Mueller invites Congress to decide whether Trump obstructed justice

WASHINGTON (CN) – Offering insight into an investigation that captivated the nation for two years, the Justice Department on Thursday released Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.

Color-coded redactions pockmark the 448-page opus, but the material that is public raises questions about the summaries the public has received to date from Attorney General William Barr.

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump president 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,” Mueller’s report states.

Barr in his summaries meanwhile twice quoted only the piece of the report that says the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Mueller’s report also leaves up to Congress a determination of whether the president committed a crime, but Barr directly contradicted this earlier Thursday in a press conference.

“Congress can validly make obstruction-of-justice statutes applicable to corruptly motivated official acts of the president without impermissibly undermining his Article II functions,” Mueller’s report says.

Though the special counsel did not make a determination on whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr concluded separately that there was not enough evidence to establish this.

The AG first released his summary of what he called Barr’s top-line findings in a March 24 letter to Congress. He said he made his determination on the obstruction-of-justice issue after consulting with people at the Justice Department, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who appointed Mueller.

Barr’s letter cites “‘difficult issues’ of law and fact” that kept Mueller from making a determination as to whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice. The letter includes a partial sentence from the report: “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

That sentence appears in full today.

“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,” Mueller wrote. “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.”

Mueller emphasized that his office “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” and “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the president’s conduct.”

“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” the concluding paragraph of the report states.

Mueller uses word “impeachment” 10 times in describing the law of how that measure would be applied and how it would affect Trump’s criminal liability.

“A possible remedy through impeachment for abuses of power would not substitute for potential criminal liability after a president leaves office,” the report states. “Impeachment would remove a president from office, but would not address the underlying culpability of the conduct or serve the usual purposes of criminal law.”

Rebuking assertions by Trump’s attorneys, Mueller found that exploring whether the president obstructed justice would not chill his duties under Article II of the Constitution in violation of the separation of powers.

“Direct or indirect action by the president to end a criminal investigation into his own or his family members’ conduct to protect against personal embarrassment or legal liability would constitute a core example of corruptly motivated conduct,” he wrote. “So too would action to halt an enforcement proceeding that directly and adversely affected the president’s financial interests for the purpose of protecting those interests.”

The redacted report also ties up a lingering question about the infamous meeting in Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, between a Russian lawyer; former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort; and Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son-in-law and first born, respectively.

The Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, had offered information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but Mueller’s report says the investigation did not find enough evidence to show that taking the meeting violated campaign-finance laws.

Rob Goldstone, a music manager and friend of President Trump, initiated the meeting by contacting Trump Jr. with an offer to pass along “information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.”

Trump Jr. was on board. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he responded.

Mueller found a notable conclusion from this evidence. “The communications setting up the meeting and the attendance by high-level campaign representatives support an inference that the campaign anticipated receiving derogatory documents and information from official Russian sources that could assist candidate Trump’s electoral prospects,” the report states.

While the meeting could have run afoul of campaign-finance laws that prohibit campaign contributions from foreign nationals, Mueller said his team did not bring charges because there was not enough evidence to show the campaign officials knew their conduct was illegal.

The report also notes the government would have run into trouble proving that the value of the information offered by the Russians at the meeting exceeded the amount required for a felony conviction.

“Accordingly, taking into account the high burden to establish a culpable mental state in a campaign-finance prosecution and the difficulty in establishing the required valuation, the office decided not to pursue criminal campaign-finance charges against Trump Jr., or other campaign officials for the events culminating in the June 9 meeting,” the report states.

The report ties the Trump Tower meeting together with another incident in which foreign nationals offered damaging information about Clinton, but the details of that incident are redacted due to potential “harm to [an] ongoing matter.”

According to the report, Mueller’s investigation of links between the Trump campaign and individuals tied to the Russian government “did not establish” a third layer of coordination – specifically, an agreement by the Trump campaign to treat Russia favorably in exchange for assistance to the campaign.

Another section of Mueller’s report details the activities of the Internet Research Agency, a company based in St. Petersburg, Russia, that received funding from Russian oligarch Yevgniy Prigozhin; Concord Management and Consulting LLC; and Concord Catering, two companies Prigozhin controlled.

The IRA shifted from disrupting elections in a general sense to more “targeted” operations in early 2016, according to Mueller’s report, as it continued to favor then-candidate Turmp and worked overtime to disparage his opponent Clinton.

Through online subterfuge – which included buying political ads on social media, staging offline rallies, and posing as American citizens and organizations online — members of the IRA succeeded in making contact with activists, Trump supporters and Trump campaign officials in the United States.

Despite this, Mueller said: “The investigation did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”

But the influence was palpable.

By the end of 2016 election, the agency controlled multiple Facebook groups and Instagram and Twitter accounts.

“IRA-controlled Twitter accounts … had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures who re-tweeted IRA-created content,” says the report, which also cites Facebook’s findings about these abusive accounts.

In November 2017 Facebook executives told Congress that the company had identified at least 470 IRA-controlled accounts that posted some 80,000 times between January 2015 and August 2017, ultimately reaching up to as many as 126 million people.

“The organization grew quickly,” Mueller wrote.

The subsequent paragraph contains six lines of blacked-out text.

Another section says the growth led to an even “more detailed organizational structure,” but redactions conceal how the groundswell of activity began – and flourished.

In March 2016, three months before the Democratic National Committee announced it had been hacked, the Russian military intelligence agency GRU began hacking Clinton campaign volunteer emails, including its chairman John Podesta. By April, it had stolen hundreds of thousands of documents.

Mueller’s report says WikiLeaks later got hold of the stolen materials that the GRU began disseminating through the fictitious online personas DCLeaks and Gufficer 2.0.

Speaking to interest in the WikiLeaks release by the Trump campaign, the report says someone “forecast to senior campaign officials” in June 2016 that WikiLeaks would release information damaging to Clinton.

The identity of the individual or entity that forecast this is redacted in the report.

WikiLeaks’ first dump followed in July, around the same time Trump said during a rally he hoped Russia would recover emails missing from a server Clinton used while secretary of state.

“He later said he was speaking sarcastically,” the report notes, followed by three lines of redacted text.

Mueller’s two-year probe racked up 34 indictments after compiling evidence from 500 search warrants, 2,800 subpoenas and 500 witness interviews. The indictments included charges against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump associate Roger Stone.

The public release of the redacted report is sure to escalate a battle between the Justice Department and Democrats in Congress, who have been pressing Barr to turn over the full report and underlying evidence. The House Judiciary Committee voted earlier this month to authorize its chairman, New York Representative Jerry Nadler, to subpoena the full report.