Special counsel Robert Mueller found ample evidence to convict President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice. His investigation uncovered multiple attempts by the president to hamper his investigation into potential misconduct by Trump and his associates. This evidence is incredibly damning and would seem to clearly meet the requirements for an obstruction charge. As he wrote in his report, Mueller only declined to indict the president because the Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the executive branch, claimed that he could not. Instead, Mueller made the case for obstruction in his meticulous report, providing a road map to Congress, which he expects to consider impeachment proceedings. There appears to be more than enough proof of criminality for the House of Representatives to draw up articles of impeachment.
All of this is obvious from the first few pages of Volume II of Mueller’s report, which details his obstruction investigation. All of it must have been obvious to Attorney General William Barr when he attempted to cover up the report’s actual findings in his four-page summary released in March and in his Thursday press conference. All of it should be obvious to a majority of the House of Representatives once they read the report. There is no reason for the House to take impeachment off the table. Mueller’s report is as bad as the president and his allies feared.
The federal crime of obstruction has three elements: an obstructive act, some kind of nexus between the obstructive act and an official proceeding, and corrupt intent. The “official proceeding” does not have to exist yet—it can be “pending or contemplated”—and the “nexus” need only be “a relationship in time, causation, or logic.” Mueller’s report runs through various actions by the president that arguably meet this definition, and it analyzes each one in light of the elements of obstruction. He concluded that five acts supported a reasonable inference of obstruction of justice. Those acts:
• National security adviser Michael Flynn lied to FBI agents, as well as administration officials, about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. After Acting Attorney General Sally Yates notified the White House that Flynn may have lied, the president did not fire Flynn, but seemed angry at him, saying “not again, this guy, this stuff.” The next day, Trump had a one-on-one dinner with then–FBI Director James Comey and told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” On Feb. 13, then–chief of staff Reince Priebus asked Flynn to resign, and Trump told him, “We’ll take care of you.” A day later, Trump cleared the room to have a private conversation with Comey, telling him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” The president’s efforts to shield Flynn from an FBI investigation by pressuring Comey could, Mueller concluded, meet the elements of obstruction. (Trump later denied that he cleared the room, “a denial that would have been unnecessary” if he thought his demand was appropriate—another indication of corrupt intent.)
• On June 17, 2017, after learning that Mueller was investigating him for obstruction, Trump asked then–White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller. (He had previously asked McGahn to contemplate ways of “knocking out Mueller.”) “You gotta do this,” Trump said, but McGahn refused. Trump called him back and pressed further, telling him, “Mueller has to go.” Again, McGahn declined to interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
• On June 19, two days after asking McGahn to fire Mueller, Trump asked his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to deliver a message to then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from the Russia investigation. Trump’s message demanded that Sessions unrecuse himself and then limit the special counsel’s investigation, only permitting him to investigate future election interference, not the 2016 race, because Trump was “being treated very unfairly.” (On several other occasions, Trump personally demanded that Sessions unrecuse himself, and the Justice Department investigate Hillary Clinton instead of his campaign.) Lewandowski did not deliver the message, so the president followed up on his request. The message was never delivered. In July, Trump asked Priebus to fire Sessions, which, after consultation with McGahn, Priebus did not do.
• Trump repeatedly directed McGahn to lie by denying that Trump asked him to fire Mueller. He condemned McGahn for telling the truth to special counsel investigators. Acting on orders from Trump, White House staff secretary Rob Porter told McGahn to write a statement claiming that he had never been told to fire the special counsel—or else McGahn would be fired himself. McGahn refused.
• After Flynn began cooperating with the special counsel, Trump’s personal attorney left Flynn’s lawyer a voicemail that said the following (edited lightly for clarity):
I understand your situation, but let me see if I can’t state it in starker terms. It wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve gone on to make a deal with the government. If there’s information that implicates the president, then we’ve got a national security issue, so, you know, we need some kind of heads-up. Um, just for the sake of protecting all our interests if we can. Remember what we’ve always said about the president and his feelings toward Flynn, and that still remains.
Flynn’s attorney refused to share information about his client’s legal strategy. The president’s personal counsel said he took this refusal as a sign of Flynn’s hostility toward Trump and planned to tell the president as much.
• Mueller also cited Trump’s defense of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort as well as his former attorney Michael Cohen. Trump publicly floated pardons for both men after they were indicted. He also passed private messages of support to Cohen, telling him to “hang in there” and “stay strong.” Once Cohen began cooperating with prosecutors, however, Trump dismissed him as a “rat” and a “weak person.” Trump gave inconsistent answers about his knowledge of Cohen’s efforts to build a Trump property in Moscow. Finally, the report includes a lengthy segment that appears to be about Trump’s aid to Roger Stone—who was also indicted—though it is redacted.
Each of these incidents, Mueller concluded, supported the “inference” of obstruction. They arguably met all three elements of the crime: Trump committed obstructive acts to thwart or impede a current or pending investigation with corrupt intent. Mueller seems to have a slam-dunk case for an obstruction indictment. Why, then, did he not pull the trigger? It’s evident that he wanted to. But he wrote that he felt constrained because the Office of Legal Counsel has asserted that a sitting president may not be prosecuted. So he did not declare outright that Trump committed obstruction—but closed the report with a strong implication to that effect:
Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we 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. At the same time, 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. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
Mueller also noted:
The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.
This sentence is, put simply, an impeachment referral to Congress. If Congress ignores it, it will have failed the special counsel and the American people. Mueller’s report is overflowing with proof of Trump’s criminality, including new information that confirms Trump’s efforts to hobble the investigation and tamper with witnesses. The president obstructed justice. And thanks to the restraints imposed on Mueller’s power, only Congress has the authority to redress this illegality by removing Trump from office. At this point, anything less than articles of impeachment would be an insufficient response to Mueller’s incriminating report.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus