Attorney General William Barr said there would be no obstruction of justice charges against the president stemming from the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, which was released in redacted form on Thursday.
But the threshold for charging the president might have been breached, had staffers not resisted his directives to engage in actions that would have impeded the investigation.
The more-than-400-page report names 10 onetime close aides or other government officials who refused to carry out requests Trump made that may have violated the law.
“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,” Mueller wrote on Page 158 of the report.
Some of the resistance came from people Trump loathed, such as FBI Director James Comey, whom the president would controversially fire (thus launching Mueller’s investigation in the first place). But other close members of his team also rebuffed the president, including his former chief of staff, campaign manager and White House counsel.
Here is a list of those who acted as essentially legal guardrails for the president and may have also kept themselves out of legal peril.
White House counsel Don McGahn
Trump tried to stop the special counsel’s investigation before it began in earnest. On Page 4 of Mueller’s report, he writes that the president tried to get White House counsel Don McGahn to pressure Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to relieve Mueller of his duties:
“On June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn at home and directed him to call the Acting Attorney General and say that the Special Counsel had conflicts of interest and must be removed. McGahn did not carry out the direction, however, deciding that he would resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre.”
McGahn feared a comparison to President Richard Nixon’s purging of legal officials from the Justice Department during the Watergate scandal.
When the episode was later reported in the press, the president pressured McGahn to deny the reports. “McGahn refused to back away from what he remembered happening and perceived the President to be testing his mettle,” the report says.
McGahn left the White House in October 2018.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Sessions had decided in March 2017 to recuse himself from any investigations into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia because of meetings he had with the Russian ambassador in 2016.
Trump pressured Sessions to rethink his recusal from the Russia investigation as another one way to gain control over the Mueller probe. On Page 5, Mueller writes:
In early summer 2017, the President called Sessions at home and again asked him to reverse his recusal from the Russia investigation. Sessions did not reverse his recusal. In October 2017, the President met privately with Sessions in the Oval Office and asked him to “take [a] look” at investigating Clinton. In December 2017, shortly after Flynn pleaded guilty pursuant to a cooperation agreement, the President met with Sessions in the Oval Office and suggested, according to notes taken by a senior advisor, that if Sessions unrecused and took back supervision of the Russia investigation, he would be a “hero.” The President told Sessions, “I’m not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.” In response, Sessions volunteered that he had never seen anything “improper” on the campaign and told the President there was a “whole new leadership team” in place. He did not unrecuse.
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself was seen as the ultimate betrayal by Trump. Although Sessions was the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, the relationship between the two soured as Trump repeatedly bashed and criticized him in public and on social media. Sessions was finally forced out the day after the November 2018 midterms, when Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives.
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and senior White House official Rick Dearborn
When both McGahn and Sessions wouldn’t follow directives to fire or limit Mueller’s powers, Trump turned to a loyalist who didn’t work in the White House, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. According to the report, Trump pressured Lewandowski to ask Sessions to give a speech to walk back his recusal.
Mueller later writes that Trump again pressured Lewandowski a month later when the message had still not been transmitted to Sessions:
One month later, in another private meeting with Lewandowski on July 19, 2017, the President asked about the status of his message for Sessions to limit the Special Counsel investigation to future election interference. Lewandowski told the President that the message would be delivered soon. Hours after that meeting, the President publicly criticized Sessions in an interview with the New York Times, and then issued a series of tweets making it clear that Sessions’s job was in jeopardy.
Despite his apparent promise to the president, Lewandowski dragged his feet. Instead, he “asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to deliver it to Sessions” because he “believed Dearborn would be a better messenger because he had a longstanding relationship with Sessions.” But “Dearborn was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through.”
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus
Trump continued to fume over Sessions’ continued role as attorney general and hoped to find yet another way to remove him in order to curb Mueller’s investigation. In July 2017, Trump “told Priebus that he had to get Sessions to resign immediately” because “the country had lost confidence in Sessions and the negative publicity was not tolerable.”
“Priebus replied that if they fired Sessions, they would never get a new Attorney General confirmed and that the Department of Justice and Congress would turn their backs on the President,” Mueller writes, but Trump suggested a recess appointment instead. However, Priebus still saw Trump’s request was problematic, and called McGahn to help stop it. Priebus and McGahn discussed both resigning to stop Trump from firing Sessions. Still, Trump continued to push his then-chief of staff about the directive:
Even though Priebus did not intend to carry out the President’s directive, he told the President he would get Sessions to resign. Later in the day, Priebus called the President and explained that it would be a calamity if Sessions resigned because Priebus expected that Rosenstein and Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand would also resign and the President would be unable to get anyone else confirmed. The President agreed to hold off on demanding Sessions’s resignation until after the Sunday shows the next day, to prevent the shows from focusing on the firing. By the end of that weekend, Priebus recalled that the President relented and agreed not to ask Sessions to resign.
Staff Secretary Rob Porter
Before Trump had pressured Priebus to fire Sessions, Trump considered defanging the Mueller investigation by having Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand take it over. He reached out to Rob Porter about Brand’s loyalties because he knew her, and “asked him to sound her out about taking responsibility for the investigation and being Attorney General.” Trump would bring it up to Porter a few more times, but Porter was unwilling to do so:
Later, the President asked Porter a few times in passing whether he had spoken to Brand, but Porter did not reach out to her because he was uncomfortable with the task. In asking him to reach out to Brand, Porter understood the President to want to find someone to end the Russia investigation or fire the Special Counsel, although the President never said so explicitly. Porter did not contact Brand because he was sensitive to the implications of that action and did not want to be involved in a chain of events associated with an effort to end the investigation or fire the Special Counsel.
Porter would later resign in February 2018 amid allegations over domestic abuse, which he denied.
FBI Director James Comey
It was Comey’s firing by Trump that triggered Mueller’s appointment. Comey alleged that Trump had asked the FBI director to go easy on an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, over misleading the FBI and Vice President Pence about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump denied asking Comey about the Flynn matter, but Mueller finds that “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”
When the President met with Comey the day after Flynn’s termination — shortly after being told by [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie that firing Flynn would not end the Russia investigation — the President cleared the room, even excluding the Attorney General, so that he could again speak to Comey alone. The President’s decision to meet one-on-one with Comey contravened the advice of the White House Counsel that the President should not communicate directly with the Department of Justice to avoid any appearance of interfering in law enforcement activities. And the President later denied that he cleared the room and asked Comey to “let Flynn go” — a denial that would have been unnecessary if he believed his request was a proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
One reason Trump was sensitive about any investigation into Russian influence is that he thought, Mueller says, any suggestion Russia had intervened in the 2016 election on his behalf would undermine the legitimacy of his presidency.
Deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland
McFarland was Flynn’s deputy for the brief time he was national security adviser. Trump asked Priebus to have McFarland “draft an internal email that would confirm that the President did not direct Flynn to call the Russian Ambassador about sanctions. Priebus said he told the President he would only direct McFarland to write such a letter if she were comfortable with it.”
But McFarland didn’t know if that were the case, and she worried it would look like a quid pro quo in order for an ambassadorship to Singapore she was being considered for. Mueller goes on to write:
The evidence does not establish that the President was trying to have McFarland lie. The President’s request, however, was sufficiently irregular that McFarland — who did not know the full extent of Flynn’s communications with the President and thus could not make the representation the President wanted — felt the need to draft an internal memorandum documenting the President’s request …
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
When Trump was trying to make a case for firing Comey, he turned to Sessions and Rosenstein for their recommendations. Rosenstein expressed concern over Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server at the State Department, but Trump told him:
… to include in his recommendation the fact that Comey had refused to confirm that the President was not personally under investigation. According to notes taken by a senior DOJ official of Rosenstein’s description of his meeting with the President, the President said, ‘Put the Russia stuff in the memo.’ Rosenstein responded that the Russia investigation was not the basis of his recommendation, so he did not think Russia should be mentioned. The President told Rosenstein he would appreciate it if Rosenstein put it in his letter anyway. When Rosenstein left the meeting, he knew that Comey would be terminated, and he told DOJ colleagues that his own reasons for replacing Comey were ‘not [the President’s] reasons.’
When press coverage turned against Trump following Comey’s firing, the White House called the Department of Justice and said they:
… wanted to put out a statement saying that it was Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey. Rosenstein told other DOJ officials that he would not participate in putting out a ‘false story.’ The President then called Rosenstein directly and said he was watching Fox News, that the coverage had been great, and that he wanted Rosenstein to do a press conference. Rosenstein responded that this was not a good idea because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea. Sessions also informed the White House Counsel’s Office that evening that Rosenstein was upset that his memorandum was being portrayed as the reason for Comey’s termination.
Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe
Trump summoned McCabe to the White House in the wake of Comey’s firing, and:
… asked McCabe whether many people in the FBI disliked Comey and whether McCabe was part of the ‘resistance’ that had disagreed with Comey’s decisions in the Clinton investigation. McCabe told the President that he knew Comey had told the President he was not under investigation, that most people in the FBI felt positively about Comey, and that McCabe worked ‘very closely’ with Comey and was part of all the decisions that had been made in the Clinton investigation.
Trump met with McCabe again later, and Trump “without prompting, told McCabe that people in the FBI loved the President, estimated that at least 80% of the FBI had voted for him, and asked McCabe who he had voted for in the 2016 presidential election.”
Ultimately, Trump chose McCabe as the temporary acting FBI director but was suspicious of him because his wife had run for the Virginia state legislature as a Democrat. McCabe would later tell CBS News that he authorized an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia because he feared that if he were “removed quickly or reassigned or fired, that the case could not be closed or vanish in the night without a trace.” Trump fired McCabe from the FBI just 26 hours before his retirement was set to take effect, denying him his full pension.
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