Criminal Justice

Special counsel's report is released; here are highlights

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Legal definitions and an opinion by the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel helped inform special counsel Robert Mueller's conclusions on collusion and obstruction of justice.

Mueller found no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign using a definition of collusion informed by conspiracy law, his report reveals.

And he chose not to decide whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice partly based on an opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel that raised constitutional concerns about the indictment of a sitting president.

Mueller’s report was released Thursday about an hour after Attorney General William Barr emphasized at a press conference that the report found no collusion with the Russian government by Trump, by anyone associated with his campaign, or by any American.

Barr also explained why he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein separately concluded that there was insufficient evidence of collusion.

Trump’s actions were taken at a time when he feared his presidency was being undermined by a special counsel investigation that he thought to be fueled by opponents and illegal leaks, Barr explained.

His actions must be evaluated based on the situation, Barr concluded.

Here are some report highlights:

Trump’s memory of events:

Trump stated more than 30 times in written answers that he doesn’t recall, remember or have an independent recollection of events for which investigators sought information, the Washington Post reports. The special counsel opted against pursuing a subpoena because it would cause a substantial delay.

Trump’s actions in regard to the investigation:

Trump’s efforts to influence the investigation were unsuccessful, largely because people around him declined to carry out his orders.

Trump’s actions include:

• Trump called then-White House counsel Don McGahn at home in June 2017 and directed him to tell DOJ officials to remove Mueller for conflicts of interest. McGahn did not carry out the direction. He decided he would rather resign than carry out another “Saturday Night Massacre,” a reference to President Richard Nixon’s attempt to fire the Watergate prosecutor.

• Trump pressured McGahn to dispute press reports about Trump directing McGahn to fire Mueller. Trump also asked McGahn why he had told the special counsel about the president’s efforts to fire Mueller. “McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the president to be testing his mettle,” the report says.

• Trump directed McGahn to stop then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself in the Russia investigation. After Sessions recused himself, Trump urged him several times to unrecuse himself.

• After Mueller’s appointment, Trump told advisers it was “the end of his presidency” and demanded that Sessions resign. Although Sessions submitted his resignation, Trump did not accept it.

• Trump dictated a message to his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to deliver to Sessions. The message said Sessions should publicly announce that notwithstanding his recusal, the investigation was “very unfair” to Trump, and the president had done nothing wrong. Lewandowski didn’t want to deliver the message and asked another White House official to deliver it. Neither Lewandowski nor the official ever delivered the message.

• Trump had edited a press statement about a meeting between a Russian lawyer and Trump campaign officials to delete a line that said the officials expected to receive information helpful to the campaign.

• Trump’s conduct toward people cooperating in the investigation changed from praise to castigation. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had discussed pardons with the president’s “personal counsel” and thought he would be taken care of if he stayed on message. After Cohen began cooperating with the government, the president called Cohen a “rat” and suggested that his family members had committed crimes.

• Trump wanted to make public that he was not under investigation, and he included that information in his letter firing FBI Director James Comey. Trump had asked Comey to publicly state that he was not under investigation, but Comey did not do it.

Why the special counsel didn’t make a conclusion on obstruction:

Mueller took into consideration an opinion by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel that an indictment of a sitting president would impermissibly undermine the executive branch’s ability to perform, violating the separation of powers.

The special counsel is a lawyer within the DOJ, and “this office accepted the OLC’s legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction,” the report says.

The special counsel said he did not want to determine whether Trump’s conduct constituted a criminal offense because there would be no trial at which the president could exonerate himself.

“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,” the report says.

The report lists other considerations. Unlike some cases in which a subject engages in obstruction of justice to cover up a crime, the evidence did not establish that Trump was involved in an underlying crime. In addition, many of Trump’s actions took place in public view. “That circumstance is unusual,” the report says, “but no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws.”

“Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. 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. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

The report’s definition of collusion:

The report examined collusion based on the framework of conspiracy law, rather than the concept of collusion, which is not a term of art in criminal law. The special counsel’s office looked to whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian election interference.

The special counsel viewed coordination as requiring a tacit or express agreement between the campaign and the Russian government. “That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests,” the report says. “We applied the term coordination in that sense when stating in the report that the investigation did not establish that the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Campaign contacts with Russia as it tried to influence the election:

A Russian company used a social media campaign and political rallies to provoke political discord in the United States. The Russian government also used Russian military intelligence officers to hack Democratic emails damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

During this period, there were a series of contacts between Trump campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government. Those contacts included business connections, offers of assistance to the campaign, and invitations for a personal meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia.

Russia thought it could benefit from a Trump presidency, and the Trump campaign thought it could benefit from the information stolen and released through Russian efforts.

But the investigation didn’t establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with election interference activities.

The Trump campaign’s interest in WikiLeaks:

The Trump campaign showed interested in WikiLeaks’ release of hacked documents and welcomed their potential damage to Clinton. Beginning in June 2016, an unnamed individual forecast to campaign officials that WikiLeaks would release information damaging to Clinton.

Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign officials met with a Russian lawyer in June 2016 in anticipation of receiving damaging information on Clinton, but the lawyer did not provide such information.

Trump expressed skepticism about Russian hacking of Democratic emails during the campaign; at the same time, he and other campaign officials privately sought information about further planned releases on WikiLeaks.

How the investigation started:

The FBI opened its investigation of Russian influence after a foreign government contacted the FBI in July 2016 to express concerns about information provided by Trump campaign foreign policy George Papadopoulos. He had told the foreign government that the Trump campaign had received indications that Russia could assist the campaign through release of information damaging to Clinton.

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