The Russia Connection

The Report, Episode Eleven: A Special Counsel

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes
Friday, October 11, 2019, 10:03 AM

Today, we released the eleventh episode of Lawfare’s narrative audio documentary, The Report, which recounts the story Robert Mueller lays out in his 448-page report.

This episode covers the president’s reaction to the appointment Robert Mueller as special counsel. The president attempts to discredit and disqualify Mueller and, eventually, directs that he be fired. When White House Counsel Don McGahn refuses to help fire the special counsel, the president adopts a new approach and begins pressuring the Attorney General to limit the scope of the investigation. The president engages in a public and private campaign against Jeff Sessions, including asking his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to deliver a message to the Attorney General. Mueller’s analysis of these events offer some of the strongest evidence of obstruction of justice in the entire report.

The first seven episodes of The Report unpack Volume I; they tell the story of Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and the Trump campaign’s interaction and involvement with those efforts. Episode 1 covers the Russian social media operation and the activities of the Internet Research Agency. Episode 2 focuses on the Russian hacking campaign; the stealing of documents and emails from the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and figures associated with the Clinton campaign; and the leaks of stolen materials timed to affect the U.S. election. Episode 3 covers the Trump campaign’s involvement in the distribution of hacked materials. Episode 4 tells the story of Trump Tower Moscow, which Donald Trump sought to build even as he was denying having any business in Russia, and Trump Tower New York, where Russian representatives showed up promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Episode 5 recounts the stories of three men associated with the Trump campaign and their various ties to Russia: George Papadopoulos, Carter Page and Paul Manafort. Episode 6 details backchannel attempts by the Russians to influence the Trump campaign and transition team on policy matters—an effort to reboot U.S.-Russia relations one secret meeting at a time. Episode 7 covers the special counsel’s charging decisions—which individuals Mueller decides to prosecute, whose prosecutions he declines, and the reasons for his decisions.

We turned to Volume II in Episode 8, which offers the necessary legal and factual context to understand this second half of the report on possibly obstructive activity: Why was President Trump nervous about an investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russia? What is obstruction of justice? And Episode 9  details national security adviser Flynn’s lie to federal investigators about his phone call with the Russian ambassador and the White House response to learning of that lie. Episode 9 also charts the president’s turbulent relationship with Comey, which led the two men to a fateful Oval Office encounter.  Episode 10 covers Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse from the Russia investigation, Trump’s reaction to the recusal, and the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey. Mueller evaluated whether those episodes, individually or collectively, met the legal requirements of obstruction of justice. 

In this episode, we tell the story of how Trump learns Mueller has been appointed—an event Trump believes represents the “end” of his presidency. The president tries to claim that Mueller has conflicts of interest, but even Trump’s own staff insist these reasons are frivolous and pretextual. When the president learns he is personally under investigation, he directs that Mueller be fired—prompting his White House Counsel to threaten to resign. As more news reports break about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the president finds himself stuck with Mueller. So he turns up the heat on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pressuring him privately and attacking him publicly. And Trump turns to a loyal friend outside of government, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, to carry a message directing the Attorney General to limit Mueller’s probe. Robert Mueller evaluates all of this for obstruction of justice. And unlike in some prior episodes, here, the special counsel finds substantial evidence that all elements of obstruction of justice are met. But Mueller doesn’t make any accusations; he just lays out the dots for anyone who wants to connect them.

This episode features Matt Zapotosky, Mike Schmidt, Preet Bharara, John Barrett, Paul Rosensweig, and Bob Bauer.

Understanding the Mueller Report has never been more important. President Trump now finds himself embroiled in a new scandal involving interactions with the government of Ukraine. This time, revelations that Trump solicited foreign interference in a presidential election have sparked a fast-moving impeachment inquiry rather than the appointment of a special counsel. But to understand what is happening now, it is critical to know what Mueller says happened before. We hope you’ll continue to subscribe, rate and share it widely.

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