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Mueller report does not explicitly exonerate Trump, citing possible obstruction acts



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Robert Mueller testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in February 2011 in Washington, D.C. The report made by Mueller in his role as special counsel did not conclude that the president committed a crime. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not explicitly exonerate President Trump of allegations that he tried to obstruct the Russia investigation, ensuring the debate will continue into the president's conduct.


"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 in his report, which the Justice Department released Thursday morning. "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.


The report did not conclude that the president committed a crime.


Instead, the report detailed "multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations."


"The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels."


The report describes Trump's initial reaction to learning Mueller had been appointed on May 17, 2017, to investigate the potential links between his campaign and the Russians.


The president was meeting that day with Sessions, the attorney general's chief of staff and McGahn interviewing potential replaces for the FBI director. Sessions stepped out of the room to take a call from Rosenstein and returned to inform Trump that his deputy had tapped Mueller to launch the Russia probe.


Trump reacted with fury. "Oh, my God," Trump said, according to notes taken by Sessions' chief of staff. "This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency," he said, adding an expletive: "I'm ... ."


"How could you let this happen, Jeff?" Trump demanded of Sessions, telling the attorney general that he had let him down and that he was supposed to have protected him.


"Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency," Trump continued. "It takes years and years and I won't be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me."


Trump's worries began shortly after his election. He expressed concerns to his advisors that reports of "Russia's election interference may lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election," the report said.


Trump sought to influence the FBI's investigation of his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, by asking then-FBI Director James B. Comey to consider "letting Flynn go," the report said, siding with Comey's account of a meeting that Trump has previously has denied.


On a weekend in June 2017, Trump called his then-White House counsel, Don McGahn, at home and directed him to tell Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein that Mueller must be removed because he had conflicts of interest.


McGahn did not follow through on the order. He worried it would spark a potential "Saturday Night Massacre," reminiscent of the resignations of top Justice Department officials who refused to carry out President Nixon's orders to fire a special counsel investigating Watergate. McGahn decided he would resign rather than follow through with such an order, the report said.


In 2018, when news reports recounted the episode, Trump pressured McGahn to deny the allegations. McGahn refused.
The president also asked a former campaign manager, Cory Lewandowski, to carry a message to Sessions that urged the attorney general to publicly announce that the Russia investigation was "very unfair" to Trump.


The president also met privately with Sessions in the Oval Office in October 2017 and suggested, according to notes taken by a senior advisor, that Sessions would be a "hero" if he withdrew his recusal from overseeing the investigation.


"I'm not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly," Trump told Sessions.


One factor in deciding whether the president obstructed justice, however, was that Mueller and his team did not establish that "the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference," the report noted.


Mueller also pointed to several unique circumstances surrounding the investigation of Trump: He was president and in charge of the executive branch, and he conducted many of his acts in public.


"The evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the President's conduct," the report said.
"These include concerns that continued investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election and potential uncertainty about whether certain events — such as advance notice of WikiLeaks' release of hacked information or about the June 9, 2016, meeting between senior campaign officials and Russians — could be seen as criminal activity by the President, his campaign, or his family."


Before the report was released, Atty. Gen. William Barr repeatedly offered a more positive take on Trump's actions, saying there was "no collusion" between any Americans and the Russian government during the 2016 campaign.


Barr confirmed that Russia did seek to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. His confirmation contrasts with Trump's repeated statements that have questioned whether Russia was involved.


But Barr's emphasis on "no collusion" will likely fuel criticism from Democrats that he has tried to shield the president. Barr also said he shared a redacted version of the report with the White House and Trump's personal legal team.


"The bottom line," Barr said at his Thursday morning news conference, is that "after nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 president election, but it did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts."


The comments came less than two hours before the Justice Department was expected to publicly release a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller's confidential report.


In addition to laying out the evidence on whether any Americans participated in the Russian election plot, the report reviews 10 episodes in which Trump acted in ways that might be considered efforts to interfere with Mueller's investigation, Barr said.


Mueller did not reach a final "prosecutorial judgment" on whether any of those episodes amounted to illegal obstruction of justice, Barr said. He repeated his own conclusion that they did not, saying that Trump had "noncorrupt motives" for opposing the investigation.


Prosecution of a charge of obstruction of justice generally requires proof that the defendant acted out of a corrupt intent. In Trump's case, "there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency," Barr said.


"As he said from the beginning," the attorney general added, "there was, in fact, no collusion."


House Democrats have feared Barr is trying to put his own spin on the investigation before the report is public.


"The attorney general appears to be waging a media campaign on behalf of President Trump," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a news conference Wednesday evening.


As Barr spoke Thursday, Nadler released a formal letter asking Mueller to testify.


"It is clear Congress and the American people must hear from special counsel Robert Mueller in person to better understand his findings," Nadler wrote on Twitter.


Barr said he has "no objection" to Mueller testifying.


The nearly 400-page document — titled "Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election" — is the culmination of 22 months of work by Mueller and his team.


Its long-awaited release, even in redacted form, could be one of the pivotal moments of Trump's presidency and is likely to reverberate into the 2020 campaign.


The case has already spawned a series of legal and political threats that will continue to shadow Trump. Other federal investigations remain underway in several jurisdictions — most notably New York — and House Democrats have launched inquiries into Trump's finances, business dealings, relationships with foreign banks and other concerns.


Republicans are pushing the Justice Department to investigate alleged abuses in the early stages of the Russia investigation. Trump's legal team is also preparing to release its own counter-report on the Russia inquiry.


In the weeks since March 22, when Mueller filed the report, lawyers from the Justice Department and the special counsel's office have trimmed details involving secret grand jury evidence, classified intelligence, ongoing investigations and "peripheral third parties." Barr said the president did not assert executive privilege to keep any information under wraps.


Even in its censored form, the report will provide a much wider window into the investigation than the four-page letter Barr gave to Congress on March 24.


Barr's letter said Mueller did not establish the existence of a criminal conspiracy between Trump's campaign and the Russian government as Moscow attempted to sway the 2016 election.


Barr also wrote that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether the president had obstructed justice. However, Barr and Rosenstein decided the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that Trump had committed a crime.


The Russia investigation started as a counterintelligence probe in mid-2016, and it eventually examined Moscow's broader efforts to use social media, hack emails and influence American voters to depress support for Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic opponent for president.


It also looked into whether any of Trump's campaign aides directly coordinated with the Russian operation. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in secret, repeatedly authorized surveillance against a former campaign aide, starting before the election.


When Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director in May 2017, Mueller was appointed as special counsel to lead the investigation and protect it from political influence.


The probe led to criminal charges against 34 people, including some of Trump's closest associates.


His first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, admitted lying to federal agents about his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to 7 and a half years in prison for tax evasion, bank fraud and conspiracy charges related to his work as a political consultant in Ukraine.

The president's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about negotiations for a Trump Tower in Moscow. He was also ensnared in a parallel investigation into election-year payments of hush money to two women who said they had slept with Trump.


The majority of people charged by Mueller were Russian nationals who are unlikely to ever see the inside of a U.S. court.
They include a dozen military intelligence officers who allegedly hacked Democratic Party computers and released tens of thousands of emails through WikiLeaks during key moments in the campaign.


Also indicted was Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and allegedly funds the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. A dozen employees of the organization were accused of spreading divisive and false content on social media.

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