What the Mueller report is and isn't: The fog begins to lift

Patrick Semansky/AP
Attorney General William Barr speaks alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, April 18 at the Department of Justice in Washington.
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The Mueller report is an almost pointillistic portrait of a sweeping array of contacts between President Donald Trump and his associates and various Russian contacts, from President Vladimir Putin on down. Take the night candidate Donald Trump was elected – at 3 A.M. his communications director Hope Hicks picked up her phone and heard, in a thick Russian accent, a request for “Putin call” (it happened a few days later).

The Mueller report also documents President Trump’s increasingly activist defense against the special counsel’s investigation of these contacts. Notable here is his attempt to flat out fire Robert Mueller, an attempt blocked by White House counsel Don McGahn. Mr. Mueller did not find enough evidence of illegal conspiracy with Russia to bring charges, or to make a prosecutorial decision about possible obstruction of justice.

But what the Mueller report isn’t, says Bennett Gershman, a professor of law at Pace Law School in New York and a former prosecutor, is irresponsible, a hoax, or a witch hunt. “It’s clearly as responsible, careful, and professional a report as can be,” Professor Gershman says.

Why We Wrote This

For two years, the Mueller investigation has been a source of speculation. With the report’s release, the American public, and our writers, now have the chance to read between the lines for themselves.

President Donald Trump cursing and declaring “this is the end of my presidency!” when he heard of special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment.

Trump campaign press secretary Hope Hicks sleepily picking up her personal phone at 3 a.m. of election night in 2016, and clearly hearing only two words: “Putin call.”

Trump campaign adviser Erik Prince traveling to the Seychelles Islands to perhaps build a communications backchannel with Russian officials.

Why We Wrote This

For two years, the Mueller investigation has been a source of speculation. With the report’s release, the American public, and our writers, now have the chance to read between the lines for themselves.

Trump telling White House counsel Don McGahn to deny that he’d tried to fire special counsel Mueller – and Mr. McGahn refusing, because he had.

The report of special counsel Robert Mueller, released Thursday, is an almost pointillistic rendition of the sweeping historical canvas encompassing Mr. Trump and the Russia investigation, careful and detailed enough to influence the national conversation about the issue for months, perhaps years to come.

It’s far from the final word, of course. Mr. Trump has vehemently insisted that the bottom line is all that needs to be said: Mr. Mueller found no grounds to charge top Trump officials or Mr. Trump personally with criminal conspiracy in the matter. Mr. Mueller also struggled to decide whether Mr. Trump had criminally obstructed justice in the inquiry, and ultimately decided to not bring charges, without exonerating the president.

But if nothing else, the Mueller report may serve as a narrative defense against the administration’s attacks on the special counsel’s character and motivation in particular, and on federal law enforcement in general. The report is careful, in-depth, and reflects a responsible approach, says Bennett Gershman, professor of law at Pace Law School in New York and a former prosecutor.

“So right away as I read it, it struck me that it’s just nonsensical to characterize this investigation and the findings – the factual findings – as a hoax, a witch hunt, irresponsible,” says Professor Gershman.

The release of the redacted Mueller report has been one of the most anticipated moments of the Trump presidency.

Attorney General William Barr held a press conference prior to the report being made public. He said Mr. Trump’s actions as described in its pages should be put in the context of a U.S. chief executive who fully believed he was innocent and was responding emotionally to what he thought was an unnecessary and political intrusion into his presidency.

Mr. Barr said Mr. Trump “took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation,” and that Mr. Trump had “non-corrupt motives” for his actions.

Russia’s clear influence

The redacted report as delivered came in two roughly equal sections, the first dealing with Russian interference in the 2016 election and connections between Trump associates and Russia, and the second with obstruction of justice questions.

The first volume states unequivocally that Russia attempted to influence U.S. voters in favor of its preferred candidate, Mr. Trump. It traced numerous contacts between Trump officials and Russians, many who were themselves representatives of the Russian government. But it did not establish evidence that those contacts added up to criminal conspiracy.

Mr. Mueller did establish that the Trump campaign tried to obtain Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails. This occurred publicly when Mr. Trump asked at a campaign rally, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll be able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” The report indicated it also occurred privately: Trump “repeatedly” asked aides to look for the emails, the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, told the special counsel.

As to the infamous June 9 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials and a Russian lawyer supposedly offering “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Mueller ultimately decided not to charge Mr. Trump and others with a campaign finance violation. The Trump people were unaware that they were operating in a potentially illegal manner in a highly sensitive area, according to the report.

The questionable meetings continued. In August 2016, for instance, campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former associate and Russian government asset, to discuss a proposed “peace deal” for Ukraine that reflected Russian interests.

No conspiracy

But the meetings just did not involve mutual interaction on possible crimes, the special counsel concluded.

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the Mueller report concludes.

As for obstruction of justice, the Mueller report divides the president’s activities into two sections. In the first, Mr. Trump tried to get a public statement from then FBI Director James Comey, or another top law enforcement official, to the effect that he was not a personal target of the Russia inquiry. Mr. Comey’s refusal to go along with this was apparently one reason Mr. Trump fired him.

The second phase began after Mr. Trump realized that the new special counsel, appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein following Mr. Comey’s dismissal, had opened an obstruction of justice inquiry into Mr. Trump. This launched Mr. Trump’s more active denigration of federal law enforcement in general and the Mueller probe and its “angry Democrats” in particular, the report said.

In June 2017, Mr. Trump flatly ordered his White House counsel to fire Mr. Mueller due to perceived “conflicts of interest,” according to the report. Mr. McGahn did not take this action. After this story was leaked to the news media, Mr. Trump directed Mr. McGahn to create a record saying he had not been ordered to fire Mr. Mueller, disputing the story. Mr. McGahn refused, even when Mr. Trump in an Oval Office meeting directed him again to take this action.

“McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle,” the report states.

No decision on obstruction

Mr. Mueller pointedly did not clear the president on the obstruction of justice issue. The special counsel simply decided it would be inappropriate to make a decision as to whether to charge Mr. Trump at this time, given that it is Justice Department policy to refrain from indicting a sitting president.

“Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations,” the report concluded.

In essence, Mr. Mueller is saying that if he could have exonerated the president here, he would have, says Ken Hughes, a research specialist and expert on presidential abuse of power at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center who has spent two decades mining President Richard Nixon’s tapes. But Mr. Mueller was unable to reach that judgment.

“Really, the special counsel’s office is saying, they couldn’t charge him because he’s president. That’s the overarching theme,” says Mr. Hughes.

As for Congress, the obstruction section of the Mueller report definitely calls for oversight investigation, says a Democratic aide.

Overall, this source sees the report as definitely kicking the issue to Congress. As to a possible impeachment inquiry, the Democratic House leadership is taking it one step at a time. The next big fight will be over congressional access to Mr. Mueller’s underlying documents – and access, in a hearing, to Mr. Mueller himself.

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