Politics

The Clearest Case of Trump’s Corruption in the Mueller Report

Donald Trump speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit to Florida International University in Miami on Feb. 18.
Donald Trump speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit to Florida International University in Miami on Feb. 18.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

In his report on the Russia investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller concludes that President Donald Trump and his associates shouldn’t be prosecuted for conspiring with Russia. Based on Mueller’s findings, Attorney General William Barr says Trump shouldn’t be prosecuted for obstructing justice, either. But Mueller’s report tells a story far more damning than these legal conclusions. Trump’s campaign tried to collude with Russia. Trump tried to cover it up. And once the collusion attempt was exposed, Trump tried to abort the investigation.

The clearest illustration of the president’s corruption centers on a meeting at Trump Tower in 2016. Mueller describes the central facts: On June 3, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from a friend, Rob Goldstone, informing him that “the Crown prosecutor of Russia” wanted “to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary … and would be very useful to your father.” Goldstone wrote that the offer was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr. replied, “If it’s what you say I love it.” On June 9, Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, to hear the offer.

This was attempted collusion. The offer explicitly came from the Russian government. Its stated purpose was to influence the U.S. election. And Trump’s inner circle—his son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman—bit on it. Mueller confirms that Veselnitskaya was connected to Vladimir Putin’s government. According to his report, one Russian involved in arranging the meeting said its purpose was “to convey ‘negative information on Hillary Clinton.’ ” Another said it was “to discuss the Magnitsky Act,” a U.S. law that sanctioned Russia for human rights abuses. The two stories were related: The dirt on Clinton focused on the financier behind the Magnitsky Act. The Russians wanted to lift the sanctions. To make the sale, they were offering political ammunition.

Mueller says the Americans understood the terms. He writes: “Documentary evidence in the form of email chains supports the inference that Kushner and Manafort … attended the June 9 meeting anticipating the receipt of helpful information to the Campaign from Russian sources.” At the meeting, according to Mueller, Trump Jr. pressed Veselnitskaya “about how the alleged payments could be tied specifically to the Clinton Campaign.” When Veselnitskaya couldn’t answer him, Trump Jr. and Kushner lost interest.

The special counsel says he “found no documentary evidence” that then-candidate Trump, at the time, knew about the meeting or the emails. But when the president was told about them in July 2017, he tried to bury the story. By that time, Mueller notes, Trump “had been told that the emails were responsive to congressional inquiries.” Trump’s campaign had “received a document request from [Congress] that clearly covered the June 9 meeting and underlying emails,” Mueller observes. The documents also “would have been relevant to the Special Counsel’s investigation.”

The cover-up began in June 2017. According to Goldstone, Trump Organization lawyers told him they were “concerned because [the meeting] links Don Jr. to officials from Russia—which he has always denied meeting.” Goldstone wanted to issue a statement acknowledging that a “client in Moscow” had asked him to arrange a meeting at which “a Russian attorney” would offer opposition research that “Mr. Trump Jr. might find interesting.” The Trump Organization’s outside counsel wanted Goldstone to issue a statement that omitted the offer of election help and affirmed that Trump Jr.’s denials were “100% accurate.”

On June 22, Kushner tried to show the president documents about the meeting. According to Mueller, Trump “stopped Kushner and said he did not want to know about it.” A week later, on June 29, Trump’s director of strategic communications, Hope Hicks, told Trump she was concerned about the emails. “The President seemed upset because too many people knew about the emails,” Mueller reports. Hicks told Trump that his son should release the emails, but Trump “said he did not want to know about it and they should not go to the press.”

On July 7, 2017, the White House learned that the New York Times was doing a story on the meeting. The next day, Trump Jr. proposed to issue a statement acknowledging that he had been offered “information helpful to the campaign.”* But according to Mueller, the president “directed that the statement not be issued because it said too much. The President told Hicks to say only that Trump Jr. took a brief meeting and it was about Russian adoption.” That was partly true—the Russians had talked about international adoptions as a benefit of easing the sanctions—but in an exchange of text messages, Trump Jr. warned Hicks that the Russians had actually opened the meeting by talking about Clinton. Hicks tried to explain to Trump Jr. why his father didn’t want to admit that: “[B]oss man worried it invites a lot of questions.”

So Trump Jr. issued a statement that the meeting was about adoptions. The next day, July 9, the president was told in no uncertain terms that the story he had just orchestrated was false. According to Mueller, Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the president’s legal team, warned him in a phone call “that Trump Jr.’s statement was inaccurate and that a document existed that would contradict it.” Hicks, who was also on the call, dismissed this concern, arguing that the emails “will never get out.” She was wrong: The emails did get out. In response, Trump’s team launched a cover-up of the cover-up. Mueller documents three TV interviews in which the president’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, “repeatedly and inaccurately denied that the President played any role in drafting Trump Jr.’s statement.”

Despite all this evidence, Mueller concludes that the Trump Tower meeting can’t be prosecuted. One reason, he explains, is that conspiracy requires “an agreement,” and the meeting didn’t produce an agreement. Another reason is that even though the opposition research offered by the Russians might have been a foreign campaign contribution—which would be illegal—prosecutors probably couldn’t “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the June 9 meeting participants had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful.”

Mueller also declines to prosecute the 2017 cover-up since it was “directed at the press.” The evidence, he concludes, “does not establish that the President took steps to prevent the emails or other information about the June 9 meeting from being provided to Congress or the Special Counsel.” By attempting to hide the emails and the meeting from the public, says Mueller, Trump might have intended not to break the law, but simply “to avoid political consequences.”

What can be prosecuted, however, are Trump’s attempts to halt or curtail the investigation. And those attempts, Mueller observes, are interwoven in time with the discovery of the Trump Tower emails. The special counsel points out that on July 19, 2017—weeks after Trump was told about the meeting and “just days” after publication of the emails attracted “investigative interest”—Trump asked his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to relay a message to then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The message was to abort Mueller’s inquiry into the 2016 election. During the conversation, Trump told Lewandowski “that if Sessions did not meet with [Lewandowski], Lewandowski should tell Sessions he was fired.”

Together, the Trump Tower meeting, the cover-up, and the threats expose Trump’s complete corruption. His campaign met with Russians to seek the Russian government’s help in the election. The campaign never informed the FBI of Moscow’s overture, and the president tried to conceal it. When the emails became public—proving that Trump’s son had lied about not arranging any meetings with Russians, and that Trump had lied in his initial statement about the June 2016 meeting—Trump tried to halt the investigation. That’s attempted collusion and obstruction, even if it’s never prosecuted. And it’s all in Mueller’s report.

Correction, April 20, 2019: Because of a missing word, the original version of this piece incorrectly implied that the White House learned on July 8, 2017, that the New York Times was doing a story on the Trump Tower meeting. The White House learned of this fact the day before.