Editor’s note: PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan has been hosting the Muller Report book club via PolitiFact’s weekly email newsletter. The book club’s final two weeks of material are below. Read the book club's first four weeks of material, as well as the introduction of the book club.
In the first volume of the Mueller report, investigators looked at whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election. This week, we start the second volume, pages 1 to 61. Volume II focuses on President Donald Trump's reaction to the investigation itself and whether he obstructed justice.
Charging a president with obstruction of justice: This section opens with dense language — legalese, really — about obstruction of justice. The report tells us that the special counsel felt his office didn't have the legal authority to prosecute a president, because that could "potentially preempt constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct." In other words, a president can be impeached but not prosecuted (though the report seems to go out of its way to avoid the word "impeachment"). The report then makes a separate point: It says that if investigators could have cleared President Trump of obstruction, they would have. In one of its most quoted passages, it concludes, "Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."
Trump reacts — and reacts and reacts: It's a bit ironic that half of the Mueller report is about Trump's reaction to the investigation itself. The report says its evidence "did not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference." So can someone still obstruct justice if they didn't do anything wrong? In principle, yes. (PolitiFact has reported on this point previously.) Much of this section of the report documents how upset Trump was by just the idea that people might think he was being investigated; he protested against it again and again. He seemed to believe it diminished him in some fundamental way. Several advisers said Trump saw it as a threat to the legitimacy of his electoral victory: "(Hope) Hicks, for example, said that the President-Elect viewed the intelligence community assessment as his 'Achilles heel' because, even if Russia had no impact on the election, people would think Russia helped him win, taking away from what he had accomplished."
Michael Flynn and the Logan Act: In Volume I of the report, we read about Michael Flynn’s resignation as Trump’s short-lived national security adviser. Flynn left the White House because of a December 2016 phone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak; Flynn subsequently lied to the FBI about the call. We get much more detail about the resignation in Volume II. Flynn's lies came as a result of trying to quash a Jan. 12, 2017, column in the Washington Post that reported the call. Much of the concern was around bad optics for the incoming administration, but part of it was because of concerns about the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens conducting foreign policy without the government's permission. (At the time of Flynn's call, President Barack Obama still held office.)
Question for discussion:
The Mueller report offers an extremely nuanced take on whether the president did or didn't obstruct justice; in some ways the report declines to take an outright position. What do you think of that strategy? Is it intellectually honest, or does it duck the issue? Also, what is your opinion on the role of Congress now that the report is out?
Here’s what some of you had to say about last week’s questions.
Now that you've finished Volume I, what is your main takeaway on Russia's interference in the 2016 election? What do you think it means for the 2020 election?
"The investigation revealed insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed. The investigation revealed smoke for insufficient fire. ... Trump correctly predicted that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a vote. The base loves a 'strong man' dictator-type empirical leader."
"My main takeaway from Russian activities in 2016 has been, almost from the get-go, that their efforts were never really about getting Trump elected. Yes, Trump the chaos candidate fit nicely with the Russian plan to disrupt Hillary Clinton's presidency, and Trump the chaos president was frosting on the cake as far as Putin was concerned. But now the Russians are trolling Trump ... I expect more of this, as well as other efforts to divide Americans, as the 2020 campaign heats up."
"I find unbelievable the supposition that because the Trump Team did not know that accepting opposition research from foreign agents is illegal to be sufficient reason not to hold them responsible. This part of the Mueller Report fails to recognize that these Trump Team members are intelligent adults who knew exactly what they were doing. "
"To put it succinctly, we are in deep doo-doo. Will our system hold up? One wonders."
What’s next: For next week, please read pages 62-181 of Volume II. This will take us to the end of the report.
The firing of FBI director James Comey: President Trump was enraged about the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s meddling, because he felt it cast a dark cloud over the legitimacy of his election win, according to the report. Trump repeatedly asked FBI director James Comey to state publicly that Trump wasn’t under investigation. Comey seemed to think that the less said publicly about the investigation, the better. After Comey testified publicly in May 2017 and again declined to clear Trump, Trump hit the roof. Much of his ire was directed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigation. Trump said it was terrible that Sessions had recused and left him powerless. Trump ultimately decided to fire Comey, thinking it would make the Russia investigation go away. Publicly, the Trump team offered other reasons for Comey’s dismissal that were not true. Just one was Sarah Sanders’ comment to reporters that FBI agents said they had lost confidence in Comey. She later told Mueller’s investigators that it was a "slip of the tongue" and the claim was baseless.
The report offers analysis (without a strong conclusion) that considers legit reasons for Comey’s firing, as well as reasons that would not be so legit. If the president felt Comey was harming his ability to govern, that would be reasonable. But if Trump just wanted to protect himself from a serious investigation, that could be considered obstruction.
Trump talks about firing Mueller then says he never considered it: Several times in the report Trump says or does things then tries to act as if he never said or did it. Most notably, he tries to get people like White House adviser Don McGahn to fire Mueller. Then he asked McGahn to say Trump never asked him to get rid of Mueller. McGahn refused. To top it all off, Trump criticized McGahn for keeping notes that showed what was actually happening. McGahn tells Trump he takes notes because he’s a "real lawyer." The report later concludes, "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."
Trump’s business interests and Michael Cohen: During the 2016 campaign, Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen were seeking a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Yet after the election, when Congress asked about the deal, Cohen lied. Trump said nice things publicly about Cohen until Cohen started cooperating with the special counsel in July 2018. After that, Trump called him a rat. One side note: The infamous Steele dossier said Cohen took a meeting in Prague with Russian officials. Cohen told the special counsel that allegation was demonstrably false, and the report doesn’t contradict him. So it seems likely that the allegation of a Prague meeting from the Steele dossier is inaccurate.
Litigating obstruction of justice: Formally titled "Legal Defenses to the Application of Obstruction-of-Justice Statutes to the President," the final chapter of the report is a lengthy, legalistic discussion on obstruction of justice. To me, it was the most snooze-worthy section of the report, but some attorneys and legal scholars will likely find it of great interest. I did find one section telling, that emphasized the president can’t do whatever he wants: "The president has no more right than other citizens to impede official proceedings by corruptly influencing witness testimony."
Readers share final thoughts on the Mueller report:
"Everyone keeps saying that no one is above the law, not even the president. But the (Office of Legal Counsel opinion) suggests that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Doesn't that put the president above the law?"
" One of the things I found most disturbing was the comment that Mr. Trump’s campaign team didn’t know that sharing and getting information from a foreign entity against an opponent was against the law. I can’t help but think that every student should know that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to the law. ... Were they so amateurish they can’t be held accountable for anything they did? Encounter after encounter was held between campaign staff and Russians yet Mueller found those meetings were, if not OK, then not unacceptable."
"Congress' questioning of Mr. Muller proved he was not in charge of the ‘Mueller Report.’ Who was? It was not the investigators job to ‘exonerate’ the president. This investigation was part of a Democratic plot to discredit and get rid of President Donald Trump."
"72 years in this country and many Presidents and so much power. 45 may have the codes but he will never have the button—a democracy we built, and the democracy will withstand this turmoil. What really bothers me is the mindset that believes in his speeches — not hope, but fear and anger."
"I totally disagree that the president feeling Comey was harming his ability to govern was a reasonable excuse for firing him, under the conditions. I'm sure that Nixon and Clinton felt that the investigations into their and their campaign's affairs were hurting their ability to govern effectively, but that didn't give them the right to halt the investigations by firing those they felt responsible. When you are under investigation, that's just one of the things you need to learn to live with and do your best to work around."
"Thank you so much for this book club! There is absolutely no way I would have plowed my way through that report without the 'assignments', and the excellent discussions afterward. I am much better informed about the investigation, and feel empowered to dive more deeply into any other political situation that comes to my attention."
U.S. Department of Justice, Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election (the Mueller report), March 2019