In a report released Thursday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that while a sitting president cannot be indicted, President Donald Trump attempted to thwart the investigation into his 2016 campaign, but that aides repeatedly declined to carry out his orders.
The 448-page report, which charged that Russia engaged in a “sweeping and systematic” effort to damage the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, reported that time after time the White House staff either protected or tried to protect Trump from self-destructive, self-preserving instincts that could have violated the law.
Mueller reported in the summer of 2017, Trump telephoned then-White House counsel Don McGahn at his home to have the Justice Department dismiss Mueller, who had been named to investigate whether Trump campaign’s efforts conspired with Russian officials to sabotage Clinton’s campaign.
According to the report, McGahn threatened to resign rather than “carry out the direction,” fearing it would lead to another Saturday Night Massacre, a reference to President Richard Nixon’s 1973 firing of Special Counsel Archibald Cox who was investigating the Watergate scandal.
The report said that Trump urged adviser Corey Lewandowski to tell U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the special counsel investigation to “investigating election meddling for future elections.” Lewandowski ultimately did not deliver the message, though he tried to have senior White House official Rick Dearborn do so in his stead. Dearborn, also, was too uncomfortable with the task to follow through.
In addition, the report said that when the Justice Department named Mueller as special prosecutor in May of 2017, the president complained “it was the end of his presidency.” He demanded that Sessions resign, but when the attorney general sent in his resignation, Trump declined to accept it.
The report paints a picture of a president fixated with worry that the investigation would serve to de-legitimize his presidency, with both communications aides Hope Hicks and Sean Spicer telling the special counsel of Trump’s concern.
Although Trump and ardent supporters such as Republican Jim Jordan of Urbana claimed the report cleared the president, Mueller’s report declared that “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, however, we are unable to reach that judgment,” the report said.
Mueller followed Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel guidance that a sitting president could not be indicted or criminally prosecuted, but noted that while "a sitting president may not be prosecuted, it recognized that a criminal investigation during the president's term is permissible.”
By doing so, Mueller took the same position that Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski adopted in 1974 when he named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in a cover-up of efforts by Nixon’s campaign team to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex.
Instead, Jaworski concluded that while a president could be indicted after leaving office, the Constitution required Congress to impeach and remove a president from office before he or she could be charged with a criminal offense.
The special counsel charged that Russian launched a “targeted operation” that “favored” Trump and “disparaged” Clinton, a former secretary of state who had angered Russian President Vladimir Putin during his years in the Obama administration.
Mueller concluded that “while the investigation identified numerous links between” Russian officials and people associated with the Trump campaign, “the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges,” adding the special counsel did not produce “sufficient” evidence that any member of Trump’s campaign team “conspired with” Russian officials to impact the campaign.
The report was divided into two volumes: One on Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 elections and one on Trump’s reaction to those allegations and whether he and his campaign worked with Russia to affect the election.
The report indicates as well that Trump seemed to believe he could fire his way out of the investigation. When he fired former FBI Director James Comey, he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak "that's taken off...I'm not under investigation."
And when he fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was being investigated for his interactions with the Russians, he told adviser and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, "Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over."
Christie laughed and responded, "No way."
Jordan said Democrats should "read the Special Counsel's report before jumping to conclusions," adding "it would be a miscarriage of justice to use cherry-picked bits of information from the report to sow further divisiveness and spread conspiracies that serve only to undermine our democratic institutions.
"One thing, however, is clear with the release of the report today: this sad chapter of American history is behind us," Jordan said. "It is time to turn back to the people's work of improving the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of how their tax dollars are spent."
Democrats, meanwhile, were more critical, unsurprisingly. They aimed much of their fire at U.S. Attorney General William Barr for holding a news conference Thursday before the report was released.
Barr said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein personally concluded that while Trump was “frustrated and angry” about the Mueller probe, nothing the president did rose to the level of an “obstruction-of-justice offense.” Barr said Mueller’s report examined 10 episodes pertaining to Trump and obstruction.
Barr said the president did not exert executive privilege to withhold anything in the report. And he said the president’s personal attorney had requested and gotten a chance to review the report before its public release.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur charged that Barr "has injected himself as an unnecessary filter in this matter."
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Niles Democrat who is running for president, said that Barr "demonstrated that he has decided to be the personal attorney for President Trump rather than fulfilling his role as attorney for the American people."
"This report proves once again that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election with the explicit goal of helping Donald Trump win the presidency," Ryan said. "It is time for President Trump to stop believing Putin over our intelligence community."
By contrast, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, said the report "very clearly, indicates there was no collusion and no obstruction between then candidate Donald Trump — or his campaign — and Russia," adding that "those responsible for perpetrating this hoax must be held accountable — and, I think they will be."
Trump blasted the investigation into Russian election meddling as “The Greatest Political Hoax of all time!” hours before the report was released.
Trump’s first tweet of the day was aimed at investigators.
He tweeted, “Crimes were committed by Crooked, Dirty Cops and DNC/The Democrats,” although there is no evidence of that. Trump frequently calls the probe into contacts between his 2016 campaign and Russia a “witch hunt.”
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