The trade wars and resulting uproar have of course intensified lately due to President Trump’s threats to tariff Mexican imports to improve Mexico’s performance in helping ease the border crisis, and a New York Times report that his administration was mulling imposing levies on Australia in response to a surge in its aluminum exports to the United States.
But those developments – plus a terrific story in the Japanese press on metals tariffs that I’ll be posting about shortly as well – need to take a back seat today on RealityChek to a flagrant piece of fake news concerning the Mueller report’s conclusions propagated by a major broadcast media anchor that urgently needs to be debunked.
The culprit here is George Stephanopoulos, a top aide to Bill Clinton both during his first presidential campaign and his first term in the White House. The fake news involves his claim, made on yesterday’s This Week program, that in his report on Russian election interference and the responses of President Trump and his aides, the former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller “laid out four incidents in the obstruction of justice section of the report that met all three criteria for obstruction of justice — an obstructive act, connection to an investigation, corrupt intent.”
His clear intimation was that Attorney General William P. Barr overlooked this major evidence and that his own decision (made in conjunction with his then Deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who decided to authorize a Special Counsel investigation of the above matters in the first place) to decline indicting the President was a transparently political effort to let Mr. Trump off the hook.
In fact, however, not only did the Mueller fail to identify four such incidents. The single set of incidents that could possibly qualify as an obstruction charge slam dunk – the President’s alleged efforts to remove Mueller himself as Special Counsel – was awfully weak beer. Stephanopoulos might have two other groups of incidents in mind as well, but the case for so describing them is even feebler.
Before we proceed, however, keep in mind that in order to produce an obstruction conviction, a prosecutor needs to convince a jury, as with all criminal trials, that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In addition, in order to decide to indict or to recommend an indictment, a government prosecutor must decide that “the admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction….”
As I noted in my May 30 post, the Mueller report found “substantial evidence” that Mr. Trump committed obstructive acts in efforts to have Mueller fired (Vol. II, pp. 87 and 88). Ditto for the “connection to an investigation” and “corrupt intent” criteria for obstruction charges. (Vol. II, pp. 88-90).
But as I also noted, “even the substantial evidence [on the allegedly obstructive act count] simply ‘supports a conclusion.’ And there may be less to that conclusion than meets the eye. For couldn’t the presidential order to [then White House Counsel Don] McGahn to call Rosenstein have reflected “…concerns about Special Counsel team conflicts of interest?”
Regarding the critical matter of intent, Mueller wrote (Vol. II, p. 89) that “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked to the Special Counsel’s oversight of investigations that involved the President’s conduct – and, most immediately, to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.”
That verb “indicates,” though, is pretty wishy-washy, especially considering the (properly) tough standards long established by U.S. criminal law and Justice Department policy for bringing an obstruction charge. Why didn’t Mueller write that this substantial evidence “shows” or “demonstrates” that these Mueller-removing actions were linked to his ongoing investigation, which threatened the Trump presidency?
The first of the two other possible slam-dunk groups of incidents entails the President’s efforts to curtail the Mueller investigation (as opposed simply to firing the Special Counsel). This episode centers around Mr. Trump’s decision to send former campaign aide and frequent (unofficial) confidant Corey Lewandowski on a mission to tell then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the existing investigation into election 2016 and specific Trump-related matters, and concentrate his efforts on whatever foreign meddling might be threatening upcoming elections.
The second such group of events consist of other attempts made by Mr. Trump to direct Sessions to take over the Special Counsel investigation.
The report’s wording convince me, anyway, that Mueller believed that the Lewandowski-related incidents met the obstructive act and link to an ongoing investigation standards. Plenty of evidence is presented regarding intent as well.
But at this juncture, it’s necessary to point to other intent-related considerations that we know were influencing Mueller’s evaluation of these events. Specifically, as Mr. Trump has continually observed, the Special Counsel (Vol, I, p. 9) found no underlying crime (that candidate Trump or any member of his campaign either acted “as an unregistered agent of the Russian government or other Russian principal” or “conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election”). Nor, even though this activity would not constitute a crime, did the investigation “establish that members of the Trump Campaign” even “coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Vol, 1, p. 2).
Although, as Barr noted in his March 24 letter to Congress announcing his decision not to indict Mr. Trump, the absence of an underlying crime does not preclude charging a defendant with obstruction, this absence “bears upon the President’s intent with respect to obstruction.” In other words, as I wrote on May 30, and as Barr made clear in a May 17 interview, Mr. Trump’s actions reflected his belief – which was both sincere and factually grounded – that he was being framed.
And guess what? Mueller agrees! On Vol. I, p. 7, his report states:
“[U]nlike cases in which a subject engages in obstruction of justice to cover up a crime, the evidence we obtained did not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. Although the obstruction statutes do not require proof of such a crime, the absence of that evidence affects the analysis of the President’s intent and requires consideration of other possible motives for his conduct.”
As for the Trump efforts to ensure that his then Attorney General take over the Mueller investigation, the report doesn’t even come to any identifiable conclusion about whether any obstructive acts were committed. (Vol. II, p. 112)
The only other group of incidents that might legitimately qualify for the “slam dunk” category centered on Trump’s order to McGahn to deny that he had asked him to firer Mueller.
At the same time, Mueller’s conclusion as to whether any obstructive act was committed here is anything but clear, either. As the report notes (Vol II, p. 118):
“The President’s repeated efforts to get McGahn to create a record denying that the President had directed him to remove the Special Counsel would qualify as an obstructive act if it had the natural tendency to constrain McGahn from testifying truthfully or to undermine his credibility as a potential witness if he testified consistently with his memory, rather than with what the record said.”
There is some evidence that at the time the New York Times and Washington Post stories [reporting that such developments took place] were published in late January 2018, the President believed the stories were wrong and that he had never told McGahn to have Rosenstein remove the Special Counsel.”
In other words, the report is acknowledging these could have represented another group of Trump actions motivated by the sincere belief that he was being framed.
At the same time, the report states that “Other evidence cuts against that understanding of the President’s conduct.”
In sum, it’s obvious that contending that Mueller concluded that Mr. Trump was robustly indictable for even one of these sets of incidents rests on the shakiest of ground. Contending that the report found four such sets is nothing less than fiction. And the insinuation of a Barr cover-up is completely beyond the pale. Indeed, taken together, and given the various legal hurdles he needed to overcome to make a legitimate indictment recommendation, it’s obvious why – aside from the Justice Department policy barring the indictment of a sitting President – Mueller didn’t report to Barr that solid grounds existed even for a single obstruction charge.
In fact, as I also noted on May 30, the following was the most obstruction-friendly conclusion contained in the Mueller report – and it covers the above events related to the attempted Mueller firing:
“[T]here [is] a sufficient factual and legal basis to further investigate potential obstruction-of -justice issues involving the President.” (Vol. I, p. 12)
I.e., after a 2-year probe conducted by as many as 19 lawyers with the assistance of “approximately 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, a paralegal, and professional staff ” that “issued more than 2,800 subpoenas under the auspices of a grand jury sitting in the District of Columbia; executed nearly 500 search-and-seizure warrants; obtained more than 230 orders for communications records under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d); obtained almost 50 orders authorizing use of pen registers; made 13 requests to foreign governments pursuant to Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties; and interviewed approximately 500 witnesses, including almost 80 before a grand jury,” Mueller simply determined that reasons existed for continuing to investigate. (Vol. I, p. 13) And P.S.: He didn’t call them “substantial.”
If Stephanopoulos simply made a mistake by claiming that Mueller found four full-blown instances of Trump obstruction of justice, that’s fine – as long as he admits the error. Until he does, however, he’ll be as guilty of trafficking in fake news as he seems to believe Mr. Trump is guilty of obstruction.