Wake Up To Politics - April 19, 2019
I'm Gabe Fleisher, reporting live from WUTP World HQ in my bedroom. It’s Friday, April 19, 2019. 290 days until the 2020 Iowa caucuses. 564 days until Election Day 2020. Have comments, questions, suggestions, or tips? Email me at email@example.com.
THE MUELLER REPORT:Special counsel details Russian meddling, Trump's efforts to thwart investigation
Special counsel Robert Mueller's 448-page report, a redacted version of which was released by the Justice Department on Thursday, exhaustively details his two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as President Donald Trump's efforts to curtail the probe as it was happening.
Mueller's report includes two volumes: the first on Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the second on obstruction of justice allegations against the president.
In the first volume, Mueller dives deep into Russia's "sweeping and systematic" efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, which involved a social media campaign intended to sow discord among the American electorate as well as "hacking-and-dumping operations" that targeted prominent Democrats and figures connected to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
The Russian operation favored Trump's campaign and targeted Clinton's, Mueller concluded. In addition, Mueller wrote, the Kremlin's interference in the election "coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government." The special counsel details many of these contacts, which took place almost from the outset of Trump's presidential bid, from negotiations over building a Trump Tower Moscow to the sharing of "internal polling data" by Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort with a Russian national to the infamous Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump, Jr.
The report said that Mueller's team looked into charging the Trump Tower meeting participants with campaign finance violations, but ultimately decided there wasn't enough evidence to merit prosecution.
Although Mueller repeatedly states that he found no evidence that "members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities," he paints a picture of a campaign that was at least receptive to Russia's overtures and that "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."
Perhaps Russia and the Trump campaign did not work in concert, but they clearly operated in harmony, as the future president celebrated the release of documents damaging to Hillary Clinton through WikiLeaks — the hacking of some of which began about five hours after he said in a press conference, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing."
Then, in his second volume, Mueller describes in equally vivid detail the frequent and wide-ranging attempts by President Trump to foil the special counsel's investigation. Ultimately, Mueller did not come to a conclusion on whether these efforts amounted to the president obstructing justice, explaining that the report "does not conclude that the President committed a crime" but "it also does not exonerate him."
Mueller's decision not to formally accuse Trump of obstruction of justice at least partly stemmed from the Justice Department opinion that prosecutors cannot charge the president with a crime; however, he said if his team had been able to determine that "the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would [have] so state[d]."
The report describes ten episodes of potential obstruction of justice that Mueller investigated, including Trump's attempts to end the FBI investigation into his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, his eventual firing of then-FBI director James Comey, and his attempts to induce the firing of special counsel Mueller himself.
Repeatedly, Mueller describes how Trump's orders to aides — especially former White House counsel Don McGahn — about ending the Mueller probe went neglected. In one June 2017 episode, about a month of Mueller was appointed, Trump calls McGahn twice at home and directs him to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller. "Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the special counsel," Trump said, according to McGahn's interview with investigators. McGahn recounted that he then prepared to resign instead of following through with the president's orders (which he referred to as "crazy shit"), but was urged to stay by other top Trump aides. The direction to fire Mueller was ignored.
In other incidents, Mueller details Trump requesting then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation, urging his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ask Sessions to curtail the probe, and insisting that his then-chief of staff Reince Priebus produce Sessions' resignation. Again and again, Trump's aides failed to follow through on his demands.
"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," the special counsel concluded.
At each stage, Mueller's report is tirelessly footnoted, allowing the reader to track how the investigators arrived at the version of events being described (often from interviews with high-ranking Trump lieutenants) and adding an air of added credibility to the description of the episodes, many of which had already been reported in the news media but sourced anonymously.
The report also includes the written answers Trump submitted to investigators, as well as the rationale behind their decision not to subpoena an in-person interview with him: their assessment they had "sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the President's testimony." However, Trump's written testimony was deemed insufficient by Mueller's team, who pointed out the "more than 30 occasions" that he said "he 'does not recall' or 'remember' or have an 'independent recollection' of information called for by the questions."
Further, Mueller's report lays bare a culture of dishonesty that surrounds Trump's White House, repeatedly explaining how statements administration officials made to the press were not true, from the president lying about the Trump Tower Moscow deal to his asking McGahn to deny accurate press reports about his direction for McGahn to fire the special counsel.
At another point, after the firing of FBI Director Comey, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters that she had heard from "countless members of the FBI" about their lack of confidence in Comey. Yet, she said to Mueller's investigators that the comment was a "slip of the tongue" and admitted that it "was not founded on anything."
In addition, the White House falsely insisted in the days after Mueller's appointment that the president was calm and unbothered. In reality, Mueller reveals, upon being told by former Attorney General Sessions that a special counsel had been appointed, President Trump slumped back in his chair and angrily exclaimed: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm f---ed."
But will the special counsel's probe spell the end of his administration? Trump is, of course, still president, and it is unclear that the release of Mueller's report will lead to a renewed effort among House Democrats to force his impeachment. However, many Democrats took issue with the framing of the report by Attorney General William Barr — who defended the president in a press conference hours before the report was released, justifying Trump's actions towards investigators by explaining that he "was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency" — and are now calling for Congress to make the final decision on obstruction of justice.
Although Barr wrote in a letter to lawmakers last month that Mueller's decision not to make a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice meant the question was now kicked to him (and he promptly said that his conclusion was that no obstruction took place), Mueller leaves an opening in his report for Congress to "apply the obstruction laws" to the president. Although the special counsel was uncomfortable doing so because of the president's position atop the Executive Branch, for Congress to do so would "[accord] with our constitutional system of checks and balances," Mueller concluded.
Democrats are now faced with the decision to either pursue impeachment on the basis of Mueller's findings, or simply focus their efforts on defeating Trump in the 2020 elections. Either way, their review of the Mueller report will continue in a public fashion, with committee chairmen likely to request testimony from both Attorney General Barr and special counsel Mueller himself.
The fight over how much of the report can be read will also continue, with a select group of lawmaker set to be given an opportunity on Monday to review a largely unredacted version of the report. In total, according to a CNN estimate, about 8% of the report is redacted, with entire pages blacked out at some points in the document.
Despite the embarrassing details included in the report's text, Trump celebrated its topline conclusions on Thursday: that no one on his campaign had been found to have conspired with Russia during its 2016 interference efforts, and that Mueller had opted not to accuse him of obstructing justice. "No Collusion. No Obstruction," a "Game of Thrones"-inspired image tweeted by the president proclaimed. "For the haters and the radical left Democrats — Game Over."
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White House schedule
Neither the president nor the vice president has any public events scheduled. President Trump is at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, where he is spending Easter weekend.
Both chambers of Congress are on recess.
Supreme Court schedule
The justices have no oral arguments or conferences scheduled today.
--- Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) continues his "Justice For All Tour" in Nevada, holding "Conversation with Cory" events in Minden and Reno.
--- South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg visits New Hampshire today. He tours small businesses in Londonderry and Nashua; he will be joined by Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess for the latter tour.
--- Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) visits New Hampshire today. She holds a town hall in Manchester, a roundtable on PFAS pollution, and an ACLU town hall on civil liberties in Concord.
--- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) visits Iowa today. She holds "Conversations with Kirsten" events in Harlan, Denison, Carroll, and Ames.
--- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) holds a town hall focusing on her teacher pay proposal in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
--- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) holds a roundtable on infrastructure in Manchester, New Hampshire today. She will be joined by the city's mayor, Joyce Craig.
--- Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke holds a meet and greet in Somersworth, New Hampshire.
--- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a town hall on poverty and a rally in Greenville, South Carolina.
*All times Eastern