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Mueller report: the case Trump obstructed justice, in one paragraph

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Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Trump-Russia investigation does not reach a hard conclusion on whether President Donald Trump should be charged with obstruction of justice. But it’s certainly very suggestive about Trump’s actions and intent.

One paragraph in the report is especially pertinent here:

In this investigation, the evidence does not establish that the President was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference. But the evidence does point to a range of other possible personal motives animating the President’s conduct. 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’s release of hacked information or 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.

In short, Mueller did not find evidence that Trump directly colluded with Russia to interfere with the 2016 election — so he probably wasn’t obstructing justice to cover up a secret plot with the Russians.

But that doesn’t exonerate Trump; it’s possible Trump still tried to obstruct an investigation against him just because it might make him, his campaign, or his family look bad or guilty of other crimes. (Crucially, obstruction of justice doesn’t necessarily require an underlying crime.)

This isn’t baseless speculation. In the section of Mueller’s report covering obstruction of justice, Mueller cites repeated examples that Trump did seemingly attempt to interfere with the special counsel’s investigation.

For example, Trump pushed then–White House counsel Don McGahn to get Mueller fired, according to Mueller’s report. In conversations with McGahn, Trump reportedly said that “Mueller has to go” and discussed “knocking out Mueller.” He discussed the idea with other White House officials too.

Mueller concludes there’s “substantial evidence” that the president’s attempts to fire him “were linked to the Special Counsel’s oversight of investigations that involved the President’s conduct — and, most immediately, to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.”

Mueller points out, for one, that Trump reportedly said “[t]his is the end of my presidency” when a special counsel was appointed, and that Trump’s actions often followed media reports that he was the subject of a criminal investigation — suggesting Trump had motive.

In another ploy, Trump tried to get former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to transmit a message to then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying that Sessions should undo his recusal from the Russia investigation and limit the investigation solely to future election interference. That would benefit Trump, since it wouldn’t look into questions as to whether Trump benefited from past election interference or had anything to do with interference in 2016.

Ultimately, Lewandowski couldn’t get the message to Sessions, and Lewandowski’s attempt to get a White House official, Rick Dearborn, to get the message to Sessions failed too. That seemingly led Trump to take matters into his own hands, criticizing Sessions on Twitter and in the media until Sessions resigned after the 2018 midterm elections.

On this, Mueller is again clear: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President’s and his campaign’s conduct.”

There isn’t evidence of intent to obstruct justice for everything. After investigating a meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials in Trump Tower in New York City on June 9, 2016, Mueller concluded that “the evidence does not establish that the President took steps to prevent the emails or other information about the June 9 meeting from being provided to Congress or the Special Counsel.”

But there is evidence, as noted above, that Trump in other instances tried to obstruct the investigation — from firing FBI Director James Comey to pushing other people involved in the investigation, such as Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, to not cooperate with Mueller.

“Viewing the acts collectively can help to illuminate their significance,” Mueller writes. “For example, the President’s direction to McGahn to have the Special Counsel removed was followed almost immediately by his direction to Lewandowski to tell the Attorney General to limit the scope of the Russia investigation to prospective election-interference only — a temporal connection that suggests that both acts were taken with a related purpose with respect to the investigation.”

Ultimately, Mueller didn’t make a recommendation to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. But he was also very explicit that he didn’t exonerate Trump, either.

“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,” Mueller explains. “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

To put it another way, we don’t really know if the president of the United States broke the law — and there’s some solid evidence indicating that he very well might have intended to and actually did, even if he wasn’t charged in the end.

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