Posts Tagged ‘Special Counsel’s Report’

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it for yourself. pt. 10

July 29, 2019

Underlying Factual Issues

            This section deals with general issues, such as the legal justification for the investigation, the legal limits on it, and the general pattern of behavior by Mr. Trump. This is a wide-ranging section, parts of which are rather technical, so a list of the salient points is useful.

  1. First, this report differs from obstruction-of-justice cases typically handled by the Department of Justice because it deals with the President of the United States. Some of the report “raises garden-variety obstruction-of-justice issues,” other parts deal with the use or potential misuse of the powers granted to the President by Article II of the Constitution. This is relevant to the possible defense against the charge of obstruction, which is discussed later. At the same time, what for a billionaire heir businessman private citizen might be dismissed as “Trump being Trump” become much more legally fraught when done by the President of the United States, who has “unique and powerful means of influencing official proceedings, subordinate officers, and potential witnesses.” It’s one thing if a private citizen, even a celebrity billionaire playboy, says some person or people should be “locked up” for a supposed crime; it’s quite another when the President, who has broad authority to help make that happen, says it. When Mr. Trump called for the Central Park Five to be executed, it was an abuse of his economic power; he was able to take out ads in papers, to use his celebrity status to get television air time, and so on. And it turns out he was wrong; he didn’t know the facts, jumped to a conclusion rather than wait for a proper investigation, and attempted to have innocent people killed. But he was still only a private citizen, albeit an enormously powerful one; the damage he could do himself was limited. The President of the United States, on the other hand, has far more informal power to influence, tweet, speak on television and so on, and formal power to hire and fire prosecutors and even the Attorney General if they investigate (or not) contrary to his whims. When he says someone should be “looked into” it isn’t just an opinion; it’s closer to a credible threat.
  2. Many obstruction cases involve covering up an underlying crime. In this case, however, the Special Counsel did not find proof that Donald Trump Sr. knowingly conspired with Russia to undermine the U.S. election system. However, proof of an underlying crime is not necessary to establish obstruction of justice. The Special Counsel’s investigation firmly established that there were hundreds of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, as well as agents of other foreign governments; that these involved high-ranking members of this campaign including his own family; that the Putin regime was actively working to elect Donald Trump Sr. and that in many cases those campaign leaders knew that they were in contact with foreign agents and/or that they were receiving illegally obtained materials or other legally dubious help. All of this was acutely embarrassing to Mr. Trump and he was intensely concerned that it might undermine the legitimacy of his election. Furthermore, at the time the alleged obstruction occurred it was not established whether there was an underlying crime or whether the President’s own family might be prosecuted; as he himself said, his “satellites” might have done things he didn’t know about. In fact, at the time of this writing it is still not established whether there are more prosecutions; and multiple high-ranking Trump campaign directors or policy advisors have pled guilty or been convicted of felonies. Whether the obstruction of justice is motivated by a desire to avoid personal embarrassment or to hide a potential crime, the damage to the integrity of the justice system is the same; that is why obstruction of justice is such a serious matter.
  3. Many of the alleged acts of obstruction-of-justice took place in public view. This seems strange, given that obstruction of justice is a felony; you would think someone committing a felony would be secretive. However, the report asserts that given the power the President has to influence witnesses and official proceedings through mass communication, what we need to focus on is not whether the act was publicly known but whether we can discern a corrupt intent. In many cases, such corrupt intent is in fact established by witnesses or even Trump’s own words. Whether witness tampering or other acts of obstruction occur privately or publicly, the damage to the judicial system is the same, and therefore the crime is equally serious.
  4. While the report discusses separate instances of possible obstruction of justice, there is an overall pattern. At first, before Trump became aware that he was under any sort of investigation, he was concerned primarily to publicly clear his name. His efforts were primarily focused on getting intelligence and legal officials to state that there was no crime, or at least that he personally had not committed any crime, even though the investigation was still ongoing. But after firing James Comey, Trump found that he himself was being investigated for obstruction of justice, and his efforts became much more direct, aggressive and nasty.
  5. Trump repeatedly attempted to undermine or control the investigation into Russia’s efforts to elect him. Those efforts were often unsuccessful because his aides and subordinates did not carry out his orders. Comey did not shut down the Flynn investigation, which ultimately led to Flynn’s prosecution. McGahn did not tell Sessions to fire Mueller, and did not agree later to lie about having been asked to fire Mueller. This does not make Trump himself any less guilty of obstruction of justice; only a trial could establish that. But it does let most of those aides off the hook since they refused to participate in what might have been illegal acts had they been carried out.
  6. The President’s legal team offers what we might call the Nixon Defense: if the President does it, it is not illegal, even if it would have been illegal if any governor, senator or other official had done it, due to the authority and powers granted by Article II of the Constitution. Citing a great deal of case law, as well as legal interpretation of the Constitution including Article I and the principle of separation-of-powers, the Special Counsel’s report rejects this defense and holds that the laws against obstruction of justice apply to everyone, even the President. Requiring the President to obey laws against corruptly undermining the judicial system for his own personal gain does not unduly impede his ability to fulfill his office as described in Article II, while allowing the President to ignore laws passed by Congress and signed into law would unduly undermine the Article I responsibilities granted to Congress to pass laws for the good of the nation, and to exercise oversight of the other branches of government on behalf of the American people. In so deciding, the Special Counsel’s office cites many court rulings, including the Nixon case.
  7. Finally, the conclusion: while the Special Counsel did not make a traditional recommendation whether to prosecute, it did clearly state that it could not make a decision not to prosecute. As stated earlier, the Special Counsel felt that it could not recommend prosecution no matter what it found, since the Department of Justice policy is to not charge a sitting President with a crime even if a crime is found. However, the Special Counsel is quite explicit about whether this means the President is exonerated. It does not. The report concludes that he may well have committed obstruction of justice, and that were he not President then a trial for obstruction would be warranted.

Mueller’s public testimony clarifies somewhat that if it were anybody else who had committed the actions discovered in this investigation, that person would be facing trial for obstruction of justice. If his office had cleared Trump of all crimes, they would have so stated; but he is not cleared. Mueller stated directly that Mr. Trump can be put on trial after he leaves office. When asked whether an impeachment inquiry would also be an adequate forum to publicly establish the President’s guilt or innocence, Mueller refused to answer. His only concern was with the legal issues and the Department of Justice guidelines that he operated under. These allowed for a criminal investigation to establish facts and record evidence while memories were still fresh and other documents and evidence still exist, even though those guidelines forbid even a sealed indictment. They make no claims about impeachment because that is not the authority of the Department of Justice; it is authorized under Article One of the Constitution, which gives the powers and describes the procedures by which Congress may impeach the President or other officials. The concern is to be fair to the accused, who must be given the chance to answer the charges promptly. In principle, since an impeachment trial is a trial, an impeachment would also qualify as a “forum in which” the accused may “vindicate themselves.”

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 4

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Remove the Special Counsel

Of all the consequences of firing Director Comey, the worst from Trump’s perspective was the appointment of a Special Counsel to lead the investigation into Russian subversion of our electoral process. This was, of course, inevitable, given the gravity of the question of the integrity of our elections, the lack of trust most Americans had that the President would address the problem in an honest and impartial manner, the deep concerns of most of the nation’s law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies, and the fact that almost everyone else was either a potential suspect or a witness at this point. This was totally predictable and unavoidable in the view of anyone with any political sense or understanding of how American government works, but it caught Mr. Trump completely by surprise. The report states: “According to notes written by Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’” Given that Clinton survived a Special Prosecutor with far more sweeping powers and far less neutrality than Mueller had, this seems rather melodramatic. He then became angry at Attorney General Sessions for not protecting him. I have to confess, I have to agree to a point, given that Sessions apparently recommended firing Comey and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to take over the investigation after that was as predictable as a third Sharknado movie.   Several witnesses report that Trump was in a rage, and he demanded Sessions resign. Sessions agreed, wrote out his resignation letter and handed it to Trump. Trump decided let Sessions stay as AG, but refused to return the letter until other advisors pressured him over several days to do so.

All of this seems understandable given Mr. Trump’s well-known temper and political ignorance, and by itself not very significant. His later efforts to hit back at the Special Counsel before he even began his work, however, were more questionable. Trump began pushing for Special Counsel Mueller to be removed, alleging conflicts of interest. His own advisors told him his claims were, in Bannon’s words, “ridiculous and petty” and Department of Justice ethics officials examined the question and found no cause for concern. Despite this, Trump pressured White House Counsel McGahn to push Deputy AG Rosenstein to fire Mueller over these alleged conflicts. McGahn pushed back, telling Trump that firing Comey wasn’t even his “biggest exposure” compared to his “other contacts” and his efforts to end the Flynn investigation. The report goes on to describe increased pressure from Trump to fire Mueller, and apparent efforts by various advisors and staff to derail these efforts by leaking them to the press, refusing to cooperate and so on. McGahn even prepared to resign rather than participate in firing Mueller, though ultimately he was talked out of resigning by Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In the end McGahn did not resign, and Trump did not ask him the next day whether he had instructed Rosenstein to fire Mueller as Trump had wanted.

The Special Counsel considered these facts to be relevant to determining whether this behavior constitutes obstruction of justice:

  1. Obstructive Act: The report considers whether firing Mueller would have naturally delayed, chilled or otherwise impeded any further investigation. After all, firing Mueller would probably have meant he was replaced, but even so the investigation could have been crippled. Therefore, the proposed firing could have obstructed the investigation. It is also crucial to consider whether Trump actually ordered Mueller fired, or merely suggested the DOJ investigate these alleged conflicts of interest. Ultimately, the report rejects Trump’s denials that he ordered McGahn to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller; not only did it find McGahn a more credible witness than Trump with no motive to lie, but his other actions supported his story, other witnesses corroborate parts of it, and DOJ was already well aware of the allegations Trump was making and had concluded they were baseless. So Mueller’s office found Trump’s claim that he was merely making a suggestion that they look at these supposed conflicts to be unbelievable, while McGahn’s claim that Trump told him “Mueller has to go” likely true.[1] Thus we have an attempt to perform an act that would be likely to impede further investigation; this attempt was not carried out only because McGahn refused to do as ordered, and Mr. Trump was either persuaded to drop the matter or otherwise lost interest in it, as he lost interest in firing Sessions.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: By this time Mr. Trump knew he was under investigation; he had been warned by McGahn of his legal exposure, the Special Counsel’s office had informed the White House that they’d be interviewing witnesses to Trump’s interference in Comey’s investigation, and Trump himself tweeted that he was under investigation. Therefore, he knew there was an official investigation which could be crippled or completely derailed by firing the Special Counsel, yet he sought to do so anyway.
  3. Intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked… to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.” From his immediate “I’m fucked” to his pushing previously refuted allegations against Mueller and finally to his ordering Mueller be fired, it is clear that he was primarily concerned with protecting himself; and his later denials of having ordered McGahn to fire the Special Counsel suggest he knew the order could be seen as improper.

Once again, the report cites the existence of all three essential ingredients of an obstruction of justice: the act itself, the investigation to be obstructed, and the intent to do so. Mr. Trump had the desire to end the investigation and discussed “knocking out Mueller” by alleging conflicts of interest which his own people described as “silly” and “not real.” The only reason he did not “knock out Mueller” was that his own staff and advisors, realizing the enormity of his proposed actions (McGahn described it as “crazy shit”) refused to cooperate. Attempted obstruction of justice, like attempted murder, is still prosecutable; whether this act does indeed rise to the level of criminality is something that can only be determined, says Mueller, by an impeachment hearing before Congress, where all evidence can be presented and the President can offer his defense against the charges.

[1] Of course too, McGahn answered questions under oath and in person; Trump has refused to do so.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 2(c)

May 29, 2019
  1. The President’s Reaction to Public Confirmation of the FBI’s Russia Investigation

The second area of concern for the Mueller Report is Trump’s reaction to the FBI investigation of Russia’s efforts to disrupt and control the U.S. elections, including connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian intelligence. As discussed in Volume One of the report, there were extensive connections between the Kremlin and Trump Tower, but ultimately the Special Counsel decided he could not establish that there was a conspiracy. There was extensive indirect coordination, and both sides definitely acted in ways that benefitted the other and expected to benefit from the other; but given the apparent lack of concrete payoff for Russia, Mueller decided that there was not a full-blown conspiracy, at least not one he could prove with the evidence he had. But even if there is no “crime,” there can still be an obstruction of attempts to investigate. Mueller discusses efforts by Donald Trump to take control of the investigation, and the reasons he sought to do so. In early March, Trump learned that Sessions was intending to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions considered this a no-brainer; he was part of the Trump campaign and thus a potential subject of investigation, so for the investigation to have a shred of credibility he had to step away. Furthermore, there were those two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador which he had not disclosed to Congress. Again, Mueller did not find anything nefarious in those meetings, but they had to be investigated and so Sessions had to recuse. This was also the advice he received from the ethics officers at DOJ. Trump by contrast expressed his concern that if Sessions recused himself he’d be unable to protect Trump from investigation, which Trump considered more important than whether the investigation would have any credibility. After the recusal, White House ethics officers stated that the White House should have no further contact with Sessions about this topic; nevertheless, Trump personally continued to press Sessions to unrecuse himself.

By March 20th, FBI Director Comey was authorized to publicly confirm that there was an active investigation of Russia’s interference in our election, but to refuse to comment about any particular persons who might or might not be under investigation. Comey followed these instructions, refusing to tell Congress whether or not Mr. Trump was being investigated. This is said by the report to have made the President’s frustration “worse,” and that’s after previous testimony had described the White House as “in chaos.” Trump is described as being “beside himself,” and began considering by the 21st whether he could fire Comey without a specific cause. The evidence presented is that White House and DOJ officials advised that firing Comey would make things worse, not better, as it would not shorten the investigation and would look suspicious.

Mr. Trump also repeatedly asked other intelligence community officials, such as then CIA Director Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats if they could make public statements that he, Donald Trump, was not under investigation. Both of these men gave testimony that differed substantially from that given by their staff and other witnesses. In particular, the report says that Pompeo was asked to stay behind after a meeting to talk privately with Trump, but he said he had no such recollection. This is significant because, as Mueller stated earlier, a desire to discuss things privately suggests that Trump may have realized that he was suggesting something irregular that had to be concealed from other aides and officials. More significant are the discrepancies in Dan Coats’ testimony; his staff confirmed that he said he’d been asked to contact Comey about the FBI investigation and felt it was an improper order, while he testified Mr. Trump never asked him to speak to Comey. As well as repeatedly complaining to Coats about the investigation, Trump also contacted the NSA Director, Admiral Michael Rogers, and asked him if he could publicly refute the notion that Trump himself was under investigation. This request, witnessed by the Deputy Director as well, was said to be “the most unusual thing” the Deputy Director had experienced in 40 years of government service, and struck both of them as so strange and improper that they immediately drew up a memorandum, signed it together, and put it in a safe. However, Director Rogers said he did not interpret it as an “order” so he did not do anything about it.

On March 30 the President directly contacted Comey and asked him to “lift the cloud” over him concerning the Russia investigation. Comey contacted his immediate supervisor at DOJ, Mr. Boente, about the conversation, asked for guidance, and said he was uncomfortable with the fact that the President was directly contacting him about this. At this time, Trump was not in fact under direct investigation, and his concern was to get that word out. Trump said it was fine to investigate his “satellites” but he wanted the world to know that he himself was not being investigated. So he was not asking anyone to lie, but he was interfering with the investigation by pushing to have information publicly released before the investigation was concluded. Also, a public statement that he was not being investigated could have hindered a future investigation if one became necessary.

  1. Obstructive Act: There is some question in the report whether there was an obstructive act at all. The principle persons involved, Pompeo, Coats, Rogers and apparently even Comey, did not feel that Mr. Trump’s repeated pleas for public statements of his innocence were “directives to improperly interfere with the investigation,” and in fact they often did not carry out those requests because they saw them as foolish or improper requests but not direct orders. But other witnesses testified that at the time Coats at least did feel that he had received just such a directive to improperly interfere, i.e. obstruct the investigation.
  2. Nexus: Since all these actions by the President came as a result of the investigation of Russian interference in our elections, there is a nexus to an official proceeding even though it had not reached the grand jury at that time.
  3. Intent: At this time Trump was not trying to shut down the investigation; he agreed that if “some satellite” of his had been working with Russia “it would be good to find that out.” But it is clear that he had personal reasons for involving himself in the investigation; it was interfering with his desire to develop closer ties to Russia, and he felt that the implication that Russia had helped elect him undermined the greatness of his electoral victory.

Overall, then, this is less clearly a case of obstruction of justice than the Flynn episode seems to be. The nexus to an investigation is clearly established. The intent to intervene for personal and political reasons, rather than simply for the good of the nation and the integrity of the investigation, is a bit less clear but Mueller seems to feel this too is established. In fact, Trump’s repeated efforts to clear his name troubled those he contacted as possibly improper and definitely irregular, and in fact he was advised against these repeated outreaches to Comey and Sessions by his own advisors and legal counsel partly because it would tend to undermine the integrity and credibility of the investigation. The real question is whether there was in fact a real obstructive act. Was Mr. Trump ordering people to interfere in the investigation, or was he merely venting? Was he trying to clear his name because he knew or believed he had done nothing wrong, or was he trying to drag others into a cover-up? Mueller gives more weight to the testimony of Coats and the other officials than to other witnesses, partly because only they were at these private meetings with the President while other witnesses mostly recalled what their bosses said or did immediately afterwards. This might have been ruled mere hearsay in court, though an impeachment hearing might give this testimony a different weight. While a later investigation, either an impeachment or a criminal trial after Mr. Trump leaves office, might wish to look harder at this evidence and try to resolve the discrepancies, the Mueller Report simply presents the sometimes conflicting testimony and leaves it there for the reader’s consideration.

If you like visual aids, here’s a quick summary of the Mueller report

May 29, 2019

Here’s a chart summarizing the Mueller report.

I haven’t finished my analysis so maybe I’ll quibble with some of these later.  What it shows, and what your own reading of the Special Counsel’s report will show, is that the claims of “no collusion” and “total exoneration” are #FakeNews, to turn a phrase.  In fact, the report is closer to #ImpeachTrumpNow than it is to #WitchHunt.  The short version is “The Special Counsel can’t indict a sitting president; presidents have to be impeached first, and then indicted, so it’s up to Congress to take it from here.”