The Gist

Mueller’s Biographer Deciphers the Special Counsel’s Report

Garrett Graff on obstruction charges, who came out looking good, and the document’s most “remarkable” scene.

Robert Mueller testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Then–FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 19, 2013.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca spoke with Garrett Graff, author of The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror, to get his conclusions on the redacted report released by the Justice Department. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Mike Pesca: Are there many important or curious facts that you learned for the first time from this report and that filled in pieces of the puzzle for you?

Garrett Graff: I think on almost every single page. The Russian government expected to benefit from a Trump presidency. And the Trump campaign was aware of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and their Democratic opponent, and expected to benefit from that politically. But while there was awareness of each other’s efforts, there wasn’t necessarily an agreement between the efforts.

There’s this remarkable scene that Mueller tells us about for the first time, where Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, says in May 2017 that a special counsel has been appointed. And Trump slumps back in his chair and says, “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.” That is an interesting scene in and of itself.

But then, something particularly interesting is that Mueller lays out these 10 instances that he investigates that could rise to the question of obstruction. They range from trying to cover up some activities to pressing others to lie about things that took place, including pressing Don McGahn, his White House counsel, to say that President Trump never told McGahn to try to fire Mueller. It’s a remarkably detailed document that, on almost every single page, advances our understanding of what has transpired in the Trump world since 2015.

Let’s take the Trump Tower meeting with the lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. She didn’t have much to deliver, and senior members of the Trump team immediately said, “This is a waste of time.” That’s the picture the report seems to paint, which is more or less what the Trump team said.

Yes, with a caveat to that. One of the things that does remain odd and suspicious through this entire report, through this entire investigation, is the extent to which the Trump campaign parried this interest, and these approaches, and these contacts by various Russians, and never saw fit to mention them to U.S. law enforcement or U.S. intelligence—even after getting defensive briefings from the FBI saying, Hey, you should be aware of, and wary of, foreign governments trying to assist you.

By the way, one of the reasons you call the FBI if you are on a political campaign and approached by people from foreign countries offering gifts is simply to protect yourself!

As the Al Gore campaign for the 2000 election did when it got some leaked debate prep.

Exactly. You assume that you are being the victim of a dirty trick of some kind and that you want to be sure that you did the right thing. The fact that the Trump campaign had all of these contacts, all of these meetings, had all of these approaches by Russians, and never chose to do the right thing remains odd.

As for obstruction, the report says that so many of his advisers said that Trump—and they—saw the investigation as undermining the magnitude of his victory, the legitimacy of his presidency, and maybe also his ability to get things done.

I buy that. I buy that he’d be a thin-skinned man who hates being questioned about how much he actually deserved credit for anything. Even if that was what was going on in his mind, and that’s why he was upset with Comey, Sessions, and everyone else, could you still call that obstruction? Would it still be legitimate to get an obstruction proceeding going, if the reason he was trying to obstruct it was not to cover up collusion but just because he hated being questioned?

Absolutely. And in fact, those are, to a certain extent, the only circumstances under which we have ever impeached presidents for obstruction. The scenario that is laid out in the Mueller report looks a lot like what faced people with Richard Nixon and Watergate, and Bill Clinton and Whitewater.

People might not realize that it’s actually quite possible that Nixon did not know about the break-in. So imagine a world where Nixon didn’t know about the break-in and in which the articles of impeachment—which didn’t have a chance to come to be because he resigned—got passed. We wouldn’t think of that as such a crazy world. That’s essentially what you’re talking about in this case.

Absolutely, and the fact that the president was responding so aggressively to the point of attempting to obstruct justice—even if he didn’t do anything wrong underneath it—is in some ways actually even more troubling. If he just saw this as the press delegitimizing him, and his answer in response to that was to break the law or attempt to break the law, that is not presidential behavior.

In some cases, Mueller says he decided not to bring criminal charges against them because he simply couldn’t prove that they actually knew that what they were doing was illegal. And that’s particularly true in some of the campaign finance questions surrounding the Russia probe and the 2016 campaign.

Mueller really says, in certain places, that ignorance of the law actually is an excuse for some of the people.

I wonder if maybe harping so much on the fact that obstruction was a means to the end of covering up corruption or coordination, maybe that, to some extent, thwarts the practicality of an impeachment.

This also figures into some of what Attorney General Bill Barr has been talking about. His legal theory seems to be that you can’t obstruct justice if there’s no underlying crime—which is not just factually untrue, but demonstrably untrue in other high-profile cases relatively recently, like Martha Stewart.

How would that work with justice if you get a pass any time you obstruct something that there’s no crime behind? Good luck with any investigation.

Exactly. There is this weird, underlying tone to some of the first half of the Mueller report that deals with the Russian investigation and the Russian attack in 2016, where Mueller basically says, “I wasn’t able to get all of the information that I wanted, and am unable to resolve some of these questions myself. If I wasn’t obstructed so much along the way, I might actually have a different decision on conspiracy or collusion.”

Let’s discuss Mueller not subpoenaing Trump. He could still fill in a sufficient enough narrative to hand off to the House of Representatives and say, “I think you have the information. Even though it would be a lot easier were the president to lie under oath, you still have—if you have the political will—enough information to indict, charge, impeach the president.” And that’s why I think he didn’t insist on interviewing Trump.

Mueller wouldn’t say this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t affected by knowing who Donald Trump actually is and what his pattern of behavior is. This is someone who lies about everything all of the time, whether it’s meaningful or not—including his new, recent, bizarre, pointless lie that his father was born in Germany, which he has been repeating multiple times in recent weeks. If you actually thought that the president was probably going to lie to you anyway, even if you made it through all of those hoops, is that worth it?

Leaving aside the question of whether you could have then nailed him in a perjury trap, and whether that would be worth it, the question of whether you could actually get the truth from this president is not a straightforward one.

I think 99 out of 100 prosecutors, if you told them, “All that you might get out of an interview is perjury on the part of the witness,” they’d say, “Ooh, good.”

I think that’s the case of everyone short of the president. Mind you, that was precisely what Ken Starr nailed Bill Clinton on. But that was because we were horrified that Bill Clinton lied. You could imagine Mueller coming out at the end of this and saying, “I’ve got nothing on Donald Trump except for this one lie he told in this subpoena battle.” And everyone would be like, “Well, yeah. What do you expect of him? Of course he was going to lie about that.”

The people who are most upset with him, though, would actually love that. That’s what they’d want. I think that Mueller is so assiduously fair, sometimes it’s hard for us to see it, because maybe people on the ground describe “fair” or “just” in terms of the just outcome. But I think he describes “just” in terms of the process.

Was there a redaction (or a slew of redactions) that you wish you could have seen and that you think would really fill us in on some big, still-unanswered questions?

One of the big revelations out of this is that there are a total of 14 other investigations that Mueller has referred on to other prosecutors. We know of two of them: Michael Cohen and Greg Craig.

Twelve of them are still redacted in this document. I think that single set of facts alone makes clear that while Mueller’s role in this case might be over, the investigation itself isn’t. This is something that’s going to continue to unfold, potentially for months ahead.

Do you think, other than covering himself in ignominy, that Barr’s words at the press conference on Thursday morning have any real effect on justice moving forward?

I actually think Barr has done real and substantial harm to his own reputation and the traditional role of the attorney general in the U.S. government. Barr sounded a lot like the president’s personal defense attorney, not the nation’s highest law enforcement officer. And there were a lot of people who saw Barr coming into this as an institutionalist, and as someone who really could have made an impact in rebuilding and rebolstering the pretty-beleaguered institution that is the Justice Department two years into Donald Trump.

But in ways big and small over these last couple of weeks, Barr has made clear that he is not there as a champion of the rule of law. He is there as a Trump partisan, and he was giving, as they say, a press conference for an audience of one.

Here are some people or entities who I think do wind up looking good: No. 1, the media. Because so much of this was reported accurately.

Absolutely. The extent to which so many people are not surprised by the totality of this report is a sign of how much of the underlying journalism it’s actually bolstered.

I think Chris Christie gave Trump great advice, and he didn’t take it.

I actually think the president’s legal team writ large comes out looking pretty good.

Yeah, Don McGahn did pretty well.

Don McGahn, the Raskins, Rudy Giuliani, Jay Sekulow—they were right, clearly, in this two-handed approach of providing witnesses and documents to fill in enough of the information around Mueller’s questions about Trump, while also holding back the president himself. And that seems like, today, a very smart decision.

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