The investigation that concluded with the Mueller report didn’t make a recommendation about whether or not President Donald Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Special counsel Robert Mueller left that decision to Attorney General William Barr (who has said he wouldn’t charge Trump) and to Congress.
But a revealing passage in the redacted report states pretty unequivocally that Trump certainly tried to influence the investigation — multiple times, in fact. It’s just that his efforts failed because his underlings refused to follow his orders.
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” the report states, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
Here are the specific examples Mueller cites of Trump’s attempts to influence the investigation:
- Trump asked then-FBI director James Comey to “see his way to” letting former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn off the hook from criminal investigation, but Comey didn’t do it.
- Trump told then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (then serving as acting attorney general over the Russia investigation after then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself) to remove Mueller from his appointment as Special Counsel, but McGahn didn’t do it.
- Trump told aides Corey Lewandowski and Rick Dearborn to tell Sessions to partly un-recuse himself and limit the investigation to Russian interference in future elections, not in 2016. They didn’t do it.
- Trump attempted to influence McGahn’s testimony to Mueller’s team to keep him from speaking fully about Trump’s efforts to remove Mueller, but McGahn didn’t listen to him.
This section of the Mueller report helps explain at least part of the gap between what Mueller was willing to conclude about Trump’s culpability and what Barr has told the public.
In Barr’s initial summary of the report, he explained that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein examined the obstruction evidence Mueller presented in the report themselves — and legal theories about what constituted “obstruction” — and ultimately decided that Trump’s conduct was not criminal.
But as Mueller’s report shows, that’s not the same thing as saying there were no attempts by the president to interfere.
Here’s the full passage in which Mueller explains how the Trump administration saved the president from himself on obstruction:
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 incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels. 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. For example, the President’s direction to McGahn to have the Special Counsel removed was followed almost immediately by his direction to Lewandowski to tell the Attorney General to limit the scope of the Russia investigation to prospective election-interference only-a temporal connection that suggests that both acts were taken with a related purpose with respect to the investigation.
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. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so. Consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the President’s aides and associates beyond those already filed.