Trump & his choir keep lying about Mueller report

Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, on the Mueller Report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump and his team are still twisting the findings of the special counsel’s report on the Russia investigation.

At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Attorney General William Barr echoed Trump’s refrain of “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, insisting that any and all allegations of collusion have been “proven false.” That’s not the case.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham also got it wrong when he asserted that special counsel Robert Mueller had asked Barr to make a ruling on whether Trump obstructed justice.

A look at the claims:

TRUMP: “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION.” — tweet Wednesday.

BARR: “The evidence is now that the president was falsely accused of colluding with the Russians and accused of being treasonous. …Two years of his administration have been dominated by allegations that have now been proven false.” — Senate hearing Wednesday.

GRAHAM, Republican senator from South Carolina: “Mr. Mueller and his team concluded there was no collusion.” — Senate hearing.

THE FACTS: Allegations of “collusion” were not “proven false” in the Mueller investigation, nor was the issue of “collusion” addressed in the report.

The Mueller report said the investigation did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, saying it had not collected sufficient evidence “to establish” or sustain criminal charges.

The report noted that some Trump campaign officials had declined to testify under the 5th Amendment or had provided false or incomplete testimony, making it difficult to get a complete picture of what happened during the 2016 campaign. The special counsel wrote that he “cannot rule out the possibility” that unavailable information could have cast a different light on the investigation’s findings.

The report also makes clear the investigation did not assess whether “collusion” occurred because it is not a legal term. The investigation found multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the report said it established that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

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GRAHAM: “As to obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller left it to Mr. Barr to decide after two years, and all this time. He said, ‘Mr. Barr, you decide.’ Mr. Barr did.” — Senate hearing.

THE FACTS: Not true. Mueller did not ask Barr to rule on whether Trump’s efforts to undermine the special counsel’s Russia investigation had obstructed justice.

According to the report, Mueller’s team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted.

As a result, the report factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, specifically leaving it open for Congress to take up the matter or for prosecutors to do so once Trump leaves office.

Barr wrote in a March 24 letter that ultimately he decided as attorney general that the evidence developed by Mueller was “not sufficient” to establish, for the purposes of prosecution, that Trump committed obstruction of justice.

Barr subsequently acknowledged that he had not talked directly to Mueller about making that ruling and did not know if Mueller agreed with him.

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Trump’s big fear: ‘Will I be called a fraud?’

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The fear was persistent.

As the Russia investigation heated up and threatened to shadow Donald Trump’s presidency, he became increasingly concerned. But the portrait painted by special counsel Robert Mueller is not of a president who believed he or anyone on his campaign colluded with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.

Instead, the Trump of the Mueller report is gripped by fear that Americans would question the very legitimacy of his presidency. Would Trump, the man who put his name on skyscrapers and his imprint on television, be perceived as a cheater and a fraud?

To Trump, his victory over Hillary Clinton was both historic and overwhelming, though he won millions of votes less than did the Democratic candidate.

If people thought he’d won with the help of Russia, that glorious victory might be tainted.

Just a month after Election Day, on Dec. 10, 2016, reports surfaced that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded Russia interfered in the election and tried to boost Trump’s presidential bid.

The next day, Trump went on Fox News and called the assessment “ridiculous” and “just another excuse.” The intelligence community actually had “no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody,” he argued.

“It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place,” the Republican president-elect added.

The president’s public narrative quickly shifted. He blamed Democrats and accused his political opponents of putting the story out because they “suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics.”

But the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to sow discord among American voters and to help get Trump elected was his “Achilles’ heel,” one of his closest aides, Hope Hicks, would tell investigators.

In the months that followed, Trump reacted strenuously to investigations into links between the Russians and his campaign and transition teams.

Michael Flynn, who served on the transition team and would go on to be national security adviser, spoke with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Flynn asked that Russia not retaliate against the United States because of sanctions announced by the Obama administration; the ambassador later told Flynn that Russia would hold back.

In the weeks that followed, Trump paid careful attention to what he saw as negative stories about Flynn. He grew increasingly angry when a story broke pointing out that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak.

By mid-February, Flynn was forced to resign.

A day later, as Trump was set to meet with FBI Director James Comey, the president had lunch with his confidant and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He told Christie he believed the Russia investigation would end because of Flynn’s departure.

“Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over,” Trump said.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The fear — and Trump’s anger — continued for months as the Russia investigation ensnared some of his closest confidants. Over and over, he would tell advisers that he thought the public narrative about Russian election interference was created to undermine his win. It was a personal attack, he insisted.

On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey. Trump would later admit in an interview that he had considered “this Russia thing” when he decided to fire Comey.

Days later, Trump held an Oval Office meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House lawyer Don McGahn and Sessions’ chief of staff Jody Hunt to interview candidates to be the next FBI director.

Sessions walked out of the room to take a call from his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. When he returned, he informed Trump that Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump feared that his presidency, still in its infancy, could be over. And he was furious his aides hadn’t protected him.

The president slumped back in his chair.

“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m f—ed. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

For months, as the Russia investigation grew and more people in Trump’s inner circle appeared to be under intense scrutiny from federal investigators, Trump became completely preoccupied with press coverage of the probe. The message was persistent: It raises questions about the legitimacy of the election.

At rallies and on Twitter, Trump decried what he said was a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

In the end, the redacted version of Mueller’s report cleared the Trump campaign of colluding with Russian efforts to influence the election.

Trump crowed that the report found “No Collusion.” But he ignored Mueller’s finding that Russian meddling was very real and was intended to support Trump’s campaign.

Did Russia’s efforts lead to Trump’s victory? Mueller doesn’t venture an opinion, much as he does not decide whether Trump committed obstruction of justice.

But how could Trump have obstructed justice if there was no collusion to hide?

The lack of an underlying crime doesn’t really matter, Mueller argued. Trump still had a motivation to obstruct the investigation — the fear that people would question the legitimacy of his election.

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Mueller report details Michael Flynn’s lies about Russia

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Somehow, The Washington Post had uncovered Michael Flynn’s secret. Somehow, it had learned that he had spoken with Russia’s ambassador the same day the Obama administration announced hefty sanctions on the country.

Now the question was raised: Had the incoming national security adviser undermined the sanctions?

Flynn was in trouble.

“What the hell is this all about?” Trump fumed to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. Priebus called Flynn. The boss is angry, he told Flynn. “Kill the story,” he said.

Flynn, the retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who grew close to Trump on the campaign trail, knew it was true. Just weeks before, he had indeed discussed the sanctions and persuaded the Kremlin not to escalate the situation. But feeling the pressure of Trump’s anger after Priebus’ call, Flynn turned to his deputy.

Call the Post, Flynn said. Tell them there were no sanctions discussions. Even though she knew better, the aide, K.T. McFarland, did as she was told.

It was the first lie about Flynn’s Russia contacts. It wouldn’t be the last.

Over the next few days, Flynn repeated the lie to Priebus and others in the White House. No sanctions discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, he told Mike Pence, the vice president-elect. He said the same to press secretary Sean Spicer. And they parroted that to the public.

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence said during a Jan. 15 appearance on CBS “Face the Nation.

The denials set off alarm bells at the Justice Department.

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama holdover, and other senior officials knew the comments weren’t true. U.S. intelligence agencies, which routinely monitor the communications of foreign diplomats, had learned of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak when analyzing the Kremlin’s response to the sanctions. The FBI had also opened an investigation into Flynn’s relationship with Russia.

Yates worried that Flynn’s lie could put him and other U.S. officials in a compromising position because the Russians could prove the American public had been misled. There was also an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, of which Flynn’s calls were now a part of the mounting evidence.

The Justice Department’s concerns only increased when, after Trump’s inauguration and Flynn’s appointment as the nation’s top national security aide, Spicer gave his first press briefing. He had spoken with Flynn the night before, he told reporters.

The Kislyak calls weren’t about sanctions, he said. Next question.

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Two FBI agents walked into the White House the next day. It was Jan. 24, 2017, and they were there to talk to Flynn.

One of them was Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence official who would later face scrutiny for his anti-Trump comments. Flynn agreed to talk with them, and when asked, denied that he told Kislyak to back off from escalating situation in response to the sanctions.

He also lied about a follow-up phone call and another matter: On Dec. 21, 2016, when Egypt pushed a resolution at the United Nations critical of Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner turned to Flynn to push for the Kremlin to oppose the move. Flynn had unsuccessfully pressured Kislyak on the issue. But he told the agents otherwise.

News of the false statements to the FBI— a crime under federal law— quickly made it to Yates, who on Jan. 26, called White House counsel Don McGahn. She needed to discuss a sensitive matter.

In a meeting with McGahn and another White House lawyer later that day, Yates told him that Pence’s comments about Flynn weren’t true. Also, Flynn’s FBI interview hadn’t gone well.

McGahn, not entirely swayed by Yates, asked the National Security Council’s legal adviser, John Eisenberg, to look into the matter. He also went to Trump.

The president told him to work with Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon to look into it further. He added: Don’t discuss this with anyone else.

“Not again, this guy, this stuff,” Trump told Priebus, referring to Flynn.

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Over the next week and a half, Eisenberg and McGahn gathered more information, and Flynn had a one-on-one with Trump in the Oval Office. What did you talk about with Kislyak? Trump asked. Flynn acknowledged he might have discussed sanctions.

Days later, the front page of The Washington Post would say the same thing.

The story shook Pence, who had been in the dark. A review of Justice Department documents sealed it. Flynn couldn’t have just forgotten. He had lied. McGahn and Priebus told Trump he had to fire Flynn.

That weekend, Flynn flew to Mar-A-Lago with the president. On the plane back to Washington on Feb. 12, Trump asked him whether he lied to Pence. Flynn said he may have forgotten some things but denied lying. “OK. That’s fine,” Trump responded. “I got it.”

The next day, Flynn was out.

Priebus delivered the news. In the Oval Office, Trump embraced Flynn and shook his hand. “We’ll give you a good recommendation. You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you,” he said.

Flynn had spent just 25 days as national security adviser.

Trump had lunch with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the next day, which was Valentine’s Day. “Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over,” Trump told him. Christie burst out laughing. No way, he said.

“What do you mean?” Trump responded. “Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over.”

Flynn is going to be like “gum on the bottom of your shoe,” Christie said.

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In the Oval Office later that day, Flynn was still on Trump’s mind. The president was being briefed by his top national security team. That included FBI Director James Comey, who Trump was intent on making part of “his team.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Trump cleared the room and asked Comey to remain behind. “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” Trump said, according to Comey. There was nothing wrong with Flynn’s calls with the Kislyak, he said, but he had to fire Flynn for lying to Pence.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Comey awkwardly sidestepped the issue. But over the next few weeks, Flynn remained on Trump’s mind.

Trump praised him publicly. Privately, he turned to McFarland, who had covered for Flynn before. On Feb. 22, 2017, McFarland, now the deputy national security adviser, was asked to resign. But Priebus and Bannon, who conveyed the message, suggested it came with a soft landing. The president could make her ambassador to Singapore.

The ask came a day later.

As reporters questioned whether he directed Flynn’s Russia contacts, Trump told Priebus to have McFarland draft an internal email saying that the president didn’t order Flynn to discuss sanctions with Kislyak.

Priebus went to McFarland, who balked. How could she write such an email? She didn’t know if it was true, she told him. She went to Eisenberg, who told her it was a bad idea. “It would also be a bad idea for the President because it looked as if my ambassadorial appointment was in some way a quid pro quo,” she wrote in a contemporaneous memo.

Priebus backed off. Forget I even mentioned it, he said.

But Trump wasn’t done. Call Flynn to show I still care, he told Priebus. Trump doesn’t want Flynn saying “bad things” about him, Priebus later recalled thinking.

In late March, news outlets reported that Flynn had offered to speak with the FBI and Congress in exchange for immunity. “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!” Trump tweeted.

But privately, Trump asked McFarland to convey a different message. Tell him Trump felt bad for him, he said.

And he should stay strong.

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On Dec. 1, 2017 Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to “willfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the FBI concerning conversations with Russia’s ambassador. He cooperated extensively with Mueller’s probe and awaits sentencing.

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Barr doesn’t want committee counsels questioning him

Attorney General William Barr. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Justice Department has informed the House Judiciary Committee that Attorney General William Barr may skip a Thursday hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report if committee lawyers seek to question him.

The Democratic-run committee plans to allow counsels from both sides to ask Barr about the Russia probe after the traditional round of questioning by lawmakers. Department officials also told the committee that they opposed a plan to go into a closed session if members wanted to discuss redacted portions of Mueller’s report, according to a senior Democratic aide on the committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential communications with the department.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said given that Barr had agreed to testify, lawmakers “should be the ones doing the questioning. He remains happy to engage with members on their questions regarding the Mueller report.”

Barr is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday and the House panel on Thursday. The GOP-led Senate committee is expected to have normal rounds of member questioning.

It is unusual for committee counsels to question a witness. But committees can generally make their own rules, and other panels have made similar exceptions. In a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year, for example, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee hired an outside prosecutor to question a witness who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

The dispute comes as tensions have escalated sharply between House Democrats and the Trump administration over full access Mueller’s report and government witnesses who have defied congressional subpoenas to testify. Democrats have been eagerly anticipating the hearing with Barr as they try to build on Mueller’s findings with their own investigations into the president.

House Democrats have subpoenaed the Justice Department for the unredacted version of the Mueller report and underlying material gathered from the investigation. In response, the Justice Department has said they will make the full report, minus grand jury material, available to a limited group of members — an offer that Democrats have so far refused. The dispute could eventually end up in court.

A spokeswoman for the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, noted that Barr’s testimony is voluntary and criticized the Democrats for not reading the full report. “Democrats have yet to prove their demands are anything but abusive and illogical in light of the transparency and good faith the attorney general has shown our committee,” Jessica Andrews said.

Democrats have criticized Barr for drawing his own conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice after Mueller found he couldn’t exonerate the president on that point. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Barr is involved in a “staggering public effort” by the Trump administration to put a positive face on Mueller’s findings.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has also invited Mueller to testify and subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn. McGahn was a vital witness for Mueller in the report, which recounted the president’s outrage over the Mueller investigation and his efforts to curtail it. The White House has asserted it will fight the McGahn subpoena.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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