There’s no longer any legitimate doubt: Nearly six weeks after its release, almost no one with any influence on American public policy or public opinion has actually read the publicly available version of the Mueller report on Russian election interference and possible presidential obstruction of justice. And most of those who have read it either didn’t understand it, or are trafficking in misleading descriptions. P.S. Based on his brief farewell remarks yesterday, that list includes Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III himself.
Those are the only logical conclusions that can be drawn from the continuing insistence that, to quote Mueller, President Trump would have been charged in the report with the crime of obstructing justice but for “long-standing Department policy, [that] a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional….The Special Counsel’s Office is part of the Department of Justice and, by regulation, it was bound by that Department policy. Charging the President with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”
Was Department policy a major determinant of Mueller’s non-indictment decision? Of course. And Mueller made that clear both in his reports and in his brief public statement. But was it the only determinant? And, by implication, given Mueller’s declaration that his report’s findings did not “exonerate” the President on this score, did Attorney General William P. Barr behave improperly by issuing his own determination that, even leaving aside Justice’s presidential indictment policy, Mueller’s investigation did not produce evidence “sufficient to establish” presidential obstruction?
The answer to both questions is clearly “No.” And it’s not even necessary to rely on Barr’s denial, in his March 24 letter announcing the decision reached by he and then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that the determination “was made without regard to, and was not based on, the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.”
It’s not even necessary to believe Barr’s May 1 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee that, at a March 5 meeting with Mueller, “in response to our questioning, [Mueller stated] that he emphatically was not saying that but for the [Justice Department policy] he would have found obstruction. He said that in the future the facts of the case against the president might be such that a special counsel would recommend abandoning the OLC opinion, but this is not such a case.”
These Barr statements can be ignored because Mueller’s April 18 report itself not only gathered abundant evidence bearing on the obstruction charge. It declared that it was inconclusive. To quote from the report (Volume II, p. 8. All subsequent page references are to this Volume unless otherwise noted.) “The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment.” And the report’s detailed discussions of ten Trump-era potential obstruction of justice episodes makes clear that the difficulties arose precisely because his team found significant evidence on both sides of the issue.
As a result, the most obstruction-friendly conclusion that Mueller and his aides reached was that “there was a sufficient factual and legal basis to further investigate potential obstruction-of -justice issues involving the President.” (p. 12). In other words, an indictment decision was anything but a slam dunk. And after a protracted probe involving the questioning of literally hundreds of witnesses, all that the Special Counsel could state with high confidence was that a case can be made.
Moreover, the report spent so much time weighing the kind of evidence that would be used in a normal obstruction case that an entire section was devoted to summarizing “the law interpreting the elements of potentially relevant obstruction statutes in an ordinary case. This discussion does not address the unique constitutional issues that arise in an inquiry into official acts by the President.” (p. 9)
The obstacles to indicting Mr. Trump for obstructing justice came through loud and clear in the Mueller report’s analysis of what’s often portrayed as the leading candidate for such a charge – the President’s alleged order to his then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. According to the Mueller Report (on p. 87):
“A threshold question is whether the President in fact directed McGahn to have the Special Counsel removed. After news organizations reported that in June 2017 the President had ordered McGahn to have the Special Counsel removed, the President publicly disputed these accounts, and privately told McGahn that he had simply wanted McGahn to bring conflicts of interest to the Department of Justice’s attention….Some of the President’s specific language that McGahn recalled from the calls is consistent with that explanation. Substantial evidence, however, supports the conclusion that the President went further and in fact directed McGahn to call Rosenstein to have the Special Counsel removed.”
It’s perfectly valid to note that the “substantial evidence” cited here surely outweighed in Mueller’s mind the evidence about presidential language recalled by McGahn – evidence that wasn’t even given an adjective. Yet readers are told that even the substantial evidence simply “supports a conclusion.” And there may be less to that conclusion than meets the eye. For couldn’t the presidential order to McGahn to call Rosenstein have reflected the same concerns about Special Counsel team conflicts of interest?
On the question of intent, which matters greatly in obstruction cases, Mueller wrote (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.
I’m not a lawyer, but could someone please explain to me why that “substantial evidence” is so all-fired incriminating? And as for this claim (p. 90) – “There also is evidence that the President knew that he should not have made those calls to McGahn” – that doesn’t exactly strike me as “Lock him up” material.
Muddying the waters even further are the aspects of possible obstruction-related episodes for which the Mueller Report presents no judgment on the evidence in terms of adjectives or other descriptions.
For example, regarding the President’s conduct with respect to the investigation of his (quickly fired) national security adviser Michael Flynn during the transition period, the report simply states (pp. 46-47):
“As part of our investigation, we examined whether the President had a personal stake in the outcome of an investigation into Flynn-for example, whether the President was aware of Flynn’s communications with [Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey] Kislyak close in time to when they occurred, such that the President knew that Flynn had lied to senior White House officials and that those lies had been passed on to the public. Some evidence suggests that the President knew about the existence and content of Flynn’s calls when they occurred, but the evidence is inconclusive and could not be relied upon to establish the President’s knowledge….
“Our investigation accordingly did not produce evidence that established that the President knew about Flynn’s discussions of sanctions before the Department of Justice notified the White House of those discussions in late January 2017. The evidence also does not establish that Flynn otherwise possessed information damaging to the President that would give the President a personal incentive to end the FBI’s inquiry into Flynn’s conduct.
“Evidence does establish that the President connected the Flynn investigation to the FBI’s broader Russia investigation and that he believed, as he told Christie, that terminating Flynn would end “the whole Russia thing.”
No bottom line is presented.
Similarly (p. 154), the report’s discussion of the “nexus” issues raised by presidential conduct toward his former lawyer and all-around fixer Michael Cohen (focusing on the obstruction-relevant possibility that an individual being investigated knew that certain actions could bear on certain official proceedings ranging from judicial or grand jury actions to Congressional probes) simply observed:
“The President’s relevant conduct towards Cohen occurred when the President knew the Special Counsel’s Office, Congress, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York were investigating Cohen’s conduct. The President acknowledged through his public statements and tweets that Cohen potentially could cooperate with the government investigations.”
One powerful overall conclusion, though, can easily be reached after reading the entire Mueller Report, and it bears on the crucial obstruction-related consideration of whether an individual acted with corrupt intent. As Barr observed in a May 17 interview with Fox News, Mr. Trump’s actions sprang from the genuine – legally non-corrupt – conviction that Mueller’s investigation of his record, along with the Obama administration’s surveillance of his campaign and the presidential transition, was a “witch hunt and a hoax.”
“[A]t the time, he was saying he was innocent and that he was being falsely accused. And if you’re falsely accused, you would think [it] was a witch hunt. … He has been hammered for allegedly conspiring with the Russians. And we now know that was simply false…. I think if I had been falsely accused, I’d be comfortable saying it was a witch hunt.”
At least as important, the Mueller Report itself supports this interpretation in many instances. For example:
“[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.” (p. 7)
“Multiple witnesses recalled that the President viewed the Russia investigations as a challenge to the legitimacy of his election.” (p. 47)
“[Then Attorney General Jeff] Sessions said he had the impression that the President feared that the investigation could spin out of control and disrupt his ability to govern, which Sessions could have helped avert if he were still overseeing it. (p. 51)
“On Saturday, March 25, 2017…the President called [Director of Intelligence Daniel] Coats and again complained about the Russia investigations, saying words to the effect of, “I can’t do anything with Russia, there’s things I’d like to do with Russia, with trade, with ISIS, they’re all over me with this.” (p. 56)
“In addition to the specific comments made to Coats, [the CIA Director Mike] Pompeo, and [then National Security Agency Director Admiral Michael] Rogers, the President spoke on other occasions in the presence of intelligence community officials about the Russia investigation and stated that it interfered with his ability to conduct foreign relations.” (p. 57)
“The evidence shows that the President was focused on the Russia investigation’s implications for his presidency- and, specifically, on dispelling any suggestion that he was under investigation or had links to Russia.” (p. 61)
“Evidence indicates that the President was angered by both the existence of the Russia investigation and the public reporting that he was under investigation, which he knew was not true based on [then FBI Director James] Comey’s representations. The President complained to advisors that if people thought Russia helped him with the election, it would detract from what he had accomplished.” (p. 61)
President Trump “told Comey that ‘he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult.'” (p. 61)
“The President…told McGahn that the perception that the President was under investigation was hurting his ability to carry out his presidential duties and deal with foreign leaders.” (p. 62)
“According to [then White House adviser Stephen K.] Bannon, the President said the same thing each time: ‘He [Comey] told me three times I’m not under investigation. He’s a showboater. He’s a grandstander. I don’t know any Russians. There was no collusion.'”
“We also considered why it was important to the President that Corney announce publicly that he was not under investigation. Some evidence indicates that the President believed that the erroneous perception he was under investigation harmed his ability to manage domestic and foreign affairs, particularly in dealings with Russia.” (p. 76)
“The President wanted Sessions to disregard his recusal from the investigation, which had followed from a formal DOJ ethics review, and have Sessions declare that he knew ‘for a fact’ that “there were no Russians involved with the campaign” because he ‘was there.’ The President further directed that Sessions should explain that the President should not be subject to an investigation ‘because he hasn’t done anything wrong.'” (p. 97)
“[T]he President knew that the Russia investigation was focused in part on his campaign, and he perceived allegations of Russian interference to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his election.” (p. 97)
“[T]he evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. But the evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the President’s conduct. These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election….” (p. 157)
As I wrote in an April 21 post, I believe that, because he had no reason to believe that a nearly complete version of his report (whose only required audience was the Attorney General) would be made public, Mueller acted perfectly appropriately in including a judgment that his investigation did not exonerate Mr. Trump on the obstruction question. For he was trying to impart information to Barr.
But Mueller has done the country a grave disservice by stressing the Constitutional barriers to indicting the President on this score. His report plainly demonstrates that he and his staff spent enormous amounts of time probing the traditional legal bases for an obstruction charge, and found considerable evidence to support decisions both to indict and not indict had Justice Department policy permitted such a step to be considered. And his farewell remarks yesterday were an inexcusable missed opportunity to clarify these matters.
As for Barr’s decision to file no obstruction charges, he and Rosenstein just as plainly saw the amount of evidence supporting such a conclusion, and quite reasonably judged that the obstruction allegations could not be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” had Justice’s reading of the Constitution permitted a case to be brought. Moreover, as Barr’s May 17 press interview demonstrates, he believed that the President’s relevant words and deeds stemmed from his conviction that he was being framed – a conviction borne out by Mueller’s findings not only that the evidence was “not sufficient to support criminal charges” on any grounds against any Trump campaign officials who had contacts with the Russian government, but that no members of the campaign had “coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Vol I, pp. 9,2)
Now that Mueller’s investigation is finally, officially, totally over, Congress, of course, has every Constitutional right to launch impeachment proceedings. For impeachment charges can properly include deeds that are not strictly speaking crimes. But it’s crucial to note that, from a legal standpoint, Mr. Trump is now in the clear. And although technical objections like Mueller’s can be raised to the President’s “no collusion, no obstruction claims,” his own report shows that they’re more than accurate enough.