Mueller report: White House aides protected Trump by ignoring his directives

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation reveals the extent to which White House aides, sometimes to protect the president and sometimes themselves, ignored his directives related to the investigations spiraling around his campaign and administration.

Mueller suggested that the aides’ actions, or lack thereof, may have shielded the president and themselves from obstruction charges.

“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the special counsel wrote.

Mueller did not find that Trump obstructed justice, but he also said the evidence uncovered in his two-year investigation did not exonerate the president.

His 448-page report depicted a president frustrated by the investigation and determined to do anything he could to regain control. And it showed a staff willing to resist his most extreme impulses.

Trump was distraught in May 2017 after learning that Mueller was appointed as special counsel, according to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff, who observed Trump slump back in his chair during an Oval Office as he grasped the consequences.

“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm f---ed,” Trump said.

One month later, after Trump learned he was under investigation for obstruction, he ordered then-White House Don McGahn to have Mueller ousted as special counsel over alleged conflicts of interest.

During a weekend at Camp David, Trump twice called McGahn at home and asked him to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to tell him Mueller had conflicts that prevented him from serving as special counsel.

“McGahn's clear recollection was that the president directed him to tell Rosenstein not only that conflicts existed but also that ‘Mueller has to go,’ ” the report reads. 

McGahn gave Trump the impression he would carry out the order, but privately decided he would resign rather than become “Saturday Night Massacre Bork,” referring to then-Nixon Solicitor General Robert Bork, who followed instructions to fire the Watergate special prosecutor after top Justice Department officials refused and resigned themselves.

McGahn also took steps to insulate himself, including consulting his personal lawyer and keeping extemporaneous notes of his interactions with Trump in the event someone tried to use his words against him.

Trump questioned the practice months later during a private conversation with McGahn, in which he asked his former White House lawyer why he told the special counsel’s office the president sought to have Mueller fired. Trump also tried to pressure McGahn into rebutting a New York Times story that said he did receive the instruction.

“What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes,” Trump asked.

McGahn responded he did so because he is a “real lawyer” but then Trump shot back, “I've had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” referring to his former attorney and fixer, whom he said “did not take notes.”

Other officials, such as former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, former staff secretary Rob Porter and former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, also kept detailed notes about their time in the White House, which helped form Mueller’s account.

After the Times reported last February on Trump’s instruction to McGahn, the president told Porter the article was “bullshit” and ordered the staff secretary to tell McGahn to “create a record to make clear that the President never directed McGahn to fire the special counsel,” according to Mueller.

Porter recalled Trump said something along the lines of “if he doesn't write a letter, then maybe I'll have to get rid of him,” referring to McGahn.

Around the same time as his request to McGahn, Trump told former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to persuade Sessions to reverse his recusal, put new limits on the Mueller investigation and deliver a speech criticizing the probe.

Lewandowski attempted to meet with Sessions outside the Justice Department, so a record would not be created. But a meeting could not be arranged and Lewandowski eventually asked White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn to hand Sessions a written message with the requests.

Dearborn told investigators that the instructions “definitely raised an eyebrow” and made him uncomfortable, so he "did not actually follow through with delivering the message to Sessions, and he did not keep a copy of the typewritten notes Lewandowski had given him.”

One month later, in July 2017, Trump ordered Priebus to obtain Sessions’s resignation, telling his top aide he “need[ed] a letter of resignation on [his] desk immediately" and that Sessions had "no choice” but to “immediately resign,” according to Priebus’s notes.

While Trump said he made the decision due to his belief Sessions was doing his job poorly, Priebus thought it was linked to the Russia investigation and brought his concerns to McGahn. McGahn told Priebus not to go ahead with the request and both men considered resigning rather than carrying it out.

The president went to Priebus about his request later that day, asking him “did you get it? Are you working on it?”

“Even though Priebus did not intend to carry out the president's directive, he told the president he would get Sessions to resign,” Mueller wrote.

Sessions was eventually ousted in November 2018, one day after the midterm elections.

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