[The Justice Department has released a redacted version of the Mueller report on Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Read the report here.]
By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Thursday released a redacted version of the long-awaited report by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, on his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mueller examined about 10 actions by President Donald Trump to determine whether he sought to obstruct justice but could not reach a conclusion. He found a concerted effort by Russia to interfere in the election but established no criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
While Mueller’s investigation is over, he reported that it has spawned 14 spinoff inquiries.
Attorney General William Barr offered a strong defense of Trump at a news conference before releasing Mueller’s report, saying that investigators “found no evidence” that any member of the Trump campaign conspired with Russia in its effort to interfere in the election.
Barr said he gave Trump’s lawyers access to Mueller’s report “earlier this week,” before it was released. Trump’s lawyers did not ask for any redactions.
The report detailed dramatic conflicts within the White House. When Trump learned of Mueller’s appointment, he slumped in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency,” the report said.
At a White House event for wounded troops, Trump claimed vindication to cheers from the audience. Democrats lashed out at Barr, accusing him of acting as a spokesman for the president.
• Mueller examined 10 episodes for possible obstruction
Investigators examined 10 episodes in which the president may have obstructed justice, but Mueller said he could not reach a conclusion.
“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the special counsel wrote. “At the same time, 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.
“Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards,” he added, “we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Barr, however, opted to reach the conclusion that Mueller would not. “After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report, and in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other department lawyers, the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense,” Barr said at his news conference.
Barr said that he “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories” regarding obstruction but that even accepting them would find no basis for a criminal charge.
Among the incidents that the special counsel examined was Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey, the FBI director, in May 2017, and an attempt by the president a month later to have his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, fire Mueller.
Mueller also looked at the president’s efforts to hide details of a Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the election and to pressure Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, to reverse his decision to recuse himself from supervising the investigation.
Barr said he would not stand in the way of Mueller testifying on Capitol Hill about his findings. “I have no objection to Bob Mueller testifying,” Barr said.
• Report details dramatic conflicts within the White House
The last two years were filled with angry clashes, outbursts, threatened resignations and false statements as Trump reacted to the investigation.
After saying that Mueller’s appointment would mean “the end of my presidency,” Trump turned on Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, blaming him for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation. “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” he demanded.
The tension between Trump and McGahn, then the White House counsel, flared repeatedly. In June 2017, Trump called McGahn from Camp David twice and told him to have Mueller fired for alleged conflicts of interest. McGahn refused, saying he did not want to repeat the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate prosecutors.
McGahn prepared to submit his resignation. He called Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, and told him the president had asked him to do “crazy” things. Ultimately, Trump backed off, but when The New York Times reported about the episode, he told McGahn to publicly deny it, which he would not do.
Trump referred to McGahn as a liar and said that if he did not deny the report, “then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him.” He did not fire McGahn, who left later that year.
• Barr offers an understanding interpretation of Trump actions
In his news conference Thursday morning, Barr at times sounded like a defense lawyer, making no criticism of the president and instead offering an understanding interpretation of actions that Trump’s critics have said amounted to obstruction of justice.
In addressing obstruction, Barr said the president had no corrupt intent and that his actions seen as impeding the investigation were a result of being understandably “frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.”
• Trump’s lawyers read the report in advance
Barr said he gave Trump’s lawyers access to the report early, which allowed them a chance to prepare their public defense.
“Earlier this week, the president’s personal counsel requested and were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” Barr said. “The president’s personal lawyers were not permitted to make, and did not request, any redactions.”
Barr said he did so in accordance with the “practice followed under the Ethics in Government Act,” permitting those named in a report to read it before publication. However, that has not always been the practice. In 1998, independent counsel Ken Starr declined to let President Bill Clinton or his lawyers read his report on the Monica Lewinsky case before he sent it to Congress.
Barr said the White House made no claims of executive privilege over any information in the report.
At the news conference, Barr included Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who first appointed Mueller. He also sent a letter to lawmakers saying that he would allow select congressional leaders to see a version of the report without redactions except for grand-jury information.
• Another 14 investigations emerged from the Mueller inquiry
Federal prosecutors are pursuing 14 other investigations that were referred by the special counsel, according to the report.
Of the 14, only two were disclosed in the redacted report: potential wire fraud and federal employment law violations involving Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, and charges against Gregory B. Craig, the former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, who was accused of lying to investigators and concealing work for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine.
• Barr says that even if the Trump campaign colluded with WikiLeaks, that is not a crime
Barr provided an important qualifier to the determination that Trump and the Trump campaign did not engage in illegal collusion – not with the Russian government that stole the Democratic emails, but with WikiLeaks, which published them.
“The special counsel also investigated whether any member or affiliate of the Trump campaign encouraged or otherwise played a role in these dissemination efforts,” he said. “Under applicable law, publication of these types of materials would not be criminal unless the publisher also participated in the underlying hacking conspiracy. Here too, the special counsel’s report did not find that any person associated with the Trump campaign illegally participated in the dissemination of the materials.”
In other words, since WikiLeaks did not participate in Russia’s underlying hacking of the emails, its actions were no crime. Thus, any Trump campaign collusion with WikiLeaks could not be an illegal conspiracy.
• Trump frames the report as exoneration
Trump responded to the report at an event at the White House for wounded troops, saying that it had vindicated him.
“They’re having a good day,” he said of the troops. “I’m having a good day too. It’s called ‘no collusion, no obstruction.’ There never was, by the way, and there never will be.”
“This should never happen to another president again, this hoax,” he added.
Even before the report was released, Trump was claiming victory and lashing out at investigators and his critics. He tweeted a dramatic photo resembling a “Game of Thrones” poster that depicted him staring into a cloud, saying “No Collusion. No Obstruction. For the haters and radical left Democrats: Game Over.”
The tweet was the latest of a barrage that the president posted starting early Thursday morning, long before the report was released.
The report may for the first time provide Trump’s official responses to Mueller’s specific questions, which have remained secret since he responded in writing in November. With his lawyers worried that he would make a false statement and expose himself to criminal charges, the president refused to be interviewed in person, and Mueller did not try to force the issue with a subpoena.
By drafting the answers in writing in consultation with his legal team, Trump may have sidestepped what his lawyers feared would be a “perjury trap.”
• Democrats lash out at Barr
Democrats quickly assailed Barr for trying to frame the results of the report before lawmakers or the public had a chance to read it for themselves.
“It is clear Congress and the American people must hear from Special Counsel Robert Mueller in person to better understand his findings,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter. “We are now requesting Mueller to appear before @HouseJudiciary as soon as possible.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Barr’s performance demonstrated fealty to Trump. “Attorney General Barr is supposed to be the nation’s top impartial lawyer, not a White House spokesman,” Murphy said. “His press conference was just an attempt to spin a report nobody has read yet, and that’s really disappointing.”
Democratic presidential candidates quickly pounced on Barr as well.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, in a tweet, labeled the attorney general’s remarks as “spin.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said it was “ a disgrace to see an Attorney General acting as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist for the president of the United States.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York called Barr’s news conference “a complete farce and an embarrassing display of propaganda on behalf of President Trump.”
• Color-coded redactions leave readers wondering what was left out
While attention focused on what was in Mueller’s report, many in Washington were also looking at what was left out.
Barr made what he called “limited” redactions to the report, taking out information he deemed sensitive. More than a dozen pages were fully redacted, or nearly so. Other pages had sections of text blacked out, including full paragraphs.
Much of the undisclosed material was in the first section of the report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its interactions with the Trump campaign. Far less was scrubbed from the second part of the report, on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Barr blacked out sentences or sections that fit into four categories: grand-jury testimony or evidence; classified intelligence; information that would compromise continuing investigations; and details that might harm the reputations or intrude on the privacy of “peripheral third parties.” The attorney general used different colors through the report to identify which sections were deleted for which reasons.
The phrase, “harm to ongoing matter,” came up alongside enough deleted material that it quickly become its own meme, inspiring the names of upcoming bar trivia teams and imaginary punk rock bands.
Watch Barr's news conference: