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Did Trump commit crimes? Mueller suggests Congress go figure it out

Special counsel Robert Mueller walks past the White

Special counsel Robert Mueller walks past the White House after church on March 24. Photo Credit: AP/Cliff Owen

On to the next chapter

Moments after Attorney General William Barr ended his prequel news conference for the release of Robert Mueller's report, Trump tweeted out a "Game of Thrones"-style meme: "No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats — Game Over." 

It is so not over. The curtain has not come down on questions over whether Trump obstructed justice to impede the special counsel's Russia investigation. 

In neither exonerating Trump nor accusing him outright of criminal conduct, Mueller noted such a charge by him would go unresolved in the judicial system because a sitting president cannot be indicted. That wouldn't be fair or good for the country, he reasoned.

But Mueller also said, “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,” the report said. It also would "potentially pre-empt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,” Mueller said.

Does that mean Congress? While Mueller offered no opinion on whether the evidence would add up to an impeachable offense, he noted how presidents may be held accountable. "The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”

Now if you are one of those who think Trump did wrong and that quote gives you a case of impeachment fever, take an aspirin. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said it would be a waste of time unless the case is so compelling that Republicans would agree. That's not happening so far.

But pressing ahead on House investigations is another matter. In a joint statement Thursday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Barr "presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller's report appears to undercut that finding." House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said they will ask Mueller to testify before their committees next month. Barr said he won't try to stop that. The story continues.

Janison: Trumpiness as Trump alibi

As Barr tells it, the phenomenon of Trump being Trump provides an innocent explanation for conduct that might otherwise reek of obstruction. "There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency," Barr said. That argues against "corrupt intent" for his actions.

As Mueller tells it, the president was lucky that his aides stopped Trump from being Trump. “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," the report said. That included trying to fire Mueller.

As Newsday's Dan Janison writes, failure generally isn't supposed to be an option, but sometimes it can help. And so Trump & Co. will carry on pointing fingers at the investigators and critics as if they were spraying verbal machine-gun fire from the back of a getaway car fleeing the scene of the noncrime.

Does that sound obstruction-y? 

Of all of Barr's spins of the Mueller report, one that gyrates off a cliff is his assertion that Trump's White House "fully cooperated with the special counsel's investigation." That's not how the special counsel saw it.

After being informed that Mueller had been appointed to take over the Russia investigation following his firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump slumped in his chair and said, "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency," according to the report.

What followed after Mueller took over, according to the report, were "public attacks on the investigation, non-public efforts to control it, and efforts both in public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation." Tump's legal team sent along hints of potential pardons for those Mueller had indicted and was trying to flip.

Trump's answers to written questions were limited in scope and "inadequate" — the president stated on more than 30 occasions that he "does not ‘recall’ or ‘remember’ or have an ‘independent recollection’ ” of the information sought. 

Hang on, there's more

Mueller counted 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice, including a thwarted attempt to fire the special counsel and then a scheme to get White House counsel Donald McGahn to create a fake record that would contradict media reports about trying to oust Mueller. McGahn wouldn't do it.

In one previously unreported episode, Trump enlisted former campaign chief Corey Lewandowski to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit Mueller's probe to "investigating election meddling for future elections." Lewandowski passed off the task to White House official Rick Dearborn, but Dearborn was uncomfortable. The message was never delivered.

Before Comey's ouster, Trump asked him to drop the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump also directed then-deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland to send an email denying that Trump had instructed Flynn to have conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition. McFarland declined to do so because she didn’t know whether it was true. Mueller could not reach a conclusion on whether Trump knew what Flynn was doing.

Overall, the episodes of Trump's questionable and possibly obstructive conduct prevent investigators "from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred,” the report said. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

No collusion, no aversion

Mueller said his evidence did not establish that the Trump campaign "conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities," the report said, but they enjoyed it.

The campaign "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts," such as the emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign published by WikiLeaks, the report said. The campaign "welcomed their potential damage to candidate Clinton."

Barr aligned himself with Mueller's findings of Russia's interference. "The Russian government sought to interfere in our election process," the attorney general said while declaring Trump absolved of "collusion." But Trump has never unequivocally accepted that the interference happened, or could happen again. According to the report, he worried after the election that reports about the Russians would "lead the public to question the legitimacy” of his victory.

Schiff said the threshold of criminality is not the standard on which Trump ought to be judged for tacitly accepting Russian help. "Whether these acts are criminal or not, whether the obstruction of justice was criminal or not, or whether these contacts were sufficiently illicit … they are unquestionably dishonest, unethical, immoral and unpatriotic," Schiff said.

For much, much more on the Russia connections, see Tom Brune's story for Newsday.

Ignorance gave Junior an excuse

Mueller's team said they declined to prosecute Donald Trump Jr. and other participants in a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering dirt on Clinton, in part because it would be too difficult to prove that they "willfully" violated the law.

The prosecutors "ultimately concluded that, even if the principal legal questions were resolved favorably to the government, a prosecution would encounter difficulties proving that campaign officials or individuals connected to the Campaign willfully violated the law," the report said.

Mueller found no evidence the president knew of the meeting in advance. But Trump's later effort to conceal the meeting's purpose became one of the obstruction questions that the special counsel considered.

Got time? See for yourself

To read the redacted version of the 448-page Mueller report, click here. Barr said he withheld secret grand jury records, classified data and information on continuing investigations. Also kept secret were details about "peripheral third parties.”

Newsday's Yancey Roy also compiled a who's who in the Mueller investigation.

What else is happening:

  • After publicly calling on Russia to find missing Clinton emails (he later claimed he was joking), Trump repeatedly asked Flynn to hunt them down, according to the Mueller report. Flynn sought help from two Republican operatives, and one of them proposed looking for sources with foreign intelligence contacts. The Russians also took Trump seriously and targeted email accounts connected to Clinton's office.
  • The report said Mueller's investigation spawned 14 probes that were referred to U.S. attorney's offices, including the prosecution of Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen and Greg Craig, a lawyer who served in the Obama White House. Information on the other cases was redacted.
  • Cohen claimed Thursday he has information that would fill in the redactions in the released version of Mueller’s report. Cohen recently told congressional committees he has more to tell them and asked for their help in postponing his prison sentence that begins next month.
  • Mueller didn't find evidence that stood up Cohen's assertion that Trump told him to lie to Congress about the extent of efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. But there is evidence that Trump knew the testimony was false. The lying is one of the crimes for which Cohen is going to prison.
  • Pelosi's No. 2, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, told CNN that "based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point." Hoyer added: "Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment."
  • Mueller's report found no evidence that compromising tapes from a Trump visit to Moscow in 2013 were real. But a Russian businessman, Giorgi Rtskhiladze, apparently led Cohen to believe such tapes existed, and Cohen said he passed his concerns to Trump. Rtskhiladze later admitted he had been told the tapes were fake.
  • When Trump fired Comey, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed to reporters that "countless members of the FBI" had lost faith in Comey. Questioned by Mueller's investigators, Sanders said she made that up — it "was a comment she made 'in the heat of the moment' that was not founded on anything."
  • Trump turned against Sessions, who recused himself from the Russia investigation, because he wanted an attorney general to protect him. In Barr, he's getting what he wanted, The Wall Street Journal writes.

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