State of Play Changes Dramatically In Wake of Mueller Report Release

April 19, 2019 by Dan McCue
U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) addresses a demonstration near the White House demanding the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on his Russia investigation in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Friday subpoenaed the Justice Department for the full, unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report as well as the underlying evidence, including grand jury evidence.

“I am open to working with the department to reach a reasonable accommodation for access to these materials, however I cannot accept any proposal which leaves most of Congress in the dark,” Nadler said in a statement Friday morning.

Nadler said he expects the Justice Department to comply by May 1. That’s the day before Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to appear before the judiciary committee.

The subpoena comes on the heels of an extraordinary day in Washington, D.C. that began with Barr holding a widely panned press conference hours before he released a redacted version of the report to Congress and the public.

Afterwards, several Democratic members of Congress, including Nadler, accused Barr of “going overboard” and “acting as the president’s personal attorney.”

“The Attorney General is not the president’s personal lawyer, although he may feel he is,” Representative Adam Schiff, D- Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “He is supposed to be the highest law enforcement officer in the land, and he is supposed to represent the interests of the American people.”

Despite Barr’s efforts to spin the narrative surrounding the Mueller report’s release, and the close to 1,000 redactions it contained, including seven entire blacked out pages, the special counsel’s account of investigation makes for riveting reading.

The good news for the president is that the special counsel did not find the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives who were trying to interfere with the 2016 election.

But the balance of the 448-page report, particularly as relates to issues of potential obstruction, paints a portrait of a president who was his own worst enemy during the investigation, recklessly trying time and time again to fire Mueller, frustrate the special counsel’s team and put his own stamp on the testimony and evidence they were gathering.

And it becomes clear, the deeper one delves into the report, that Trump’s presidency may well have been saved by aides and allies who repeatedly ignored his rashest instructions.

In subpoenaing for the full, unredacted report, Nadler argues Congress needs to understand the full picture as it moves forward with its own investigations and determinations on whether Trump committed criminal obstruction of justice.

“I think [the Mueller report] was probably written with the intent of providing Congress a roadmap as other reports have in the past,” Nadler told reporters during a Thursday news conference.

“But with a lot of redactions, Attorney General Barr seems to be trying to frustrate that intent,” he said.

Although the White House immediately declared the released report vindicated the president, Trump himself appeared to be in a blistering mood Friday as he tweeted from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where he is spending the Easter holiday.

“Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated and totally untrue,” the president wrote Friday morning. “Watch out for people that take so-called “notes,” when the notes never existed until needed.

“Because I never agreed to testify, it was not necessary for me to respond to statements made in the ‘Report’ about me, some of which are total bullshit and only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad). This was an Illegally Started Hoax that never should have happened,” he continued.

‘This Is The End Of My Presidency’

Mueller began his investigation on May 17, 2017, 10 months after the FBI opened an inquiry into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The special counsel’s office took over the investigation in the wake of Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, and after the Justice Department began a separate investigation into whether the president had tried to obstruct justice by taking steps to derail the Russia inquiry.

The sequence of events that day are spelled out in one of the most widely quoted passages of the report.

It says that on the day Mueller was hired, Trump, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and then-White House counsel Don McGahn were in the Oval Office, interviewing prospective replacements for Comey.

With them was Jody Hunt, the attorney general’s chief of staff, who was taking notes.

According to Hunt’s notes, Sessions left the room to take a call from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who informed him of the special counsel’s appointment.

When Sessions returned to the Oval Office and told the president what he’d learned, Trump “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. Im fucked.’

The President became angry and lambasted the attorney general for his decision to recuse from the investigation, stating, How could you let this happen, Jeff?'” Hunt’s notes said.

The president reportedly went on to tell Sessions that he’d “let [him] down.”

Sessions later told Mueller the President said, “You were supposed to protect me,” or words to that effect.

The President returned to the consequences of the Mueller appointment, Hunt’s notes say, telling those in the room “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I wont be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

On Thursday Comey tweeted, “so many answers.”

Congress Must Evaluate Corruption ‘Regardless’ of Its Source

From the start of the Mueller investigation, Trump repeatedly said there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russian government on election interference.

But “collusion,” which is not a legal term used in criminal law, was never what Mueller was looking at. What the special counsel’s office was looking for was evidence of a criminal conspiracy, and in particular, coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians to advance their individual aims.

In the end the special counsel said the evidence fell short of meeting that standard, and the report states that several now well-known contacts between team Trump and various Russians were largely harmless, concerned with business deals, seeking political dirt on Hillary Clinton, and securing favorable turns in policy.

It turns out a particular target of Russian attention was Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers.

Communication records show formal and informal associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin pursued inroads with Kushner through a network of shared contacts.

While Kushner acknowledged to investigators that he was seeking better relations with Moscow after Trump’s November 2016 election, most Russian intermediaries failed in attempts to directly communicate with him, according to the report.

If the search for a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians turned out to be a dry well, investigators were then left with having to determine whether the president committed any obstruction-of-justice offenses over the course of the probe.

As described in the report, this immediately became a much richer vein of inquiry. In fact, the special counsel’s office identified at least 10 instances where Trump’s activities could have been interpreted as obstruction of justice.

But here Mueller felt constrained.

On page 213 of the report, the opening of the section dealing with these potential offenses, the special counsel announces he would not make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” on the issue because the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had determined that indicting or prosecuting a sitting president would undermine the president’s capacity to carry out the duties of his office.

This would be a violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers, a point the special counsel concedes, pointing to Supreme Court precedent.

So Mueller punted on a definitive statement of whether Trump was guilty of obstructing justice.

However, the report said, “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 goes on to suggest that while he wasn’t going to prosecute the president, it is entirely within the Congress’ power to make its own determination of the question of the obstruction-of-justice question.

According to the special counsel, the Constitution doesn’t “immunize” a president against committing obstruction of justice through Article II powers, and it falls to Congress to evaluate and protect against acts of corruption and obstruction, “regardless of their source.”

The report also stated “Congress can validly regulate the President’s exercise of official duties to prohibit actions motivated by a corrupt intent to obstruct justice.”

And it noted that Congress has the authority to prohibit actions such as influencing witness testimony or fabricating evidence “because those prohibitions raise no separation-of-powers questions.”

“Congress has the authority to prohibit the corrupt use of ‘anything of value’ to influence the testimony of another person in a judicial, congressional, or agency proceeding … which would include the offer or promise of a pardon to induce a person to testify falsely or not to testify at all,” the report said.

“The proper supervision of criminal law does not demand freedom for the President to act with the intention of shielding himself from criminal punishment, avoiding financial liability or preventing personal embarrassment,” Mueller’s team wrote.

At another point in the report, the special counsel said the president “has no more right than other citizens to impede official proceedings by corruptly influencing witness testimony.”

White House Consumed By Investigation

Beyond the legalese, the special counsel’s office tells a ripping tale of a White House and president consumed by concern over the special counsel’s activities and gripped by paranoia over investigative events that were largely playing out in secret.

Several of the report’s most damning passages — pages that are sure to be a boon to future historians — depict Trump attempting to “use his official power outside of usual channels.”

“The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings” the report said. “These actions ranged from efforts to remove the special counsel and to reverse the effect of the attorney general’s recusal; to the attempted use of official power to limit the scope of the investigation; to direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony. Viewing the acts collectively can help to illuminate their significance.”

Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee, told the Associated Press that his reading of the report shows that Trump “almost certainly obstructed justice” and it was only his staff that intervened to prevent certain actions.

But in each of these cases, Mueller said, Trump was stymied by his inner circle.

“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,” the report said.

For instance, there was the day, June 17, 2017, when Trump directed McGahn to tell Rosenstein to “say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed.”

McGahn, who talked to investigators for hours and appears more than 500 times in the report, recalled Trump telling him that “Mueller has to go” and “you gotta do this. You gotta call Rod,” referring to Rosenstein.

He also described Trump talking about “knocking out Mueller” and repeatedly saying that Mueller had a conflict of interest because of unpaid golf fees at a Trump course and the fact that Mueller had interviewed for the FBI director job.

McGahn said he was at home on a Saturday when he received a call from Trump, who was at Camp David, directing him to tell Rosenstein to remove Mueller.

McGahn said upon hanging up, he decided to quit. He even went as far as calling his lawyer, driving to the White House and packing up his office.

“McGahn recalled feeling trapped because he did not plan to follow the President’s directive but did not know what he would say the next time the President called,” the report said. “McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to the 1973 Watergate scandal, when President Richard Nixon’s attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned after being ordered to fire special counsel Archibald Cox.

McGahn said he then went to the office of then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and told him Trump had asked him to “do crazy shit” and that he was leaving.

Priebus and chief Trump strategist Steve Bannon urged McGahn to stay on. He did.

The following year, as the media reported on that episode, Trump sought to have McGahn deny what had happened. The counsel again declined to do so.

“McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle,” the report said.

In other passages, the reader finds Comey refusing to end the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, an investigation that ended with Flynn’s conviction for lying to the FBI, and aides Corey Lewandowski and Rick Dearborn deciding not to deliver the president’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only.

Big Decisions Lie Ahead

It was clear on Friday that Nadler knows the gravity of the moment. By deciding to issue a subpoena for Mueller’s full report, the House Judiciary Committee dramatically escalated its investigation into the president.

“It now falls to Congress to determine the full scope of that alleged misconduct and to decide what steps we must take going forward,” Nadler said.

But the committee chairman immediately got push-back from the panel’s top Republican.

Representative Doug Collins, R-Ga., said the the subpoena was “wildly overbroad” and that Trump already declined to assert executive privilege in a move of “unprecedented openness.”

“This is politically convenient,” Collins said, accusing Nadler of wanting “to grandstand and rail against the attorney general for not cooperating on an impossible timeline.”

For his part, Representative Adam Schiff, said whether the acts described in the report “are criminal or not, [they] are deeply alarming in the president of the United States. And it’s clear that special counsel Mueller wanted the Congress to consider the repercussions and the consequences.”

“If the special counsel, as he made clear, had found evidence exonerating the president, he would have said so,” Schiff continued.” He did not. He left that issue to the Congress of the United States.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, traveling on a congressional trip to Ireland, said in a joint statement with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that Mueller’s report revealed more than was known about the obstruction question.

“As we continue to review the report, one thing is clear: Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding,” they said.

Pelosi and Schumer were referencing Barr’s remark during his Thursday press conference that he and Rosenstein disagreed with some of the special counsel’s “legal theories” when it came to what constitutes “an obstruction offense.”

Barr did not explain where he departed with Mueller in interpreting the law. Instead the attorney general simply said that after reviewing the evidence in the report, he found it sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.

Later, in a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi suggested the American public has not heard the last of that and a number of other issues stemming from the investigation, promising, “Congress will not be silent.”

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