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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

From ‘Concept of Collusion’ to Obstruction Questions: Highlights from the Mueller Report

The Justice Department today publicly released the 448-page redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his team’s investigation into Russia’s campaign influence operation and the Trump campaign, as well as potential obstruction of justice.

The report begins by detailing Russia’s active measures, both at the Internet Research Agency and the GRU, to target Democrats and wage operations via social media and political rallies in an effort to sway the election toward President Trump. Over the next 108 pages, the report details contacts between people connected to the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

The report didn’t reveal much, though, about investigations that Mueller referred to other offices, with information on 12 of the 14 cases redacted.

How Mueller defines collusion: “In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion,'” the team wrote.”…Collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law. For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.” That would have required Trump campaign officials and Russian officials “taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests” on election interference and “the investigation did not establish that the Trump Campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Prosecution of a sitting president: According to the second page of the report, Mueller applied a legal standard to his investigation under which a sitting president could not be charged with crimes by the Justice Department. “We considered whether to evaluate the conduct we investigated under the Justice Manual standards governing prosecution and declination decisions, but we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.”

The Mueller report states, “In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away. Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”

Mueller calls Trump’s written answers “inadequate”: The Mueller report includes the questionnaire Trump filled out with his legal team, including questions about the Trump Tower meeting, the WikiLeaks hacking and document dump, the Trump Organization’s Moscow project, and contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and transition. “I do not recall being told during the campaign of efforts by Russian officials to meet with me or with senior members of my campaign,” said Trump.

Obstruction: The Mueller report states that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” and Attorney General Bill Barr told reporters at the Justice Department today that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law.”

“We concluded that in the rare case in which a criminal investigation of the President’s conduct is justified, inquiries to determine whether the President acted for a corrupt motive should not impermissibly chill his performance of his constitutionally assigned duties,” Mueller wrote. “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”

The report details instances investigated as potential obstruction: the Trump campaign’s reaction to the WikiLeaks document dump and other Russian campaign interference measures, Trump’s reaction to the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Trump’s reaction to the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s campaign influence operation and asking former FBI Director James Comey whether he could “lift the cloud” of the probe over his presidency, the firing of Comey, Trump’s attempts to get rid of the special counsel, Trump’s attempts to limit Mueller’s investigation, Trump trying to keep private details of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russian officials and top Trump campaign officials in which negative information on Hillary Clinton was promised, Trump ordering then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump’s request for a “head’s up” on any “information that implicates the President” from Flynn’s attorneys after the former NSA began cooperating with investigators, and how Trump acted toward former personal attorney Michael Cohen after Cohen flipped and began cooperating with investigators.

“The President’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,” the Mueller team wrote.

The report further states, “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.”

On the appointment of the special counsel: “When Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’ … Sessions recalled that the President said to him, ‘you were supposed to protect me,’ or words to that effect.”

Orders to McGahn: The report says that, after the Washington Post published a story in June 2017 stating that the special counsel was investigating whether the president obstructed justice, Trump called McGahn twice at home and “directed him to have the Special Counsel removed… to call Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel.” McGahn told Mueller’s team that Trump told him “Mueller has to go” and “Call me back when you do it.” McGahn decided to resign rather than carry out the order, and former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said McGahn told him that Trump had asked him to “do crazy shit.” McGahn was ultimately talked out of quitting at that point by Priebus and Steve Bannon.

NSA filed away “most unusual” directive: The report describes a March 2017 conversation with Trump and then-National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers in which the president allegedly said “the thing with the Russians [wa]s messing up” his ability to get things done with Russia, then asked Rogers to publicly refute Trump-Russia news stories. “Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett, who was present for the call, said it was the most unusual thing he had experienced in 40 years of government service. After the call concluded, Ledgett prepared a memorandum that he and Rogers both signed documenting the content of the conversation and the President’s request, and they placed the memorandum in a safe,” the report states. “But Rogers did not perceive the President’s request to be an order, and the President did not ask Rogers to push back on the Russia investigation itself.” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats “recalled the President bringing up the Russia investigation several times, and Coats said he finally told the President that Coats’s job was to provide intelligence and not get involved in investigations.”

A more loyal attorney general? In July 2017, after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation, the report says Trump ordered Priebus to demand Sessions’ resignation. Early that month, “the President asked Staff Secretary Rob Porter what he thought of Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. Porter recalled that the President asked him if Brand was good, tough, and ‘on the team.’ The President also asked if Porter thought Brand was interested in being responsible for the Special Counsel’s investigation and whether she would want to be Attorney General one day… Porter did not contact Brand because he was sensitive to the implications of that action and did not want to be involved in a chain of events associated with an effort to end the investigation or fire the Special Counsel.”

The FBI and Comey: In a May 2017 press conference defending the Comey firing, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that the administration had “heard from countless members of the FBI” opposed to Comey and supporting his ouster. “Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from ‘countless members of the FBI’ was a ‘slip of the tongue,'” states the Mueller report. “She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Corney was a comment she made ‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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