status of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states,” the special counsel wrote. “Months before that meeting, Manafort had caused internal polling data to be shared with Kilimnik, and the sharing continued for some period of time after their August meeting.”

Attorney General William P. Barr said Thursday he and his deputy disagreed with some of Mueller’s legal theories, as he described how the nation’s top law enforcement officials wrestled with investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice.

Barr spoke to reporters in advance of the release of the nearly 400-page report Mueller submitted last month concluding his investigation, which has gripped the White House and at times the country since Mueller’s appointment as special counsel nearly two years ago.

The attorney general said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law,” but that they accepted the special counsel’s “legal framework” as they analyzed the case.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event in the East Room of the White House on April 18, 2019. – Carlos Barria

Barr said Mueller’s report recounts “ten episodes” involving the president and discusses “potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense.”

The statements mark the first official acknowledgment of differing views inside the Justice Department about how to investigate the president.

Barr said Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election “did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign.”

The report gives a granular accounting of the ways in which the president’s behavior raised concerns he might have tried to obstruct justice, people familiar with it said.

Justice Department officials have briefed the White House on the report’s general outlines, these people said. It will reveal that Mueller decided he could not come to a conclusion on the question of obstruction because it was difficult to determine Trump’s intent and some of his actions could be interpreted innocently, the people said. But it will offer a detailed blow-by-blow of his alleged conduct — analyzing tweets, private threats and other episodes at the center of Mueller’s inquiry, they added.

Ahead of the announcement, the president lobbed another attack on the investigation.

“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT!” he tweeted Thursday morning. “The Greatest Political Hoax of all time! Crimes were committed by Crooked, Dirty Cops and DNC/The Democrats.”

The Mueller report is considered so potentially explosive that even the Justice Department’s rollout plan has sparked a firestorm, with Democrats suggesting Wednesday that the attorney general was trying to improperly color Mueller’s findings before the public could read them.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference that Barr “appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump” and had “taken unprecedented steps to spin Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation.” Nadler said that after his committee had time to review the redacted report, he would ask Mueller and other members of his team to testify before Congress.

Congress and the White House have been bracing for the report’s release as they wait to learn how politically damaging it may be for the president or those close to him.

Mueller spent 22 months investigating whether any Americans may have conspired with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election, and whether the president may have tried to obstruct justice in that investigation.

Congressional Democrats have vowed to fight to get the entire report, without redactions, as well as the underlying investigative documents Mueller gathered.

The report has been the subject of heated debate since Barr notified Congress last month that Mueller had completed his work.

In a four-page letter, Barr said in March that Mueller “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

That letter also said the special counsel withheld judgment on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice during the investigation.

“The Special Counsel . . . did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction,” Barr wrote. “The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.’”

Barr told lawmakers he needed time to redact sensitive information from the report before it could be made public, including any grand jury material as well as details whose public release could harm ongoing investigations.

Barr also said he would review the document to redact information that would “potentially compromise sources and methods” in intelligence collection and anything that would “unduly infringe on the personal privacy and reputational interests of peripheral third parties.”

That language suggests Barr wants to keep secret any derogatory information gathered by investigators about figures who ended up not being central to Mueller’s investigation.


Courtesy/Source: Washington Post

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