WASHINGTON (CN) – The day that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was anointed to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, the chief of staff for then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions found President Donald Trump slumped in his chair and full of rage.
“Oh my God,” Trump declared, according to contemporaneous notes of the meeting. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.”
Trump had another insight, as quoted by Joseph Hunt, who now leads the Justice Department’s Civil Division: “I’m fucked.”
Moments like these, alternately morose and profane, were made public Thursday in a 448-page opus previously labeled by the White House as an exoneration of Trump.
“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, giving Congress authorization to probe Trump for obstructing justice.
Before the public got its first look at this report, however, Trump’s hand-picked attorney general, William Barr, offered an echo of Trump’s “no collusion” mantra in a press conference this morning.
Mueller directly contradicts that premise early in the report.
“In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion,’” page 2 of the report states.
In a key sentence selectively quoted by Barr, Mueller found that Trump and the Kremlin were on the same page, even if there was no proof of a criminal conspiracy.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump president and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mueller’s report states.
Using the word “impeachment” 10 times to explain Congress’ powers, Mueller noted in a footnote that Trump could face criminal liability if removed from office.
“A possible remedy through impeachment for abuses of power would not substitute for potential criminal liability after a President leaves office,” the footnote states. “Impeachment would remove a president from office, but would not address the underlying culpability of the conduct or serve the usual purposes of the criminal law.”
Contradicting Barr’s remarks this morning, Mueller explicitly wrote that he did not make a determination that Trump committed obstruction of justice because the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel prohibits such an action by a sitting president.
“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, 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. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
The Justice Department’s prohibitions against indicting a sitting president aside, the dramatic report painstakingly recounts Trump’s efforts both in public and behind the scenes to undermine Mueller’s investigation.
Well before Mueller’s investigation, Trump had expressed admiration for controversial attorney Roy Cohn, one of the original political “fixers” who served as a henchman for Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare.
Mueller’s report brims with Trump’s obsession with finding another lawyer like Cohn, whose name appears 11 times in its pages.
In one episode, Trump pined for a Cohn after Sessions recused himself from Mueller’s investigation, leaving the special counsel largely protected from presidential meddling.
Trump told Sessions “he would be a hero if he unrecused,” according to Mueller’s report, which quotes an exchange witnessed by White House staff secretary Rob Porter.
In another, Trump unfavorably contrasted White House counsel Don McGahn against Cohn for memorializing their meetings.
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” Trump is said to have told McGahn. “He did not take notes.”
As narrated by Mueller, the chronology of Trump’s Russian contacts stretches back to the genesis of a Moscow skyscraper project in 2015.
One batch of emails from Trump’s associate Felix Sater to the president’s former fixer Michael Cohen explicitly ties the aborted real estate deal to the election.
“Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote on Nov. 3, 2015. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process. … Michael, Putin gets on stage with Donald for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow, and Donald owns the Republican nomination. And possibly beats Hillary and our boy is in.”
Sater added: “We will manage this process better than anyone. You and I will get Donald and Vladimir on a stage together very shortly. That [sic] the game changer.”
Trump knew he was under investigation for obstruction by the summer of 2017. Mueller said the involvement of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. — the president’s son-in-law and first-born, respectively — also became evident in the wake of emails and disclosures about future meetings between the senior campaign and Russian officials.
Following former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to Congress on March 20, 2017 – when Comey revealed that the FBI was investigating Russian election interference and whether the Trump campaign coordinated with that effort – Mueller said that the president was “beside himself.”
Trump fired Comey on May 9, sparking accusations by Democrats and pundits alike that the president had obstructed justice.
“The evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the president personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns,” the report says.
Trump said he only wanted to be treated fairly, which, according to Mueller, could “reflect his perception that it was unfair he was being investigated while Hillary Clinton was not.”
In private, Trump “expressed concerns that reports of Russian election interference might lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election,” Mueller wrote.
Faced with a perceived threat, Trump stymied any questions from Mueller that came in the form of a written questionnaire.
“We noted, among other things, that the president stated on more than 30 occasions that he does not ‘recall’ or ‘remember’ or have an ‘independent recollection’ of information called for by the questions,” the report’s third appendix states.
Trump claimed to have had “no recollection” that Trump Jr., Kushner and Manafort participated in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Kremlin-linked attorney who offered them damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Rob Goldstone, a music manager and friend of President Trump, initiated the meeting by contacting Trump Jr. with an offer to pass along “information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.”
Trump Jr. was on board. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he responded.
Tying up a lingering question, Mueller did not find enough evidence that the trio violated campaign-finance law by taking the meeting.
Trump also claimed to have had “no independent recollection” of whether he was at Trump Tower at the time.
When asked about his conversations with members of the Agalarov family, associates of Trump’s from the Miss Universe beauty pageant in Moscow, Trump again claimed to have “no independent recollection” of whether those conversations occurred between June 3, 2016, and the end of the campaign.
Trump insisted he did “not recall” being aware of his children or campaign members communicating with Goldstone; Veseltniksaya, who is now under indictment; or anyone he understood to be a Russian official.
“I have no recollection of being told during the campaign that Vladimir Putin or the Russian government ‘supported’ my candidacy or ‘opposed’ the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Trump said in response to another question.
On the topic of WikiLeaks, Trump’s memory failed again. He claimed to have had “no recollection” about whether he spoke to his campaign staff about “possible hacking” of DNC emails released by WikiLeaks and did “not recall” whether he spoke to any representative of WikiLeaks.
Under the banner of “Active Measures,” Mueller’s report details the activities of the Internet Research Agency, a company based in St. Petersburg, Russia, that received funding from Russian oligarch Yevgniy Prigozhin; Concord Management and Consulting LLC; and Concord Catering, two companies Prigozhin controlled.
“Active measures” is the term used by Soviet and later Russian intelligence services for a form of political warfare through various means, particularly disinformation campaigns.
The IRA shifted from disrupting elections in a general sense to more “targeted” operations in early 2016, according to Mueller’s report, as it continued to favor then-candidate Trump and worked overtime to disparage his opponent Clinton.
Through online subterfuge – which included buying political ads on social media, staging offline rallies, and posing as American citizens and organizations online — members of the IRA succeeded in making contact with activists, Trump supporters and Trump campaign officials in the United States.
Despite this, Mueller said: “The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”
But the influence was palpable.
By the end of 2016 election, the agency controlled multiple Facebook groups and Instagram and Twitter accounts.
“IRA-controlled Twitter accounts … had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures who re-tweeted IRA-created content,” says the report, which also cites Facebook’s findings about these abusive accounts.
In November 2017, Facebook executives told Congress that the company had identified at least 470 IRA-controlled accounts that posted some 80,000 times between January 2015 and August 2017, ultimately reaching up to as many as 126 million people.
“The organization grew quickly,” Mueller wrote.
The subsequent paragraph contains six lines of blacked-out text. It is followed by a section that says the growth led to an even “more detailed organizational structure.” Redactions conceal here too, however, how the groundswell of activity began – and flourished.
In March 2016, three months before the DNC announced it had been hacked, the Russian military intelligence agency GRU began hacking Clinton campaign volunteer emails, including its chairman John Podesta. By April, it had stolen hundreds of thousands of documents.
Mueller’s report says WikiLeaks later got hold of the stolen materials that the GRU began disseminating through the fictitious online personas DCLeaks and Gufficer 2.0.
Speaking to interest in the WikiLeaks release by the Trump campaign, the report says someone “forecast to senior campaign officials” in June 2016 that WikiLeaks would release information damaging to Clinton.
The identity of the individual or entity that forecast this is redacted in the report.
WikiLeaks’ first dump followed in July, around the same time Trump said: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
“I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump added.
While Trump later claimed to have been being sarcastic, Mueller noted: “Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office.”
Mueller’s two-year probe racked up 34 indictments after compiling evidence from 500 search warrants, 2,800 subpoenas and 500 witness interviews. The indictments included charges against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump associate Roger Stone.
In his report, Mueller detailed the 14 criminal referrals farmed out to other offices, of which only two are publicly known: Michael Cohen and President Obama’s former White House counsel Gregory Craig, charged recently with lying to officials about his Ukrainian lobbying with Manafort.
The public release of the redacted report is sure to escalate a battle between the Justice Department and Democrats in Congress, who have been pressing Barr to turn over the full report and underlying evidence. The House Judiciary Committee voted earlier this month to authorize its chairman, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, to subpoena the full report.
In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Nadler said impeachment is “one possibility” in the wake of the report, but that it is too early to say for sure exactly how Congress should respond to the report’s findings.
“We obviously have to get to the bottom of what happened and take whatever action seems necessary at that time,” Nadler said. “It’s too early to reach those conclusions.”
Nadler also reiterated his calls for Congress to get access to the full, unredacted report so lawmakers can see what investigations they must conduct on their own.
The White House stayed on-message: heralding the same investigation that Trump previously declared to be “an illegal takedown that failed” as one that simultaneously fully exonerated him.
Calling Thursday “really the best day since he got elected,” White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway heralded the end of what she called a “political proctology exam.”
“There was no collusion, and there was certainly no criminal conspiracy with any Russians,” Conway told reporters outside the White House.
Mere minutes after Attorney General Barr concluded his press conference Thursday morning, Trump tweeted a “Game of Thrones”-inspired meme with the words “Game Over” emblazoned across an the president’s back turned away from “THE HATERS AND RADICAL LEFT DEMOCRATS.”
But according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the president shouldn’t stray too far.
“It’s certainly not game over in the sense that there’s a lot more we need to know, especially what is redacted. This report only goes toward what is criminal or not criminal. Other actions which may have compromised the president or those around him may not even be included in this report right now. The facts established in this report are damning,” Schiff said.
Mueller has been invited to testify before the House Judiciary Committee no later than May 23 and according to Schiff, Mueller will also receive an invitation from the House Intelligence Committee.