Friday, April 19, 2019

The Mueller report is 448 pages long. You need to know these 7 key things.

19 April, 2019

The special counsel, Mr Robert Mueller, produced a report of more than 400 pages that painted a deeply unflattering picture of US President Donald Trump but stopped short of accusing him of criminal wrongdoing. Here are seven takeaways.

1. Trump did try to sabotage the investigation. His staff defied him.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Mr Trump that a special counsel had been appointed in May 2017, Mr Trump grew angry: “I’m f------,” he said, believing his presidency was ruined. He told Mr Sessions, “This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Mr Trump began trying to get rid of Mr Mueller, only to be thwarted by his staff. In instance after instance, his staff acted as a bulwark against Mr Trump’s most destructive impulses. In June 2017, the president instructed Mr Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, to remove Mr Mueller, but Mr McGahn resisted. Rather than carry out the president’s order, he decided he would rather resign.

Two days later, Mr Trump asked another trusted adviser, Mr Corey Lewandowski, to tell Mr Sessions to end the investigation. Mr Lewandowski did not want to, so he punted to a colleague, Mr Rick Dearborn. He, too, “was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through.”

2. So many lies. So many changed stories.

One of the unanswered questions of the past two years — which helped fuel the FBI investigation, congressional inquiries and journalistic scrutiny — is why so many people lied, changed their stories and issued misleading statements to both the public and federal authorities.

The report recaps one false statement after another. Just a few examples:

Mr Trump was livid when journalists revealed that he had unsuccessfully ordered Mr Mueller’s firing. The president tried to get Mr McGahn to say publicly that was false, but Mr McGahn refused, saying that the news reports were accurate. Mr Mueller’s report notably declared that Mr McGahn was “credible.”

Mr Trump also pressed the deputy attorney general, Mr Rod Rosenstein, to give a news conference about the firing of the FBI director, Mr James Comey. The White House press office wanted Mr Rosenstein to say it was his idea. Mr Rosenstein told the president that a news conference was a bad idea “because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth.”

The White House press secretary, Ms Sarah Huckabee Sanders, admitted issuing a statement to the news media “in the heat of the moment that was not founded on anything.”

3. Fake news? Not so much.

The president has spent the past two years denouncing the news media. He has repeatedly accused reporters of making up sources to destroy his presidency. The report, though, shows not only that some of the most unflattering stories about Mr Trump were accurate but also that White House officials knew that was the case even as they heaped criticism on journalists.

In May 2017, for instance, The New York Times disclosed that Mr Trump had asked Mr Comey to end the FBI’s investigation into the president’s national security adviser, Mr Michael Flynn. Mr Trump tweeted, “I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!”

“Despite those denials,” Mr Mueller wrote, “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”

In another instance, Mr Trump appeared to use criticism of the news media as a legal strategy. He attacked a Times article suggesting that his former lawyer, Mr Michael Cohen, might co-operate with the Justice Department and provide information about Mr Trump.

That tweet coincided with outreach to Mr Cohen by Mr Trump’s associates, and Mr Cohen understood that this was all part of an effort to get him to “stay on message and be part of the team.”

4. No obstruction? Not so fast.

Mr Trump was quick to declare the report a total vindication.

But federal authorities went out of their way not to exonerate Mr Trump. They wrote that his conduct in office “presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”

5. Evading an FBI interview proved a successful strategy.

Mr Trump repeatedly said he was eager to sit for an interview with Mr Mueller’s team, despite his lawyers’ insistence that doing so would be a terrible idea.

The report makes clear why his lawyers were so worried about it. Mr Mueller had a huge cache of unanswered questions, misleading and conflicting statements, and unexplained actions with which to confront the president. Sitting for an interview, the report makes clear, would have exposed Mr Trump to far more problems.

Mr Mueller said he chose not to subpoena the president because a court fight would delay the investigation. But that decision meant that the authorities were never able to ask the central question in the obstruction case: What was Mr Trump thinking when he tried repeatedly to undermine the federal investigation?

6. No evidence of conspiracy, but lots of reason to investigate.

Mr Mueller makes explicit what Mr Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on: Russia secretly manipulated the 2016 presidential election.

The investigation ultimately found no evidence that anyone from Mr Trump’s campaign participated in that effort, but the report reveals in stark detail the many suspicious interactions that had the FBI so worried. Many of those have been reported, but the report amounts to a compendium that helps explain the origins of the FBI investigation, known as “Crossfire Hurricane.”

For instance, it has long been known that Mr George Papadopoulos, a young campaign aide, was told that the Russian government had “dirt” on Mrs Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. But the report goes much further, revealing that Mr Papadopoulos suggested an explicit offer by the Russian government to work with Ms Trump campaign to sabotage Mrs Clinton.

7. Imagine reading this report cold.

Prosecutors describe a president who was preoccupied with ending a federal investigation, a White House that repeatedly told misleading and changing stories, and a presidential campaign that was in repeated contact with Russian officials for reasons that are not always clear.

Even though prosecutors concluded that didn’t amount to provably criminal conduct, the report is astounding in its sweep. Yet it is also a reminder of how much the public has learned over the past two years about Mr Trump’s conduct.

If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating. The consequences of the report remain to be seen, but if people are not surprised or shocked by the revelations, then Mr Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticised.


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