Trump Claims Exoneration, but Mueller Report Says Otherwise

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April 18, 2019

By Carlo Versano

Special Counsel Robert Mueller found "numerous" contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian figures, but according to Mueller's newly released 400-page report, investigators found no evidence that President Trump's 2016 campaign and the Russians coordinated efforts.

The report also concluded that the Trump campaign expected to benefit during the election from Russian hacking and efforts to spread damaging information about opponent Hillary Clinton. But it determined that the links between people with ties to the Russian government and people associated with the Trump campaign did not amount to evidence of criminal activity.

The dense report, released in a non-searchable PDF on the Justice Department's website just after 11 a.m. ET Thursday, shows that Mueller and his team had a more difficult time determining whether the president obstructed justice. The report details at least 10 instances in which Trump attempted to interfere with the investigation. Mueller said that Trump was "mostly unsuccessful" in those attempts.

Some of those "episodes" amounted to "targeted efforts to control" the probe, such as Trump's firing of James Comey, the former FBI director. But those instances were determined to be within the bounds of the president's wide constitutional authority, according to the report.

Still, "it paints the president in a very unflattering light," said Amber Phillips, a reporter for the Washington Post who spoke to Cheddar Thursday.

"Arguably, it shows a president that does not respect the rule of law," she said.

For his part, President Trump stuck to his talking points today. At a White House event for the Wounded Warrior Project, a veterans support group, Trump said, "I'm having a good day," adding: “It was called no collusion, no obstruction. And never was, by the way, and there never will be.”

Democrats, however, saw clear evidence of obstruction in Mueller's report. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said at a news conference that lawmakers “have to get to the bottom of what happened" and that impeachment might be one avenue to do that.

Nadler also said that he had asked Mueller to appear before the Judiciary Committee to testify on his findings.

Despite recent statements by President Trump that the Mueller report amounted to "total exoneration," the report indicated just the opposite, at least when came to the obstruction question. Using something of a double negative, the report said that "if we had confidence...that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state."

It further added that investigators could not explicitly declare that Trump didn't obstruct justice: "While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it does not exonerate him."

In one passage, the president responded angrily to the news that Rod Rosenstein, then the acting attorney general, had appointed the special counsel in the first place: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm f---ed,'' Trump reportedly said.

The report also detailed in exhaustive fashion efforts that Trump made to shut down or impede the Mueller investigation. It described an episode on June 17, 2017, when Trump called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home to direct McGahn to have the Special Counsel removed. According to the report, McGahn told Trump that he would "see what he could do." But never intended to act on the request.

Beyond the McGahn encounter, the report cited numerous other instances when Trump tried to influence the Mueller investigation. But those efforts failed, the report said, "largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests."

One of the efforts that Trump made to influence the investigation into Russian interference came even before Mueller was name as special counsel. That was when Trump met with then-F.B.I. Director Jim Comey in the spring of 2017. Trump had recently fired his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose contacts with Russian officials during the transition raised suspicions of collusions between Russia and those in Trump's orbit.

According to Comey, Trump said during their meeting: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Trump has long denied making such a remark, but the Mueller report backs up his account.

Mueller chose not to subpoena Trump for an in-person interview, believing that it would prompt a legal fight with the White House and delay the investigation even though the report states that Trump's written answers to Mueller's questions were "inadequate."

That stands in contrast to the picture painted by Attorney General William Barr, who pre-empted the report's release with an extraordinary press conference in which he said the White House "fully cooperated" with the probe.

The report itself reveals a more nuanced view of the obstruction question, illustrating examples of the president attempting to wrest control of the investigation. At one point, Trump called his former lawyer Don McGahn at home and ordered him to fire Mueller. McGahn refused, and resigned last October.