WASHINGTON — President Trump was never able to control the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia, but it was not for lack of trying.
He directed the White House counsel to have Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of the investigation, fired. He urged a devoted political aide to convince then-attorney general Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the inquiry. He pressured Sessions to reverse his decision to recuse himself from the investigation several times.
Luckily for Trump, his aides were often too uncomfortable to carry out his most brazen directives to temper an investigation he viewed as a mortal threat to his presidency, according to the 448-page Mueller report released Thursday.
“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,” Mueller wrote.
But Mueller’s report leaves the door wide open for Democrats to dig deeper into the president’s actions. Even though Trump triumphantly tweeted “Game Over” when the redacted findings became public, they could turbocharge investigations on Capitol Hill and redouble the calls on the left for his impeachment.
Congressional Democrats said they would issue a subpoena for the full, unredacted report and planned to call Mueller to testify, even as other federal and state inquiries target Trump and his associates.
In the report, Mueller laid out clear evidence of a Russian effort to influence the 2016 election to help Trump, but did not establish that the president or his campaign committed the crime of helping the Russians carry it out. Mueller also looked into whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to stop the investigation into Russia and his campaign. But Mueller decided not to make a prosecutorial judgment on the matter.
Mueller produced a detailed accounting of 11 separate episodes in which Trump could be seen as seeking to interfere with the investigation. And he explicitly said Congress can apply obstruction of justice laws to the president’s conduct, which some Democrats are interpreting as a clarion call to take action where the special counsel did not.
“This is a damning report. I think anybody who reads it and who tries to be the least bit objective has to come away feeling that there’s something terribly wrong with this White House,” said Representative Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Rules Committee. “The game is not over.”
In the report, Mueller described a two-pronged strategy by the president to attempt to control the investigation. In public, Trump attacked the investigation and its witnesses, while in private, he set up one-on-one meetings to attempt to get aides to fire Mueller or change the scope of his investigation.
The report paints a picture of a president intent on stymieing — or at the very least controlling — an investigation that he feared heralded the “end” of his presidency, and a White House full of aides attempting to dodge and circumvent his most inappropriate and potentially illegal requests.
Take the time in June 2017, when Trump told Donald F. McGahn, the White House counsel, to instruct the Department of Justice to fire Mueller. According to the report, McGahn felt trapped, and worried that doing so would effectively begin a “Saturday Night Massacre” similar to the cascade of departures in Richard Nixon’s administration when investigators into his conduct in the Watergate scandal closed in. Rather than follow Trump’s orders, McGahn decided to quit.
He drove to the White House, packed up his office, and told Reince Priebus, then the chief of staff, that Trump wanted him to “do crazy [expletive].” Ultimately, McGahn was persuaded not to resign — but he returned to work the following Monday without having tried to dismiss Mueller.
Some of Trump’s most devoted supporters failed to follow his directions. At one point, Trump asked Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign manager who remained close to Trump, to take down a message. Lewandowski wrote as quickly as possible as Trump dictated instructions to Sessions to narrow the scope of Mueller’s investigation.
But Lewandowski never delivered the message to Sessions as he was asked to. Instead, he passed it to a White House aide, Rick Dearborn, who said the message “raised an eyebrow” and also failed to deliver it.
Two other administration officials, National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, were so concerned by Trump’s unorthodox request to counter news stories about the Russia investigation that they wrote a comprehensive memo about their phone call with the president and put that memo in a safe. They, too, ignored the request. Ledgett told the special counsel the conversation with Trump was “the most unusual thing he had experienced” in 40 years of government service.
At times, Trump attempted to influence the investigation in plain view and without the help of his aides, on Twitter and in public media interviews, Mueller concluded. Trump “intended to encourage [former campaign manager Paul] Manafort to not cooperate with the government” when he praised him on Twitter, and the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, publicly floated the idea that Manafort might receive a pardon from the president.
Mueller also found evidence that Trump may have “intended to discourage [his attorney Michael] Cohen from cooperating with the government.” Trump told Cohen to “stay strong” after Cohen’s home and office were raided last year in the probe but later referred to him as a “rat” and implied his family members were criminals after he began cooperating with the government.
Yet still, Mueller declined to find Trump culpable in obstructing justice. He referenced the Justice Department’s position that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and he considered it unfair for the president to face a charge of obstruction from Mueller without being able to benefit from a public trial to clear his name. He also acknowledged it was difficult to ascertain Trump’s intent at times, making an obstruction case complicated.
In the end, he left the matter unresolved, leaving room for Congress to make its own determinations.
“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,” Mueller wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
Democrats in Congress appear eager to step in where Mueller left off, particularly to comb over the obstruction case. The prospect of impeachment, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has attempted to take off the table, could resurface.
“I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tweeted. “But the report puts this squarely on our doorstep.”
Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that it was too early to say whether the report could lead to impeachment proceedings. But he noted Mueller said Congress “has the authority to impose” obstruction of justice statutes on the conduct of the president in his report.
“I think it was probably written with the intent of providing Congress a road map,” Nadler said.