The second volume of the Mueller Report is filled with behavior from the President and his aides that would likely qualify as obstruction of justice if the Special Counsel had decided it was appropriate for him to make that determination. The report’s obstruction analysis is damning and worth reading in full.
However, an honest appraisal of the Report’s obstruction analysis must acknowledge there are some instances where the Special Counsel finds that the President’s behavior did not qualify as obstruction of justice under the relevant federal statutes.
This is the case with the infamous meeting Donald Trump Jr. held with an official of the Russian government in 2016 around the time his father secured the Republican nomination. The Trump Tower meeting, which the younger Trump apparently took in the hope he could find dirt on Hillary Clinton, is one of the most striking and troubling events in the 2016 election.
And yet, the Special Counsel makes clear that the Trump Administration’s attempt to prevent disclosure of the meeting in 2017 doesn’t represent obstruction of justice. In the newest edition of our deep dive into the Mueller Report’s obstruction of justice analysis, American Legal News is examining the Trump Tower meeting and explaining why the attempted media cover-up of such a troubling event is not obstruction of justice.
The Meeting Itself
The infamous Trump Tower meeting is actually discussed at length in both volumes of the Mueller Report. The first volume, which is dedicated to investigating potentially conspiratorial links between Russia and the Trump Campaign, documents the details of the meeting.
In June, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an e-mail relaying an offer from the “Crown Prosecutor of Russia” (there actually is no such official with that title in Russia). The e-mail, sent by Rob Goldstone, a former British tabloid journalist, said that Russia was offering to provide documents and other pieces of evidence proving Hillary Clinton’s ties with Russia. Goldstone said the offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Donald Trump’s eldest son responded, “If it’s what you say I love it.”
Trump Jr. eventually took the meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan. He was joined by campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, a senior campaign advisor and Donald Trump’s son-in-law. The high-ranking Trump campaign officials met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, an attorney who had previously worked for the Russian government and maintained a relationship with the government even during her purportedly private career.
According to the Mueller Report, the meeting itself was something of a bust. Veselnitskaya claimed that ill-gotten Russian money had been donated to Clinton and other Democrats, but didn’t provide any proof. Veselnitskaya then pivoted to a critique of American foreign policy, which the Trump team waved off as an issue better left for after the election.
A Cover-up, But No Obstruction
When the Mueller Report turns again to the Trump Tower meeting in Section G of the report’s second volume, it tells a story of a clear attempt to obscure the purpose of the meeting from the press and the American people.
The Trump Administration first learned of the existence of e-mails related to the Trump Tower meeting in June of 2017. At that time, former White House official Hope Hicks told the Special Counsel, the President made clear he didn’t want the e-mails leaking to the press.
In July, the administration learned that The New York Times was set to publish a story about the Trump Tower meeting. After some wrangling over language, the administration released a statement saying the meeting was “primarily” about American adoption of Russian children, with no mention of the offer of damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
However, Donald Trump Jr. later posted the emails described above – The Times had told him they were set to publish the e-mails themselves. Media reports later alleged that the President himself had dictated the misleading statement about the purpose of the Trump Tower meeting. After months of denials, the President’s personal lawyer admitted to the Special Counsel that the President had, in fact, written the statement.
The Mueller Report’s obstruction of justice analysis finds that the President’s behavior as it relates to the Trump Tower meeting does not meet any of the three criteria required under the relevant federal statutes. At its heart, the report’s analysis comes down to one simple fact: lying to the press isn’t illegal.
Yes, the report acknowledges, the President did attempt to prevent his communications officials from disclosing information to the press, and yes, the President did dictate a profoundly misleading statement about the purpose of the meeting. But the report’s authors write there is “no evidence” the White House attempted to hide documents or other evidence from Congress or the Special Counsel’s office. As the report says, “The series of discussions in which the President sought to limit access to the e-mails and prevent their public release occurred in the context of developing a press strategy.”
The analysis of the Trump Tower meeting in the Mueller Report illustrates an important distinction between unethical behavior and illegal behavior. Robert Mueller is an attorney, not an ethicist. It was not his job to evaluate the morality of the Trump Tower meeting or of the President’s attempt to hide the meeting’s true purpose. That evaluation is ultimately up to voters, who have to decide for themselves what to make of a presidential campaign meeting with Russian officials in an attempt to acquire damaging information about an opponent.