Written by Mark Mazzetti
Robert Mueller revealed the scope of a historic Russian campaign to sabotage the 2016 presidential election in a much-anticipated report made public Thursday, and he detailed a frantic monthslong effort by President Donald Trump to thwart a federal investigation that imperiled his presidency from the start.
Mueller, the special counsel, laid out how his team of prosecutors wrestled with whether Trump’s actions added up to a criminal obstruction-of-justice offense. They ultimately chose not to charge Trump, citing numerous legal and factual constraints, but pointedly declined to exonerate him and suggested it might be the role of Congress to settle the matter.
The report laid bare that Trump was elected with the help of a foreign power, and cataloged numerous meetings between Trump’s advisers and Russians seeking to influence the campaign and the presidential transition team — encounters set up in pursuit of business deals, policy initiatives and political dirt about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president.
The special counsel concluded there was “insufficient evidence” to determine that the president or his aides had engaged in a criminal conspiracy with the Russians, even though the Trump campaign welcomed the Kremlin sabotage effort and “expected it would benefit electorally” from the hacks and leaks of Democratic emails. Then, after federal investigators opened an inquiry into the extraordinary Russian campaign, the president repeatedly tried to undermine it.
“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,” Mueller’s investigators wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Fevered speculation, now put to rest, arose in some circles that Trump and his immediate family might be in legal peril from Mueller’s investigation. At the same time, the report offered reams of evidence of a climate of deceit — and a base impulse for self-preservation — among a president and his top aides not seen since the days of Richard Nixon. That impulse prompted some presidential advisers to try to block Trump’s demands that they take steps to protect him from federal investigators. Some feared getting wrapped up in the widening inquiry.
“The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is large because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report said.
The special counsel found that Trump had the authority to make many of his most controversial decisions, including the firing of James Comey as the FBI director, by virtue of the powers the Constitution grants him. At the same time, it is a far more damning portrayal of his behavior than the one presented last month in a four-page letter released by Attorney General William Barr.
“The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” the report said. “These actions ranged from efforts to remove the special counsel and to reverse the effect of the attorney general’s recusal; to the attempted use of official power to limit the scope of the investigation; to direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony. Viewing the acts collectively can help to illuminate their significance.”
In his letter, Barr announced that while Mueller had made no judgment about whether Trump had obstructed justice, he had stepped in to decide that the president had not.
Barr defended his decision in a news conference Thursday and said that some of the president’s actions were understandable given the “context” of his situation. “There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks,” Barr said.
The Mueller report is a sometimes gripping account of a presidency consumed by a sprawling investigation, and of a president seized by paranoia about what it might unearth. Immediately after learning that a special counsel had been appointed to lead the Russia investigation, the report said, Trump became distraught and slumped in his chair. “Oh, my God. This is terrible,” he said. “This is the end of my presidency.”
Trump long denounced the inquiry as a politically motivated “witch hunt.” But since it began, a half-dozen former Trump aides have been indicted or convicted of crimes, most of them for lying to Congress or federal investigators.
Last month’s release of Mueller’s primary conclusions seemed to blunt any momentum on Capitol Hill to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump, and it appeared unlikely then that the far more detailed accounting of the special counsel’s work would change that dynamic.
But Thursday, top Democratic lawmakers seized on the report’s findings and suggested that the issue of impeachment was not settled. At the very least, Mueller’s report seems certain to give Democratic lawmakers — and the many Democratic presidential candidates — ample political fodder for attacks on the president until he stands for re-election late next year.
The release is the culmination of an investigation that consumed the national political conversation for nearly two years and was freighted with the outsize expectations of Trump’s most fervent critics.
Mueller achieved a cult status among some Americans obsessed with the prospect that he might deliver a report that would put the Trump presidency in jeopardy — an image fueled by his general refusal to give public signals about the direction of his investigation. Mueller and his staff seemed monkish and enigmatic, choosing to speak only in court appearances and highly detailed indictments of Russian intelligence operatives or some of the president’s advisers.
Some Americans invested so much hope in the Mueller investigation that they made plans to hold rallies in predetermined locations if Trump fired the special counsel and terminated the investigation. He never did.
The Mueller investigation began in May 2017, but its origins go back nearly a year earlier. The FBI opened the original inquiry into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia on July 31, 2016, in the midst of a heated presidential election contest that, the world now knows, Moscow made a concerted effort to sabotage.
That summer saw WikiLeaks release thousands of hacked emails meant to cripple Clinton’s candidacy, and U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials saw other ominous signs of Russian attempts to subvert the election.
Determining the scope of the Russian interference campaign was a centerpiece of the Mueller investigation, and will most likely be one of its enduring legacies. His report leaves no doubt that it was the Russian government that orchestrated the effort, and that many of Trump’s aides welcomed it — even if they did not actively coordinate with Moscow. At the very least, in the face of a Russian intelligence effort to make contact with Trump’s advisers, none of the advisers thought to contact the FBI.
When Mueller began his work, there were still prominent voices at both ends of the political spectrum openly debating whether the hacking and leaking of emails — and the fake news that spread like a wildfire on social media in the months before the election — was the work of Russia, China, stateless hackers or, as Trump once liked to say, “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Even last summer, standing next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia after a summit in Finland, he refused to accept that the Russians had carried out the election sabotage.
Now, the voices of doubt have mostly been silenced, in part because of two indictments Mueller secured last year against a total of 25 Russian military intelligence operatives and experts in social media manipulation. The indictments gave exquisite details about the entirety of the Russian operation — how Russians paid unsuspecting Americans to stage pro-Trump rallies in battleground states, how Russian hackers penetrated the personal email account of Clinton’s campaign chairman and how a pair of Russian women took a scouting trip to the United States two years before the election to gather information for the planned assault.
Just weeks into his presidency, Trump declared there had been no meetings or other communications during the campaign between his advisers and Russians or other Kremlin intermediaries. A parade of media reports followed saying otherwise — reports the White House denounced at the time as false, but that Mueller’s report showed to be accurate.
One of the most significant was a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower set up by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, and a group of Russians who had promised political dirt about Clinton.
When The New York Times revealed the meeting a year later, there was a frenzied effort by the president’s aides to mislead the public about its purpose — including putting out a news release that the meeting had primarily been about a Russian adoption program.
The report stated that Trump’s personal lawyer “repeatedly and inaccurately denied that the president played any role in drafting Trump Jr.’s statement,” and that the special counsel investigated whether that meeting violated campaign finance laws. Mueller’s team found that the evidence was “not sufficient.” Some of the meetings with Russians were a mélange of business and politics, and Mueller’s prosecutors wrapped up their inquiry still puzzled about their purpose.
In December 2016, for instance, the head of a Russian bank under sanctions met in New York with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and senior adviser. Kushner told the special counsel it was a diplomatic meeting with a person close to Putin set to discuss the future of relations between the United States and Russia.
The Russian banker, Sergey N. Gorkov, has given a different account of the meeting’s purpose: to sit down with Kushner, the scion of a New York real estate empire, for business purposes. In the end, the special counsel’s team “did not resolve the apparent conflicts in the accounts,” according to the report.
Trump declared victory last month when Barr sent the four-page letter to Congress outlining the investigation’s main conclusions. “After three years of lies and smears and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead,” Trump told thousands of his supporters at a Michigan rally days after Barr’s letter was made public. “Robert Mueller was a god to the Democrats. He was a god to them until he said, ‘no collusion.’ They don’t like him so much now.”
Even so, the revelations in Barr’s letter did not produce a noticeable bump in Trump’s approval rating, and polls taken in the weeks since Barr’s letter have shown that many Americans were reserving judgment until they had a fuller picture of Mueller’s conclusions.
Other Americans made up their minds long ago, and it is unclear what the effect will be of the release of hundreds of pages of investigative conclusions by a team of seasoned prosecutors. Those already convinced that the investigation was a witch hunt, and those already convinced that Trump conspired with Russia to win the presidency, are unlikely to be moved by the conclusions of Mueller and his team. Mueller’s byzantine investigation amassed information from thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of search warrants and evidence turned over from more than a dozen foreign governments.
The report released Thursday revealed that his team of prosecutors had found enough evidence of potential crimes to make 14 different criminal referrals to other federal prosecutors. So far, only two of those have officially been made public.