- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 18, 2019

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation produced a damning exoneration of President Trump, finding that he did not conspire with Russia to subvert the 2016 election but did repeatedly attempt to shape the follow-up probes themselves with threats to fire investigators or cajole witnesses.

The president failed in those attempts, but Mr. Mueller said that was only because his aides came to his rescue, either by ignoring his wishes or, in one case, threatening to resign if the president followed through.

Mr. Mueller’s report, spanning 448 pages, was delivered to Congress and released to the public in redacted form, providing light on some of the momentous moments of Mr. Trump’s presidency, including the jockeying over how to fire FBI Director James B. Comey and the chaos of working at this White House.

The special counsel said there was no basis to charge Mr. Trump or anyone on his team with conspiracy to work with Russia. Although each side seemed to see value in the other, he said, there was no evidence of coordination.

That undercuts the anti-Trump narrative that has dogged the president since before his election.

Yet Mr. Trump feared an ongoing obsession with “collusion” by the press and his political opponents was handicapping his administration from the start, and he took aggressive steps to try to control it, including by hiding damaging information from the public, firing Mr. Comey, trying to prevent a special counsel from being formed, and plotting to fire Mr. Mueller once he was named.

“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,” Mr. Mueller wrote.

Without any smoking gun action, prosecutors were left with a difficult decision of whether a case could be made against Mr. Trump. Mr. Mueller said they didn’t reach a conclusion.

“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, we are unable to reach that judgement,” the report said.

Attorney General William Barr said Mr. Mueller didn’t build a case for criminal charges chiefly because there was no intent to cover up a crime.

He said Mr. Trump was justifiably frustrated by illegal leaks and political opponents trying to undermine his presidency through accusations about Russia that he knew — and that the FBI knew privately, though not publicly — were confirmed to be untrue.

“As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates. At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion,” the attorney general said at a Thursday morning press conference, summarizing Mr. Mueller’s work.

Mr. Barr also said the president, whatever his frustration, never thwarted Mr. Mueller. Indeed, the White House provided documents and access to witnesses, and Mr. Trump did not assert executive privilege to hide materials, the attorney general said.

Mr. Barr’s remarks, while not legally different from Mr. Mueller’s, were much more positive for Mr. Trump. Infuriated Democrats said the attorney general was whitewashing the investigation.

The Democrats said they will have Mr. Mueller appear on Capitol Hill to testify about his work. Mr. Barr is scheduled to testify at May 1-2 hearings on the Mueller report.

Mr. Trump’s team saw the report as full exoneration.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway called Thursday Mr. Trump’s “best day since he got elected.”

“We’re accepting apologies today too for anybody who feels the grace in offering them,” she told reporters.

Yet far from putting questions to rest, Mr. Mueller’s report appears to provide Democrats with numerous new avenues to litigate.

The special counsel examined 10 episodes that could be perceived as potential obstruction. In about half of those instances, Mr. Trump’s aides refused to follow his orders.

The most dramatic was in the summer of 2017, when Mr. Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mr. Mueller.

The lawyer refused and said he preferred to resign rather than be the president’s hatchet man. He even packed his belongings in anticipation of quitting.

Mr. McGahn feared Mr. Mueller’s firing would spark another “Saturday Night Massacre,” akin to when President Nixon fired Archibald Cox amid the Watergate scandal, the report said.

White House officials Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus persuaded Mr. McGahn to stay, and he remained for more than another year before leaving in October.

The special counsel team concluded that Mr. Trump’s request did not amount to obstruction because the investigation could have continued without Mr. Mueller.

On three occasions, Mr. Trump ordered his communications team to mislead the public over the reasons his campaign aides — including his son and son-in-law — held the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

The special counsel said the lies were not obstruction because Mr. Trump sought only to mislead the public and the press, not thwart an investigation. Had he repeated the lie to the special counsel or Congress, it would have been a different matter, prosecutors concluded.

On the collusion accusations that dominated press coverage of Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller found little of substance.

He did identify a number of overtures by Russia and even contacts between people with Moscow connections and those in the Trump orbit. But the campaign never openly accepted their overtures.

“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 coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the Mueller team wrote.

Indeed, after Mr. Trump won the election, the Kremlin struggled to figure out how to reach the president-elect for a congratulatory message.

The report also put to rest rumors of a scandalous tape involving Mr. Trump and Russian prostitutes that first surfaced in former British spy Christopher Steele’s salacious and unverified dossier.

Mr. Steele said in the anti-Trump dossier that the Kremlin was in possession of a tape of Mr. Trump cavorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013, with salacious details added. A Russian businessman acknowledged that the report was likely phony, but he did not share that information with Michael Cohen, the president’s fixer, who was searching for it.

The president did not sit for an interview with Mr. Mueller and instead delivered written answers to questions.

In those answers, he denied ever hearing about a foreign government reaching out to cooperate during the campaign and was unaware that some of his associates were talking with WikiLeaks, which obtained Democratic campaign emails from Russian hackers and published them at key moments in 2016.

“I have no recollection being told that Putin or Russia supported my candidacy or opposed Hillary Clinton,” the president said.

With the collusion issue out of the way, Mr. Trump took a victory lap Thursday.

“Game over,” he tweeted after Mr. Barr’s press conference describing the findings — but before the report itself was made public.

Mr. Mueller’s work spanned 22 months. His team issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, obtained more than 230 orders for records and interviewed 500 witnesses.

The report was split into two volumes: one dealing with Russia and the other with obstruction of justice. An appendix included all of the president’s written answers.

The report completes Mr. Mueller’s work. His investigation netted indictments against 34 people and three companies, including six former Trump associates.

Eight people either pleaded guilty or were convicted as a result of the investigation. They included high-profile Trump associates including Cohen and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. None of the charges against them involved Russia collusion.

The 25 Russian intelligence officers who do face collusion charges remain in that country and will likely never see a U.S. courtroom.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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