From the very moment former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed as Special Counsel with a mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, Donald Trump has made clear that he didn’t appreciate the very fact of Mueller’s investigation. Even though Mueller is a Republican and a universally respected former law enforcement officer, the President identified Mueller as an existential threat to his administration.
So it’s no surprise that the Special Counsel’s Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Election – aka “The Mueller Report” – chronicles repeated attempts from the Trump White House to impede and interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation. The report shows, time and time again, that the President sought to undermine the investigation at every turn.
In part 4 of our dive into the Mueller Report’s obstruction of justice analysis, we look at Robert Mueller himself and his investigation. Sections E and F, of the Mueller Report’s second volume, document the President’s attempts to undermine the Special Counsel. As Quinta Jurecic at Lawfare has documented, these sections contain some of the most damning obstruction analyses in the entire report, as the report’s authors make clear they are deeply troubled by the President’s behavior toward the Special Counsel.
Trying to Fire Robert Mueller
On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, any links or coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” (Rosenstein made the appointment because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself)
The President immediately perceived this as a threat, calling it the “end of his presidency,” according to the Mueller Report. He berated Sessions over the decision, and Sessions submitted his resignation as Attorney General, but the President decided not to accept it.
Inside the administration, Trump began to complain of Mueller’s “conflicts of interest,” including Mueller’s membership in a Trump-branded golf course and his disputation of fees related to that membership. Trump’s advisors, including Steve Bannon, made clear that those supposed conflicts were “ridiculous,” and the Department of Justice cleared Mueller of any potential conflicts in his role as Special Counsel.
That did not stop the President, who continued agitating about Mueller’s supposed conflicts. The Washington Post first reported on June 14, 2017 that the Special Counsel was investigating the President for obstruction of justice. The story infuriated Trump, who three days later instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. Fortunately for Mueller, McGahn ultimately decided to ignore the President’s order. The President did not follow up on his directive, and Mueller retained his position.
The Mueller Report’s obstruction of justice analysis related to the President’s attempts to fire the Special Counsel, which can be found in Section E, is profoundly troubling. The Special Counsel found “substantial evidence” to support the existence of all three components needed for obstruction of justice – an obstructive act, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding and corrupt intent.
The Special Counsel had decided not to issue any official determination on the obstruction question. But it’s difficult to read the report’s analysis and not conclude that the President attempted to obstruct the Russia investigation by trying to fire Robert Mueller.
Interfering With Mueller’s Investigation
The report’s obstruction analysis in section E, which is dedicated to “The President’s Efforts to Curtail The Special Counsel Investigation,” is no more favorable to the President.
Two days after the President ordered McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump met with his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski was a controversial figure – during his time as Trump’s campaign manager, he had briefly been charged with simple battery after video showed him grabbing a female reporter at a campaign rally. After leaving the campaign, Lewandowski was hired by CNN to provide on-air commentary, a decision that rankled many at the cable network.
At the meeting, Trump ordered Lewandowski – a civilian with no role in the government – to deliver a message to Jeff Sessions. The message demanded Sessions give a speech clearing Trump of all Russia-related charges and saying the Attorney General would meet with the Special Counsel and direct him to restrict his investigation to preventing meddling in future elections.
Lewandowski tried to work through one of Sessions’ aides, who ended up refusing to deliver the President’s message.
Shortly after the meeting with Lewandowski, Trump asked his Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, to pressure Sessions into resigning. Like McGahn, Priebus felt the request was inappropriate, believing it was driven by the President’s anger at Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
Once again, the authors of the Mueller Report are clear that the three legs of the obstruction stool existed in the President’s attempts to restrict the scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation. The Report says, “Taken together, the President’s directives indicate that Sessions was being instructed to tell the Special Counsel to end the existing investigation into the President and his campaign…,” which suggests an obstructive act is likely.
The existence of a nexus between the act and an official proceeding was clear, as the existence of a grand jury investigation was publicly known at that point. And the report’s analysis says there is “substantial evidence” the President’s actions were “intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President’s and his campaign’s conduct,” which qualifies as corrupt intent.