The Financial Times’ Washington bureau pored through the 450-page report by Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. Here are the most important revelations:
Aides didn’t obey Trump orders to intervene
The report makes the case that Donald Trump was unsuccessful in his efforts to derail the justice department probe into Russian meddling because many of his aides simply did not carry out his orders to intervene.
Among those who did not comply with Mr Trump were James Comey, the FBI director who continued the investigation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Don McGahn, the White House counsel who refused demands to tell Rod Rosenstein, acting as attorney-general in the Russia investigation, to remove Mr Mueller.
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. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so. Consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the President’s aides and associates beyond those already filed.Mueller report, Volume II, page 159
The 2017 incident involving Mr McGahn is told in more detail elsewhere in the report, where it quotes the White House counsel saying he refused to participate in another “Saturday Night Massacre” — a reference to Richard Nixon’s firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, where the two top justice department officials resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order.
On June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed. 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.Mueller report, Volume II, page 159
Trump reaction to Mueller appointment
The report has some colourful detail on Mr Trump’s reaction to Mr Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. Citing notes of an aide who attended the meeting when Mr Trump was notified by then-attorney-general Jeff Sessions in the Oval Office, the report says the president angrily replied: “This is the end of my presidency.”
“Oh my god this is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” The President became angry and lambasted the attorney-general for his decision to recuse from the investigation, saying “How could you let this happen, Jeff.” The President said the position of attorney-general was his most important appointment and that Sessions had “let [him] down,” contrasting him to Eric Holder and Robert Kennedy. Sessions recalled that the President said to him, “you were supposed to protect me,” or words to that effect. The President returned to the consequences of the appointment and said, “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. this is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”Mueller report, Volume II, Page 78
The findings on Russian ‘collusion’
William Barr, the attorney-general, disclosed last month that Mr Mueller had not found any conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign and would not be recommending any new charges against Mr Trump or his aides. The report makes clear, however, that the Kremlin worked to get Mr Trump elected and that the campaign knew it was benefiting from the effort. In a key passage, Mr Mueller’s staff says they could not establish the two sides had worked together.
Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency 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 co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.Mueller report, Volume I, Pages 1-2
Why Mueller didn’t interview Trump
The special counsel’s office lays out why they did not interview Mr Trump as part of their investigation. The two sides spent “more than a year” negotiating the conditions under which the president could answer questions, but in the end only submitted answers to written inquiries.
However, the report says that Mr Trump only answered written questions about “certain Russia-related topics” and not about instances of where he may have obstructed justice. In the end, Mr Mueller decided not to subpoena Mr Trump because it would take too long — not because there was any legal impediment.
Ultimately, while we believed that we had the authority and legal justification to issue a grand jury subpoena to obtain the President’s testimony, we chose not to do so. We made that decision in view of the substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation. We also assessed that based on the significant body of evidence we had already obtained of the President’s actions and his public and private statements describing or explaining those actions, we had sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President’s testimony.Mueller report, Volume II, Page 14
Even though Mr Mueller received written answers from Mr Trump to questions about the Russian end of the investigation, the report said they proved “inadequate”. Mr Mueller said his team considered issuing a subpoena after receiving the written responses, but decided against the move for the same reason: they had already made sufficient progress and did not want to spark “potentially lengthy constitutional litigation” that would delay their report.
The role of WikiLeaks
The report details the role WikiLeaks played in disseminating Democrats’ emails hacked by Russian military intelligence. It also says Mr Trump and other officials worked with an unnamed individual, most likely longtime political operative and Trump associate Roger Stone, to find out when the website was to release any more information damaging to Mr Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
After WikiLeaks released politically damaging Democratic Party emails that were reported to have been hacked by Russia, Trump publicly expressed scepticism that Russia was responsible for the hacks at the same time that he and other Campaign officials privately sought information [redacted] about any further planned WikiLeaks releases.Mueller report, Volume II, Executive Summary
The campaign’s excitement about the Russian hacking comes through very clearly in the report. Shortly after their publication by WikiLeaks, Mr Mueller’s investigators describe Mr Trump’s inner circle discussing the website’s actions in detail. Again, the redactions appear to refer to Mr Stone, whose criminal case is still pending.
Within the Trump Campaign, aides reacted with enthusiasm to reports of the hacks. [Redacted] discussed with Campaign officials that WikiLeaks would release the hacked material. Some witnesses said that Trump himself discussed the possibility of upcoming releases [redacted]. Michael Cohen, then-executive vice-president of the Trump Organization, and special counsel to Trump, recalled hearing [redacted]. Cohen recalled that Trump responded, “oh good, all right”.Mueller report, Volume II, page 17
Although it’s a heavily redacted section, elsewhere the report appears to show Mr Tump himself actively and repeatedly seeking to get updates on WikiLeaks activities, apparently through Mr Stone. It describes how both Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman currently in jail on fraud charges, and his deputy Rick Gates were under constant pressure to get details on WikiLeaks releases after its first dump in July 2016.
Deputy campaign manager Rick Gates said that Manafort was getting pressure about [redacted] information and that Manafort instructed Gates [redacted] status updates on upcoming releases. Around the same time, Gates was with Trump on a trip to an airport [redacted], and shortly after the call ended, Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming. [Redacted] were discussed within the Campaign, and in the summer of 2016, the Campaign was planning a communications strategy based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.Mueller report, Volume II, page 18
In an interesting footnote, Mr Mueller’s staff notes they “considered, but ruled out” charging WikiLeaks for “trafficking in or receipt of stolen property”. Investigators dropped the idea after deciding the material in question was digital, rather than anything tangible.
The tale of Don McGahn
Details of the testimony of Mr McGahn, the former White House counsel, was one of the most highly anticipated revelations in the report, given his proximity to Mr Trump and reports that he had spent nearly 30 hours being interviewed by Mr Mueller’s investigators.
The revelations in the report show what is possibly the most aggressive effort by Mr Trump to personally intervene in the special counsel inquiry, twice ordering Mr McGahn to have Mr Mueller sacked. The first was in July 2017, when Mr Trump called Mr McGahn at home and asked him to order Mr Rosenstein, who was the top justice department official overseeing the Russia probe, to fire Mr Mueller.
On the first call, McGahn recalled that the President said something like, “You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod.” McGahn said he told the President that he would see what he could do. McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request. He and other advisers believed the asserted conflicts were “silly” and “not real,” and they had previously communicated that view to the President.Mueller report, Volume II, Page 86
Mr McGahn became more concerned after a follow-up call by Mr Trump, which was described as “more direct”. The exchange left Mr McGahn “feeling trapped” and he decided he would have to resign, an echo of the Nixon era where both Elliot Richardson, the attorney-general, and William Ruckelshaus, his deputy, quit rather than sack the Watergate special prosecutor.
When the President called McGahn a second time to follow up on the order to call the Department of Justice, McGahn recalled that the President was more direct, saying something like, “Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.” McGahn recalled the President telling him “Mueller has to go” and “Call me back when you do it.”
McGahn recalled that he had already said no to the President’s request and he was worn down, so he just wanted to get off the phone.Mueller report, Volume II, Page 86
The report said Mr McGahn then spoke to his lawyer and called Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, counsellor to the president, to tell them of his intention to resign — though on the advice of counsel, he didn’t say why.
Priebus recalled that McGahn said that the President had asked him to “do crazy shit,” but he thought McGahn did not tell him the specifics of the President’s request because McGahn was trying to protect Priebus from what he did not need to know. Priebus and Bannon both urged McGahn not to quit, and McGahn ultimately returned to work that Monday and remained in his position. He had not told the President directly that he planned to resign, and when they next saw each other the President did not ask McGahn whether he had followed through with calling Rosenstein.Mueller report, Volume II, Page 87
The significance of the calls to Mr McGahn become clear seven months later, when reports began to emerge that Mr Trump attempted to have Mr Mueller fired. At one point, the president demanded Mr McGahn write a letter stating definitively that he never sought Mr Mueller’s ouster — a letter the White House counsel refused to write. The president demanded an Oval Office meeting with Mr McGahn, which an attendee described as “a little tense”.
The President also asked McGahn in the meeting why he had told Special Counsel’s Office investigators that the President had told him to have the Special Counsel removed. McGahn responded that he had to and that his conversations with the President were not protected by attorney-client privilege. The President then asked, “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a “real lawyer” and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. The President said, “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”Mueller report, Volume II, Page 117
Did Trump know about Trump Tower meeting?
There have long been questions about what Mr Trump knew about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which his son Don Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mr Manafort were offered incriminating information on Mrs Clinton by Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer who previously worked for the Russian government. The report suggests investigators were unable to find evidence the Republican candidate was in the loop on the offer of damaging material.
Michael Cohen recalled that Trump Jr may have told candidate Trump about an upcoming meeting to receive adverse information about Clinton, without linking the meeting to Russia. According to written answers submitted by President Trump, he has no recollection of learning of the meeting at the time, and the office found no documentary evidence showing that he was made aware of the meeting — or its Russian connection — before it occurred.Mueller report, Volume I, Page 110
Still, the report reveals Mr Mueller’s team “considered whether to charge Trump campaign officials with crimes in connection with the June 9 meeting”. But because any crime would be difficult to prove, no case for violating US election laws was pursued. Among the difficulties faced by Mr Mueller’s investigators was that US laws barring foreign contributions to presidential campaigns require evidence showing aides knew they were doing something illegal.
The Office concluded that, in light of the government’s substantial burden of proof on issues of intent (“knowing” and “wilful”), and the difficulty of establishing the value of the offered information, criminal charges would not meet the Justice Manual standard that “the admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction”.Mueller report, Volume I, Page 186
Mr Mueller’s staff decided it was unclear whether Mr Kushner, Mr Manafort or Mr Trump Jr were “knowing” or “wilful” in breaking campaign contribution laws.
In light of the unresolved legal questions about whether giving ‘documents and information’ of the sort offered here constitutes a campaign contribution, Trump Jr could mount a factual defence that he did not believe his response to the offer and the June 9 meeting itself violated the law. Given his less direct involvement in arranging the June 9 meeting, Kushner could likely mount a similar defence. And, while Manafort is experienced with political campaigns, the Office has not developed evidence showing that he had relevant knowledge of these legal issues.Mueller report, Volume I, Pages 187-188
Trump aides in hopes of pardons
Throughout the prosecution of some of Mr Trump’s closest aides, there have been questions about whether the president would use his power to pardon as a way to shield himself from disclosures that could damage him in plea deals.
In at least two cases, Mr Mueller found discussions had been held about a pardon. First, Mr Manafort in January 2018 told his onetime business partner and fellow Mueller target Rick Gates that he had talked to Mr Trump’s lawyers about federal clemency.
Manafort told Gates it was stupid to plead, saying that he had been in touch with the President’s personal counsel and repeating that they should “sit tight” and “we’ll be taken care of.” Gates asked Manafort outright if anyone mentioned pardons and Manafort said no one used that word.Mueller report, Volume Ii, Page 123
In a footnote, the report said Mr Manafort denied ever discussing a pardon, although he told Mr Mueller’s staff “he hoped for a pardon”. Regardless, Mr Trump was privately telling aides, including staff secretary Rob Porter, that he did not like Mr Manafort and apparently gave no hint he was weighing a pardon.
As the proceedings against Manafort progressed in court, the President told Porter that he never liked Manafort and that Manafort did not know what he was doing on the campaign. The President discussed with aides whether and in what way Manafort might be cooperating with the Special Counsel’s investigation, and whether Manafort knew any information that would be harmful to the President.Mueller report, Volume Ii, Page 123
Elsewhere, the report reveals that Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s onetime lawyer and fixer, had also “discussed pardons with the President’s personal counsel” and believed that if he did not provide evidence against the president “he would be taken care of”.
Cohen also recalled speaking with the President’s personal counsel about pardons after the searches of his home and office had occurred, at a time when the media had reported that pardon discussions were occurring at the White House. Cohen told the President’s personal counsel he had been a loyal lawyer and servant, and he said that after the searches he was in an uncomfortable position and wanted to know what was in it for him. According to Cohen, the President’s personal counsel responded that Cohen should stay on message, that the investigation was a witch hunt, and that everything would be fine.Mueller report, Volume Ii, Page 147
‘Episodes’ of possible Trump obstruction
In his press conference on Thursday morning, William Barr, the attorney-general, disclosed Mr Mueller had investigated 10 separate “episodes” of possible obstruction of justice by Mr Trump. In the report’s introduction, the special counsel lists them:
1. The president’s conduct regarding the investigation of Michael Flynn
2. The president’s reaction to the public confirmation of the FBI’s Russia investigation
3. Events surrounding the firing of Comey
4. Trump’s efforts to remove the special counsel
5. Trump’s efforts to curtail the special counsel’s investigation, including by asking Corey Lewandowski to deliver a message to Sessions to curtail the investigation
6. Trump’s efforts to prevent the disclosure of emails about the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016
7. Trump’s efforts to have Sessions unrecuse
8. Trump ordering McGahn to deny that he tried to fire Mueller
9. Trump’s conduct towards Flynn, Manafort, and a redacted person
10. Trump’s conduct involving Michael CohenMueller report, Volume II, Introduction
The Mueller cases
The Mueller investigation has already led to a number of high-profile prosecutions. The report lists 11 cases that have been transferred to various US attorneys’ offices for prosecution, including:
- Bijan Rafiekian and Kamil Ekim Alpetkin
- Michael Flynn
- Rick Gates
- Internet Research Agency (Russian social media campaign)
- Paul Manafort
Two of those cases have been redacted in the report.
Various matters involving potential criminal activity that fell outside the scope of Mr Mueller’s case were referred to other law enforcement authorities. The report cites 14 such cases, and all were redacted save two — the cases against Michael Cohen and Gregory Craig, a former Obama White House counsel who was linked to Manafort.
Finally, the report lists three completed prosecutions, including cases against George Papadopoulos, Alex van der Zwaan and Richard Pinedo, who was convicted for selling fake IDs to Russians indicted by Mr Mueller for election interference.
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