B. Governing Legal Standards
Little value can be gained by repeating Mueller’s recitation of the legal standards for judging whether criminal obstruction of justice has occurred. Of the three tests (obstructive acts, nexus to a pending or contemplated official proceeding and corrupt intent), the Report conclusively shows (1) multiple, repeated obstructive acts by Trump personally, in some of which he was aided and abetted by members of the White House staff and (2) clear nexus to multiple investigations, including some of the obstructive acts themselves.
Given the rhetorical and other linguistic hoops that Trump and his attorneys/advisors have been willing to jump through to defend him, it is worth nothing that Mueller made plain that “an improper motive can render an actor’s conduct criminal even when the conduct would otherwise be lawful and within the actor’s authority.” II MR-9. Equally, if not more, important, is Mueller’s determination that criminal obstruction can exist even if the attempt is unsuccessful. II MR-12. It also includes “witness tampering” and attempts to influence others not to cooperate with law enforcement. II MR-10, 11, 12.
C. Trump’s Refusal to Cooperate
Mueller’s treatment of the president is noteworthy and inexplicable in several ways, given the gravity of what was being investigated.
Mueller allowed Trump to dither away a year following the SCO’s request for a voluntary interview. II MR-13 Trump ultimately agreed to answer some written questions about “Russia-related topics” but refused to answer any questions regarding obstruction of justice or events occurring during the transition. Despite concluding that the SCO had both the authority and the legal justification for a grand jury subpoena of Trump, the SCO decided not to force the issue. The SCO reasoning behind this extraordinary decision was that a such a late stage in the investigation, a subpoena, and the inevitable legal dispute to follow, could result in a “substantial delay.” The SCO also believed it had separately found evidence sufficient to “understand relevant events and to make certain assessments” even without Trump’s personal testimony. II MR-13.
This decision is quite remarkable. The investigation was in a “late stage” because Mueller had allowed Trump to fend off a decision and play an obvious delaying game for an entire year. Moreover, the statement that the investigation was at a late stage was not explained in the Report. Was there an internally-imposed deadline on when the investigation had to conclude? If so, who imposed that deadline and when? If not, then the “late stage” rationalization is pure vapor and another example of kid-glove treatment for a person as to whom substantial evidence existed of multiple acts of obstruction of justice. The decision left the SCO to infer conclusions based on circumstantial evidence in some cases and, while this is normal and often unavoidable (II MR-13), there was no compelling reason for the SCO to allow itself to be maneuvered into this position. Moreover, the credibility factors that apply in assessing testimony, enumerated by Mueller in details (II MR-14) all would work against Trump.
The ultimate outcome of Mueller’s reticence was that the door was opened for Attorney General Barr to declare falsely that the case was not even close and that Trump was innocent of all the charges. This opportunity to undermine the credibility of the Mueller investigation traces directly back to the strategic mistake of allowing Trump to avoid testifying.
The bulk of Volume II of the Mueller Report is devoted to a lawyerly application of the three obstruction elements to the various discrete situations in which Trump or his enablers in the White House or elsewhere attempted, one way or another, to derail the Russia investigation and any evaluation of his acts of obstruction. Several major points stand out.
First, Trump lied about numerous events. For anyone following the arc of his presidency with a reasonably open mind, this comes as no surprise. One obvious lie, for example, was Trump’s claim that he had no business dealings in Russia. II MR-15. An interesting thing to note is that as regards WikiLeaks release of Clinton’s emails, there was evidence Trump was plugged into the information pipeline about what WikiLeaks was planning to do. II MR-18. That portion of the Report is heavily redacted, indicating on-going investigation into the WikiLeaks connections. Mueller’s refusal to discuss the Report publicly leaves us to wonder what this on-going matter is about, a subject that should be pursued in his upcoming public testimony before Congress.
Mueller also notes that the Campaign tried to distance itself from people who were publicly identified as connected to Russians. Vice President Pence joined in the denials of Russia connections. II MR 20-21. All these moves are equally, if not more, plausible as efforts to conceal the Russia connection by outwardly disassociating from campaign people whose connections became known and publicized. Mueller also cites the opinion of unnamed Trump advisors for the point that Trump genuinely believed the stories about Russia connections undermined the legitimacy of his electoral victory. II MR-23. No doubt the stories did have that effect because the Russian support for Trump plainly does de-legitimize his standing as a “duly elected” president.
The inclusion and apparent full crediting of these statements from Trump campaign insiders, without Trump himself being questioned, seems designed to buttress the idea that Trump genuinely believed the Russian interference was a false story designed to undermine his legitimacy. But even if true, these claims about what he was thinking are entirely self-serving and based on interested 3rd party statements not supported by his own testimony under examination.