Special counsel Robert Mueller‘s report examined 10 times when U.S. President Donald Trump might have obstructed justice, and appears to suggest he did so on many of those occasions, according to a former federal prosecutor.
Mueller’s team ultimately declined to prosecute Trump on obstruction of justice because they didn’t think they had the authority to do so. However, they also explicitly say he is not exonerated on those potential charges. The report actually suggests Trump might have tried to interfere several times over the last two years, only to be thwarted by the aides around him.
“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,” the report says. “However, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”
Mueller appeared to suggest there was obstruction in at least six of the 10 incidents, according to Patrick J. Cotter, a former New York state and federal prosecutor.
“I believe that the Mueller team absolutely concluded that the president committed obstruction of justice at least six, possibly seven times,” Cotter told Global News from his law office in Chicago.
Cotter says the Mueller team lays out all the facts and legal analysis necessary to suggest Trump should be charged.
“They just leave out the final line, which is, ‘Therefore we recommend he be charged.'”
He also believes Mueller decided in some instances that there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest Trump was trying to obstruct justice.
William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, said Friday that he decided there was no obstruction of justice because the White House cooperated with the investigation, and because Trump’s motives were “non-corrupt.”
“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” Barr said ahead of the document’s release.
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Trump never sat for an in-person interview with Mueller’s team. Instead, he agreed to provide written answers to a series of questions related only to Russia.
Trump’s written responses were overall unsatisfactory, according to Julie Myers Wood, another former federal prosecutor and member of the special counsel team that investigated Bill Clinton in the ’90s.
“I think it was a mistake not to push for an in-person interview given the importance of this matter,” she told Global News. “Part of the investigation feels somewhat incomplete just relying on the written answers.”
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However, Cotter says the special counsel likely wouldn’t have learned anything new from asking Trump about obstruction.
“Most criminal indictments, including for obstruction of justice, are reached without ever getting any statement from the defendant,” he said.
Here are the 10 episodes Mueller looked at and how he appeared to evaluate each one, according to Cotter’s analysis.
1. Pressuring Comey to let Flynn go (unlikely)
This episode involves the dinner at which Trump allegedly urged then-FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, the president’s national security adviser.
“I hope you can see your way to letting this go,” Trump said, according to Comey’s memo from that time.
Cotter says Mueller appeared to find cause for concern, but he didn’t find enough evidence to say Trump might have obstructed justice.
“I think they found that it just didn’t rise to the levels of obstruction,” he said.
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2. Trying to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Russia investigation (likely)
Among the evidence is the president telling then-White House counsel Don McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation and Trump’s subsequent anger at Sessions. Trump also contacted Comey and other intelligence agency leaders to ask them to push back publicly on the suggestion that Trump had any connection to the Russian election-interference effort.
The Mueller report said there was evidence that Trump “knew that he should not have made those calls to McGhahn.”
Cotter says there was a case here to suggest Trump obstructed justice, even though the individuals he spoke to didn’t obey.
“You can be guilty of obstruction of justice even if you fail spectacularly,” he said.
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3. Firing James Comey (likely)
Mueller’s team found “substantial evidence” that Trump fired Comey in May 2017 because the FBI director refused to publicly announce that Trump was not personally under investigation. On the day after Trump fired Comey, the president told Russian officials that he had “faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Cotter says this is one of the cases in which the Mueller report suggests there is a clear argument that Trump obstructed justice.
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4. Trying to fire Mueller (likely)
Trump reacted to news of Mueller’s appointment by telling advisers that it was “the end of his presidency.” The president told aides that Mueller had conflicts of interest and should be pressured to step aside. His aides told him there were no merits to those supposed conflicts. Following media reports that Mueller’s team was investigating whether the president had obstructed justice, Trump called McGahn at home and directed him to have Mueller removed. McGahn refused.
Cotter says this is another case where the president appeared to try (and fail) to obstruct justice, based on the Mueller report’s findings.
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5. Trying to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation (unclear)
Trump instructed former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to have Sessions publicly defend him, despite the attorney general’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation. Trump wanted Sessions to publicly announce that, even though he had already recused himself, the investigation was “very unfair” to the president, the president had done nothing wrong, and Sessions planned to meet with Mueller to limit him to “investigating election meddling for future elections.”
The Mueller report suggests that Trump knew redirecting the Mueller investigation would take the heat off his campaign. However, it does not clearly state whether this instance alone would hold up as a case of obstruction of justice.
6. Trying to hide emails about Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower (unlikely)
In summer of 2017, Trump learned that the news media planned to report on the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between senior campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. The president directed aides not to publicly disclose the emails setting up the meeting.
Before the emails became public, the president also edited a press statement for Donald Trump Jr. by deleting a line that acknowledged that the meeting was “with an individual who (Trump Jr.) was told might have information helpful to the campaign.”
Cotter says Mueller appeared to clear Trump of potential obstruction in this case.
“They explicitly found that he did not obstruct justice there because those (emails) were turned over to the special counsel and Congress,” Cotter said.
7. Trying to get Sessions to step in after recusing himself from the Mueller probe (likely)
At several points between July 2017 and December 2017, Trump tried to get Sessions to declare that he was no longer recused from the Russia investigation and would assert control over it. The report says there’s evidence that one purpose of asking Sessions to step in was so that the attorney general would “shield the president from the ongoing Russia investigation,” Mueller’s team wrote.
Cotter says this is a case where Mueller strongly pointed to potential obstruction of justice.
8. Telling Don McGhan to publicly deny that Trump tried to fire Mueller (likely)
In an Oval Office meeting in February 2018, Trump told McGahn to “correct” a New York Times story that reported Trump had earlier instructed McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump also asked why McGahn had told Mueller’s investigators about the directive to remove Mueller. McGahn told Trump he had to tell the investigators the truth.
“To this lawyer’s eye, there’s no question that they said ‘Yes, obstruction,'” Cotter said.
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9. Sympathetic comments toward Flynn, Manafort and other possible witnesses (likely)
Mueller looked at whether Trump’s sympathetic messages to Flynn, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and others were intended to discourage them from cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. When Flynn began cooperating with prosecutors, Trump passed word through his lawyer that he still had warm feelings for Flynn and asked for a “heads up” if Flynn knew of information implicating Trump. Trump praised Manafort during and after his criminal convictions and refused to rule out a pardon for his former campaign chairman.
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This effort to silence potential witnesses against him could be taken as obstruction, according to Cotter’s analysis of the Mueller report.
10. Attacking Michael Cohen (unclear)
Mueller noted that Trump suddenly turned on his former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, once Cohen started cooperating with prosecutors. Cohen claimed that Trump’s lawyers told him to lie to Congress.
The evidence could “support an inference that the president used inducements in the form of positive messages in an effort to get Cohen not to cooperate, and then turned to attacks and intimidation to deter” cooperation and undermine Cohen’s credibility, Mueller wrote.
Cotter thinks this was one of the shakiest episodes in Mueller’s analysis, because while Cohen is not a reliable witness and there are no other voices to support him.
“Reading between the lines, they’re a little nervous about basing a case wholly on the uncorroborated testimony of Michael Cohen, who is himself an admitted liar,” Cotter said.
—With files from the Associated Press
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