Inside Trump’s years-long campaign to stymie the Russia investigation – POLITICO
In the summer of 2016, not long after WikiLeaks began releasing damaging material hacked by the Russian government from the servers of the Democratic National Committee, candidate Donald Trump was traveling to an airport with campaign aide Rick Gates. Trump got off a phone call and told Gates more material would be coming.
As Trump predicted, more material did come, damaging his rival Hillary Clinton and possibly helping him win the White House. Then came more than two years of the new president’s efforts to pressure law enforcement officials, back-channel to witnesses and deter inquiries into his murky relationship with Russia.
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Trump has never hidden his hostility toward what he’s styled a “witch hunt” carried out by partisan and venal prosecutors. But many of the president’s efforts to fight back were made public for the first time on Thursday, and all of them appear to have been aimed at allaying Russia-related press scrutiny and federal investigations.
The following narrative account is based on the roughly 140 pages of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that detail evidence of 10 episodes of possible obstruction of justice by the president. Ultimately, Mueller opted not to determine whether Trump actually obstructed justice, citing Justice Department rules that shield the occupant of the Oval Office from criminal charges. But he pieced together a damning portrayal of a frustrated and often furious president determined to stop or at least stymie his inquisitors.
Over and over, Trump pressed underlings to pass messages to those who might damage him and to exert influence over investigations, often without success. At one point, in July 2017, Trump gave instructions to his former campaign manager, a private citizen running a lobbying firm, for firing his attorney general. Those instructions were ignored.
Trump — who has been absolved of obstruction by his newly appointed attorney general, William Barr— had greater success in getting his lieutenants to mislead the press, but only up to a point.
In sum, the report depicts a president who, if he did not meet the legal bar for obstructing justice over years of combatting Russia-related inquiries, largely has the obstinance of his own advisers to thank for it.
First, Trump sought to deter inquiries by denying any ties to Moscow.
In late July of 2016, around the time of Trump’s conversation with Gates, the candidate held a press conference, encouraging Russia to release Clinton’s emails and repeatedly claiming, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
Following the event, Trump’s personal attorney and all-around fixer, Michael Cohen, reminded his boss that he had just spent many months attempting to land a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. As set out in Mueller’s report, Trump responded that no deal had been finalized, so there was no reason to disclose it publicly. “Why mention it if it is not a deal?” Trump said
Three months later, in October, WikiLeaks released emails hacked from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.
The dump of Podesta’s emails followed just hours after news outlets reported a years-old tape of Trump making derogatory comments about women. And it came as U.S. intelligence agencies issued an extraordinary Oct. 7 statement blaming Russia for the hacks of the DNC.
In November, Trump won the presidency in a stunning election upset, ensuring that his handling of Russia-related matters would remain under a microscope.
Following the election, Barack Obama’s administration levied sanctions against Russia for its election interference, and at the end of December, Trump adviser Michael Flynn reached out to the Russian ambassador to encourage him not to retaliate for those sanctions.
In early January, FBI Director James Comey briefed Trump on unverified allegations that his team had conspired with Russian agents to swing the election and that the Kremlin possessed compromising video of the president-elect cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow.
Days before Trump’s inauguration, news leaked of Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador, and Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, instructed his deputy, K.T. McFarland, to deny the story to the Washington Post, which she did, even though she knew her denial was false.
No sooner was Trump inaugurated than questions about Russia began to consume his nascent administration.
Less than a week after he took office, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates trekked to the White House to inform White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn’s public denials of any sanctions talk with Kislyak were untrue and that the FBI had interviewed Flynn about the matter.
The next day, Trump summoned Comey to a private dinner at the White House and told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey pledged his “honest loyalty” to the president.
Then, in mid-February, as the FBI investigated whether Flynn had lied to its agents, Trump fired his national security advisor.
The next day, Valentine’s Day, Trump ate lunch with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the White House.
“Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over,” Trump declared, prompting laughter from the former U.S. attorney. Christie told the president that Russia would still be hanging over him on Valentine’s Day 2018, and that Flynn was going to remain a problem, “like gum on the bottom of your shoe.”
At the lunch, Trump repeatedly implored Christie to reach out to Comey and tell the FBI director that Trump really likes him. “Tell him he’s part of the team,” Trump said. Christie ignored the request.
Later that day, following a larger meeting in the Oval Office, Trump insisted on speaking alone with Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told his FBI director. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey did not agree to the request.
A week after Flynn’s firing, White House aides Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon conveyed to McFarland that the president wanted her to resign, but they hinted she might have an ambassadorship in Singapore waiting for her afterwards. The next day, Trump instructed Priebus to go back to McFarland. Before she left the White House, Trump wanted McFarland to put in writing that he had never instructed Flynn to call the Russian ambassador about sanctions. McFarland, who did not know whether that was true, balked.
Concerns arose that the request appeared to be a quid pro quo for the ambassadorship, and the matter was dropped. But Trump soon had another request: The president wanted Priebus, his chief of staff, to tell Flynn — now fired and facing an FBI investigation — that the president still cared about him. Priebus called the erstwhile national security adviser to check in. Trump would also go on to ask McFarland to pass along to Flynn that Trump still had tender feelings for him, though it is not clear whether she complied.
Flynn was not Trump’s only problem. The FBI had already begun investigating Russia’s election interference and its possible links to Trump’s campaign.
In early March, it emerged that Jeff Sessions had omitted his own mid-campaign meeting with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings to become Trump’s attorney general. News of the omission raised the prospect that Sessions would have to recuse himself from the Russia investigations.
This set off an avalanche of phone calls. At Trump’s urging, White House counsel Don McGahn called Sessions, the attorney general’s aides and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, hoping to prevent a recusal. Other White House aides called Sessions to dissuade him. Sessions, advised by Justice Department lawyers that he had little choice under department rules, did it anyway.
The next day, an angry Trump summoned McGahn to the office. “I don’t have a lawyer,” Trump complained. The president wished aloud that the late Roy Cohn — a pitbull attorney who had worked for Sen. Joe McCarthy, several mobsters and Trump — was still around to represent him.
That weekend, at Mar-a-Lago, Trump made his first of several failed attempts to get Sessions to “un-recuse” himself — this time in a one-on-one exchange with the attorney general himself. For the next year-and-half, Trump would fume publicly and privately about Sessions’ recusal, demand and reject his resignation, before finally discarding him.
In the meantime, Trump turned his attention to another goal: Getting national security officials to clear his name, by announcing publicly he was innocent, or at least not under investigation.
On more than one occasion, as intelligence officials prepared to deliver the president his daily briefing, Trump wished aloud that some statement could be given to the press declaring there had been no collusion.
In late March, Trump called Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, and asked him to publicly dispute news reports about Trump’s Russian entanglements. The call was the weirdest thing Rogers’ deputy, Richard Ledgett, had witnessed in his decades of intelligence work.
The president also made his wishes clear in conversations with Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and with Comey. “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know,” Trump reminded Comey in April, an apparent reference to their dinner table talk of loyalty. Comey never made any public statements clearing Trump.
By the first weekend in May, Trump had decided to fire Comey. Holed up at his Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey, he and adviser Stephen Miller drafted a letter doing just that. The following Monday morning, in the Oval Office, Trump informed other aides of the decision, which was final.
The next day, Trump received a letter from Sessions and a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein outlining their own cases for firing Comey. The White House promptly announced Comey’s firing, falsely claiming the decision was made on the basis of advice from the Justice Department.
That evening, then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered an impromptu press briefing on the White House grounds. Standing in the darkness between two hedges, insisting that he not be filmed, Spicer reiterated the false claim that the White House was not behind the firing. Spicer’s deputy, Sarah Sanders, would similarly attribute the firing decision to Rosenstein the next day.
Also the next day, Kislyak and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, paid a visit to Trump in the Oval Office, where the new president assured them, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
The remarks quickly leaked to the press, but when communications adviser Hope Hicks informed Trump that they had set off a firestorm, Trump was unfazed. “He is crazy,” Trump shrugged.
A day after that, Trump contradicted his administration’s line on the Comey firing on national television, telling NBC’s Lester Holt that the decision was his and that he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he made it.
A week later, on May 17, Sessions stepped out of an Oval Office meeting with Trump to take an urgent call from Rosenstein: The deputy attorney general had just appointed a special counsel to take over the investigation of Russian election interference and possible Trump campaign collusion.
Sessions returned to the Oval Office to deliver the news to Trump. “Oh my God. This is terrible,” Trump fumed, as he slumped in his chair. “This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
“How could you let this happen?” He asked Sessions, adding, “You were supposed to protect me.”
Trump told Sessions he should resign, and Sessions agreed to do it. Hicks had not seen Trump this irate since the day the video emerged of him bragging about grabbing women’s genitals in the home stretch of the presidential campaign — the same day the Podesta emails first leaked.
Sessions returned the next day to hand over a short resignation letter. Trump pocketed the letter, but left Sessions’ job status an open question. The day after that, Trump flew off for a week-long trip to the Middle East and Europe. In the middle of the trip, aboard Air Force One, Trump pulled the letter out of his pocket and asked aides how to handle it. But during the same trip, when Priebus — concerned about the legal implications of the president indefinitely holding onto such a letter — asked after the letter, Trump told his chief of staff he had left it behind in the East Wing of the White House.
Back in Washington, Trump temporarily put aside thoughts of firing Sessions and turned his attention instead to getting rid of Mueller. The president began raising spurious claims that Mueller had conflicts of interest — such as a request Mueller once made for a refund of membership fees from a golf club Trump owned in Virginia — but his aides kept knocking them down.
On a Tuesday in mid-June, Trump’s personal lawyer raised the supposed conflicts with Mueller’s office directly. The next day, the Washington Post reported that Mueller was investigating Trump for obstruction of justice.
That weekend, Trump called McGahn from Camp David and instructed him to have Mueller fired. Rather than comply, McGahn began telling White House aides that he was preparing to resign. Trump seemed to drop the issue.
Meanwhile, by late June, the pressure on Trump was growing.
Around that time, the president’s inner circle became concerned that reporters were looking into an undisclosed meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and several Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016, as Trump prepared to accept the Republican nomination.
Emails existed showing that the intermediary who set up the meetings — a British publicist — had promised the Russians were offering dirt on Clinton.
Priebus, his chief of staff, had first heard about the issue from Fox News host Sean Hannity, an indication that Trump’s team did not have a tight lid on information about the meeting.
But Trump, believing those emails would never see the light of day, pushed his team to offer a misleading account of the meeting, saying that it was a forum to discuss adoption policy. Trump Jr. soon released the emails, which undercut his initial public statements about the meeting.
As Trump continued his efforts to contain the investigations, the president turned his attention back to his attorney general. Also in June, he summoned Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, and told him to deliver a message to Sessions: Rather than investigate what happened in the 2016 election, the Justice Department should only investigate Russian interference in future elections.
On July 19, Trump again summoned Lewandowski — who had set up a lobbying firm after the election — and the operative assured his former boss that he would soon pass the message to Sessions. Then Trump announced he had another message for Sessions.
As Lewandowski scrambled to jot down Trump’s words, the president dictated the contents of a speech he wanted Sessions to deliver:
“I know that I recused myself from certain things having to do with specific areas. But our POTUS … is being treated very unfairly. He shouldn’t have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel b/c he hasn’t done anything wrong. I was on the campaign w/ him for nine months, there were no Russians involved with him. I know it for a fact b/c I was there. He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history. … Now a group of people want to subvert the Constitution of the United States. I am going to meet with the Special Prosecutor to explain this is very unfair and let the Special Prosecutor move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections so that nothing can happen in future elections.”
Trump told Lewandowski that if Sessions did not meet with him, Lewandowski was to fire Sessions.
Not wanting to deliver any message over the phone or at the Justice Department, Lewandowski asked Sessions to meet him at his office. But Sessions cancelled. Meanwhile, Lewandowski traveled out of town, storing his notes in a personal safe.
Along the way, Lewandowski also asked Rick Dearborn, a former Sessions aide then working at the White House, to communicate with the attorney general on his behalf. Dearborn at some point told Lewandowski he fulfilled the request, though in fact he had not.
Trump was running out of patience. On July 22, a Saturday, he told Priebus to secure Sessions’ resignation. Priebus told Trump he would do so, even though he did not intend to follow through. Later in the day Priebus convinced Trump to hold off on a firing so that news of it would not dominate the Sunday shows the next morning.
Trump by this point had made a habit of lashing out at Sessions publicly, and for the rest of the year, Sessions carried a resignation letter in his pocket every time he visited the White House, just in case. Trump continued to muse privately about replacing Sessions. At one point that fall, he asked Sessions to investigate Clinton.
In Late January of 2018, The New York Times and the Washington Post reported on Trump’s attempt the year before to have McGahn fire Mueller.
Irritated by the reports — which McGahn refused to publicly dispute — Trump told Staff Secretary Rob Porter that the White House counsel was a “lying bastard.” He instructed Porter to have McGahn draw up a written statement asserting Trump never told him to fire Mueller, suggesting he would fire McGahn if he refused.
But when Porter passed the message to McGahn, the White House Counsel did refuse.
The next day Trump summoned McGahn to the Oval Office, where the pair argued about the semantics of Trump’s request the previous June and about whether McGahn would seek a correction. Trump, McGahn believed, wanted to determine whether he could bend McGahn to accepting Trump’s version of events.
Then Trump began to question McGahn indignantly. “What about these notes?” he asked. “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” The White House counsel assured Trump it was normal for a lawyer to take notes.
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” Trump responded. “He did not take notes.”
As he sought to stymie and divert investigators, Trump also had potential witnesses to worry about.
The night before Thanksgiving 2017, a lawyer for Trump left a voicemail for Flynn’s lawyer. If, he said, “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.”
The problem of Flynn paled in comparison to the problem of Cohen, who had been enmeshed in Trump’s messy business and personal affairs for years.
Last April, FBI agents raided Cohen’s office and a hotel room the lawyer had been living in.
Soon after, Trump called Cohen, telling him to “hang in there” and “stay strong.” Messages poured in from mutual acquaintances, assuring Cohen, “The boss loves you.”
But Cohen decided to cooperate with investigators. He went on to tell them that he had pursued a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well into the primaries, that the Trump Organization hoped to close the deal as late as the transition, and that he had conferred directly with the Russian government about it. Cohen had gone so far as to tell his boss at one point that he wished the Trump Organization could get assistants as competent as the one from the Kremlin he spoke to about the deal.
When Cohen flipped, Trump quickly changed his tune, calling him a criminal and a “rat.” In contrast, he continues to praise Paul Manafort, holding out the prospect of a pardon for his imprisoned campaign chairman, whom prosecutors say has failed to abide by a cooperation agreement.
In November, the day after the midterms, Trump finally fired Sessions. Later that month, Trump submitted written responses to questions from Mueller that did not fully address the special counsel’s questions about Trump Tower Moscow. Trump’s team refused to provide follow-up answers that addressed the missing details.
As of Thursday, Trump remained in office and unindicted. He greeted the release of Mueller’s report as a final vindication. “No collusion,” Trump repeated once more. “No obstruction.”