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What Robert Mueller's report says about obstruction of justice

President Donald Trump in the East Room of

President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on Thursday for a Wounded Warrior Project event. Credit: AP/Andrew Harnik

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report detailed repeated efforts by President Donald Trump to impede the Justice Department’s expansive Russia investigation, including Trump's unsuccessful attempts to fire Mueller and his dangling of pardons to associates cooperating with the investigation.

Mueller said the actions prevented investigators “from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”

Mueller wrote, “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.”

Mueller stopped short of concluding whether a series of 10 episodes his office examined amounted to criminal obstruction of justice. He said his team determined early on “not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.”

Mueller said that decision was based in part on a decades-old Justice Department policy that states a sitting President can’t be indicted. Mueller said if he issued a “prosecutorial” recommendation, it would leave Trump without the ability to defend himself in court while President.

Attorney General William Barr decided after reading Mueller's report last month that there was “not sufficient” evidence to “establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Mueller in his report noted Congress has the “authority” to follow up.

Trump declined to respond in person to the special counsel’s questions related to obstruction of justice. Trump offered written responses to Mueller’s questions regarding the underlying Russia investigation, according to the report.

Mueller dedicated more than half his 448-page final report to details about Trump’s attempts to influence the Russia probe and the special counsel’s work.

Mueller said Trump’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.”

Here is a look at some of the major actions examined by Mueller:

Firing Comey

Mueller says there is “substantial evidence” Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 because of Comey’s “unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation.”

Trump initially cited Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email server probe as the primary reason for ousting him. But in a subsequent interview with NBC News and in an Oval Office meeting with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, Trump also cited the FBI’s probe into Russia interference in the 2016 election as a factor in Comey’s firing.

“Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt. “And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won'."

Mueller’s report said Trump told Kislyak: “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

The report details conversations recounted by Comey in memos in which the President asked "what could be done to ‘lift the cloud’ ” over his presidency due to the Russia probe. Trump later asked Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation into then-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

Mueller's report says “firing Comey would qualify as an obstructive act if it had the natural and probable effect of interfering with or impeding the investigation." But the report notes the White House issued a statement the day after Comey's firing that asserted, "the investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it."

Attempts to fire Mueller and limit the investigation

Trump in 2017 twice called on then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, citing concerns about Mueller’s objectivity.

After news reports that Trump was calling on McGahn to terminate Mueller, Trump summoned McGahn to his office in January 2018 and insisted he never told him to fire Mueller. McGahn described the news reports as “accurate” and rejected Trump’s numerous requests to issue a statement disputing the accuracy of the report.

“Substantial evidence indicates that in repeatedly urging McGahn to dispute that he was ordered to have the Special Counsel terminated, the President acted for the purpose of influencing McGahn's account in order to deflect or prevent further scrutiny of the President's conduct towards the investigation,” the special counsel's report says.

The report also revealed that Trump told his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in June 2017 to instruct Sessions to deliver a speech in which he would say he believed Trump was "being treated very unfairly" by the special counsel and would take action to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation to only "future election interference."

Lewandowski never delivered the message, instead asking Rick Dearborn, a senior White House official, to pass the message along to Sessions. Dearborn told investigators the request made him uncomfortable and he never followed through.

Mueller said in examining whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice, “a factfinder would need to consider whether the act had potential to delay further action in the investigation, chill the actions of the replacement Special Counsel, or otherwise impede the investigation.”

Pressuring Sessions to reverse his recusal

Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March 2017 after coming under scrutiny from lawmakers for not disclosing his contacts with Kislyak weeks earlier during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearings. Sessions, who served as a national security adviser to Trump’s campaign, had met twice with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign.

Mueller’s report recounts multiple attempts by Trump to convince Sessions in one-on-one conversations and through intermediaries to reverse his recusal — although Justice Department officials had recommended Sessions remain uninvolved in the Russia investigation because of possible conflicts of interest.

Mueller said “a reasonable inference” from “the President's actions is that the President believed that an unrecused Attorney General would play a protective role and could shield the President from the ongoing Russia investigation.”

Sessions resigned on Nov. 7, 2018, at Trump’s request.

The prospect of pardons

Drawing from Trump’s tweets and public statements, Mueller said Trump dangled the prospect of presidential pardons before at least three of his former campaign associates who were indicted by Mueller. The president's actions "had the potential" to influence their cooperation with Mueller's investigation, the report said.

Mueller highlighted Trump's public remarks lauding Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and his remarks praising and then berating his longtime attorney, Michael Cohen.

"With respect to Manafort, there is evidence that the President's actions had the potential to influence Manafort's decision whether to cooperate with the government,” Mueller said of Trump’s public remarks in November 2017 that he did not plan to take a pardon off the table.

" … Those statements, combined with the President's commendation of Manafort … suggested that a pardon was a more likely possibility if Manafort continued not to cooperate with the government," the report said.

The report describes how Trump's personal attorney reached out to Flynn’s attorney to convey displeasure with Flynn's decision to hire his own attorney and leave a joint legal defense agreement with Trump.

Mueller said the conversation "could have had the potential to affect Flynn's decision to cooperate." But the report said "because of privilege issues … we could not determine whether the President was personally involved in or knew about the specific message his counsel delivered to Flynn's counsel."

The report says Trump’s initial pledges of support to Cohen, followed by his public denunciations of the Long Island-born attorney, "could support an inference that the President used inducements in the form of positive messages in an effort to get Cohen not to cooperate, and then turned to attacks and intimidation to deter the provision of information to undermine Cohen's credibility once Cohen began cooperating."

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