The Mueller Report Was Finally Released: What It Says About Donald Trump and Russia
The redacted version of Robert Mueller’s report about his investigation into President Donald Trump and Russia was released on Thursday morning — and, across 448 pages, the special counsel laid out in detail the work that led him to a complicated truth as best as his team came to understand it.
No, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Nonetheless, the report documents “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign” and describes their passively symbiotic relationship ahead of the 2016 presidential election in stark terms.
“[T]he 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 report states, in part.
Most jarringly, the report explains a comprehensive effort by Trump to put an end to the special counsel’s investigation once he became a target of the probe. Mueller did not make a decision if such conduct was a crime, given the complicated legal and constitutional restraints on such a question.
Still, the scenes that Mueller recounts recall Nixonian presidential intrusions and, extraordinarily, the refusal of Trump aides to carry out some of his wishes for fear of the political cost — essentially a staff saving Trump from himself.
According to one former top aide, Trump viewed the fact that Russia had worked to help elect him, even without his cooperation, as his “Achilles heel” because it could be used by critics to delegitimize his unexpected victory.
He reacted with visible dismay to Mueller’s appointment, in May 2017, according to the report.
When Trump was told, he “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f—–,’ ” the report states.
In a news conference on Thursday ahead of the report’s release, Attorney General William Barr made this defense of the president’s state of mind during Mueller’s work: Trump was “frustrated and angered by his sincere believe that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.”
The White House cooperated extensively with Mueller, and Trump answered some written questions about Russia but he declined to be interviewed and Mueller did not force him, though his team believed they had legal authority to do so. (Mueller’s team felt it would not be worth the delay and they already had substantial evidence needed to understand what happened.)
The first of the report’s two volumes, some 200 pages, exhaustively details Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election in order to boost Trump’s candidacy and the available contacts between Trump and his associates and Russian nationals, including those in the government.
According to Mueller, and as has been previously argued by prosecutors in extensive federal court filings, Russia’s election interference was essentially two-pronged:
A company funded by a Russian oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin spent years using social media to “provoke and amplify political and social discord” in the U.S., denigrating Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton and praising Trump; simultaneously, the Russian military stole emails and other documents from Clinton’s campaign and related officials and then shared them either via fake online personas or in coordination with WikiLeaks.
Despite some earlier skepticism of the extent of the redactions in the public Mueller report, most of it is completely un-redacted.
Attorney General Barr has said the redactions fall into four general categories: those relating to grand jury matters, which are required to be kept secret by law; those relating to intelligence-gathering sources and methods; those relating to the privacy of irrelevant third parties; and those that could “harm” ongoing cases.
In the lead-up to the election and after, the president and his team repeatedly downplayed, dismissed or lied about their connections to Russia.
Mueller’s report documents how, over time, Trump campaign and administration officials began to act more cautiously regarding Russia — aware of the increased public and media scrutiny, in part because of Trump’s professed affection for Putin.
The Mueller report’s first volume, covering the Trump-Russia links, includes several previously known attempts between Trump and Russian intermediaries to establish a relationship between their camps but does not confirm any criminal conspiracy, which Mueller’s team used to interpret all such behavior.
Again and again, according to Mueller’s report, Russian efforts to interface or work with President Trump and his team were either ignored, rebuffed or stalled for lack of an immediate incentive.
This appears to have been the case in the notorious June 2016 meeting between a former Russian prosecutor and several high-level Trump campaign officials, including son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
According to Mueller’s report, Don Jr. had agreed to the meeting believing it could yield potentially damaging information on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic challenger. Instead, the report shows, the meeting lasted about 20 minutes and was almost immediately deemed a “waste of time” by Kushner as the Russians spoke only in vague terms and kept turning back to the Magnitsky Act, a piece of U.S. legislation that Putin found intolerable.
(Some of the Trump-Russia contacts remain mysterious, such as why Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign head, was sharing polling data with a former associate tied to Russia and Ukraine.)
Mueller’s report is more conclusive on another high-profile relationship: between Trump officials and WikiLeaks, especially regarding the release of the stolen Democratic material.
“The Trump Campaign showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of hacked materials throughout the summer and fall of 2016,” according to Mueller’s report and it later states as fact that there was “advance notice of WikiLeaks’s release of hacked information.”
Much of this section of the report is redacted because it is connected to grand jury proceedings or an “ongoing matter.” But it describes one scene in the summer of 2016 when Trump and a top campaign official were heading to the airport and Trump told the official after a phone call “that more releases of damaging information would be coming.”
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser who was arrested earlier this year and accused of obstructing Mueller’s investigation, remained in touch with the campaign in 2016.
According to Stone’s indictment, “After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by [Wikileaks] a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact [Stone] about any additional releases and what other damaging information [Wikileaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” (Stone has pleaded not guilty.)
Given the redactions, the public version of Mueller’s report does not provide a full picture of the relationship between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks.
Nonetheless Attorney General Barr, speaking to reporters on Thursday before the report’s release, took care to note that Mueller “investigated whether any member or affiliate of the Trump campaign encouraged or otherwise played a role in” the dissemination of stolen Democratic material.
Tellingly, he said Mueller “did not find that any person associated with the Trump campaign illegally participated in the dissemination of the materials.”
Barr did not elaborate, but such a statement seemed to point toward the conclusion that Trump officials were only involved or aware of the publication of the material and did not have any connection to the underlying theft committed by the Russians.
The second volume of Mueller’s report — another some 200 pages — analyzes in similar granular detail the various efforts the president undertook to derail, curb or end Mueller’s investigation and whether any of those actions amounted to criminal obstruction of justice.
Much of the second volume is dense legal analysis which, according to Mueller’s report, precluded his team from making a decision about whether the president committed a crime.
It is the subject of debate on whether a sitting president can be charged with a crime. It is the government’s official position that that is not constitutional and instead the correct solution would be impeachment by Congress.
The Mueller report lays out the various acts and accompanying evidence of potentially obstructive behavior. For example, the president tried to have Mueller removed as special counsel, tried to have his attorney general resume supervision of the probe and made statements to various other officials aimed at influencing the course of the investigation — including telling James Comey, then the FBI director, that he hoped Comey could drop his investigation of Trump’s former national security adviser.
Mueller’s report repeatedly underlines that his team did not make a judgement about the president’s guilt — or innocence.
And without explicitly saying so, the report repeatedly points toward Congress as the ultimate authority in settling such matters.
According to the report: “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.”
In a section detailing the president’s proposed defenses of his behavior, Mueller’s team argues that “the Constitution does not categorically and permanently immunize a President for obstructing justice through the use of his Article II powers.”
According to this view, even though much of the president’s scrutinized behavior was based on his Constitutional powers, it does not permit him license to govern at will.
“The proper supervision of criminal law does not demand freedom for the President to act with the intention of shielding himself from criminal punishment, avoiding financial liability, or preventing personal embarrassment,” the report states. “To the contrary, a statute that prohibits official action undertaken for such personal purposes furthers, rather than hinders, the impartial and evenhanded administration of the law.”
After Mueller submitted his report to the attorney general, Barr and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, found that there was insufficient evidence to prove obstruction against the president.
In a statement on Thursday, Trump’s lawyers described the Mueller investigation as “a total victory for the President,” according to CNBC reporter Eamon Javers.
“The report underscores what we have argued from the very beginning – there was no collusion – there was no obstruction,” the Trump legal team said.
While Trump had reportedly been preparing a point-by-point rebuttal of the Mueller report, it was not immediately released.
Speaking at an event later Thursday, the president joked that he was “having a good day. … It’s called no collusion, no obstruction.”
“This should never happen to another president again, this hoax. It should never happen to another president again,” Trump said, echoing his longstanding accusation that the special counsel’s investigation was a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
In a characteristic boast on Twitter Thursday, Trump posted a meme with the text “No collusion. No obstruction. …. Game Over,” with the later phrase in the Game of Thrones font. (HBO was not pleased.)
Mueller was authorized from the start to pursue matters that arose from his initial investigation of the president and Russia, and the most significant prosecutions from his work were largely unrelated to the 2016 campaign itself.
Michael Flynn, the disgraced general and former Trump national security adviser, admitted lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian ambassador after Trump was elected and Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, will spend years in prison for financial crimes and conspiracy.
Stone, the longtime Trump adviser, was the last notable associate targeted by Mueller. He was arrested in January on seven charges, all related to efforts to mislead and obstruct Congressional probes into Russia and the Trump campaign. He denied wrongdoing.