Robert Mueller arrives to speak to employees at FBI headquarters in Washington in April 2009. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg
Special Counsel Robert Mueller III found evidence suggesting President Donald Trump’s public comments during the prosecution of Paul Manafort were intended to encourage his former campaign chairman to not cooperate with the government—and possibly to also sway the jury that would find Manafort guilty of financial fraud, according to a 448-page report released Thursday summarizing the Russia investigation.
Mueller’s team closely examined Trump’s public statements, whether uttered aloud to reporters or typed on Twitter, as part of its investigation into whether the president obstructed justice. In the report, Mueller’s team identified numerous instances in which Trump offered praise not only for Manafort but also his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and in some cases raised the possibility of a pardon as they faced prosecution on charges arising from Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“With respect to Manafort,” Mueller’s team wrote, “there is evidence that the president’s actions had the potential to influence Manafort’s decision whether to cooperate with the government. The president and his personal counsel made repeated statements suggesting that a pardon was a possibility for Manafort, while also making it clear that the president did not want Manafort to ‘flip’ and cooperate with the government.”
Mueller ultimately declined to make a recommendation whether Trump tried to obstruct the Russia investigation. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, in concert with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said the evidence Mueller marshaled did not amount to obstruction.
“The results of the investigation are a total victory for the President ... it is clear there was no criminal wrongdoing,” Trump's defense lawyers said in a statement Thursday.
Mueller’s report highlighted, among other things, statements Trump made during Manafort’s trial in Alexandria, Virginia. Trump called the prosecution a “terrible situation” and “hoax” that “continues to stain our country.” Trump also described Manafort as a “Reagan/Dole darling” who had been “convicted of nothing” but was nonetheless “serving solitary confinement.”
According to Mueller's report:
“Some evidence supports a conclusion that the president intended, at least in part, to influence the jury. The trial generated widespread publicity, and as the jury began to deliberate, commentators suggested that an acquittal would add to pressure to end the special counsel’s investigation. By publicly stating on the second day of deliberations that Manafort ‘happens to be a very good person’ and that ‘it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort’ right after calling the special counsel’s investigation a ‘rigged witch hunt,’ the president’s statements could, if they reached jurors, have the natural tendency to engender sympathy for Manafort among jurors, and a factfinder could infer that the president intended that result.”
The report acknowledged alternative explanations for Trump’s statements, including “that he genuinely felt sorry for Manafort.” Mueller also noted that Trump might have intended not to sway the jury but rather to influence public opinion. But, the report said, the president’s comments could have also been intended to “continue sending a message to Manafort that a pardon was possible.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, center, arrives for sentencing at federal court in Washington, with attorney Robert Kelner, right, Dec. 18, 2018. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ NLJ
Regarding Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to authorities during the Russia investigation, the special counsel noted statements in which Trump praised his former national security adviser as a “wonderful man” and “fine person.” Trump, after Flynn resigned, also privately asked advisers to pass messages conveying that he still cared about him and urging him to stay strong.
The special counsel scrutinized conversations between a personal lawyer for Trump and Flynnn’s defense counsel at Covington & Burling. Neither lawyer is identified in the report, but Covington & Burling partner Robert Kelner has led Flynn’s defense.
Mueller’s team scrutinized conversations between the lawyers after Flynn withdrew from a joint defense agreement with Trump, signaling a possible pivot to cooperate with the government.
Trump’s personal lawyer responded to the move by reminding Flynn’s defense lawyer of what the Mueller described as the president’s warm feelings for his former national security adviser. “That still remains,” Trump’s lawyer said, according to the report.
When Flynn’s defense lawyer reiterated that he could no longer share information under a joint defense agreement, the “president’s personal counsel stated that the decision would be interpreted as reflecting Flynn’s hostility toward the president,” the report states.
Trump’s lawyer “said he planned to inform his client of that interpretation,” the report adds, with a footnote attributing that information to Flynn’s defense counsel. Citing attorney-client privilege issues, the special counsel’s office said it did not seek to interview Trump’s lawyer about the extent to which he discussed his comments to Flynn’s attorney with the president.
Kelner declined to comment Thursday.
In evaluating the dialogue between Trump’s and Flynn’s lawyers, the special counsel’s office appeared to run into an obstacle.
“That sequence of events could have had the potential to affect Flynn’s decision to cooperate, as well as the extent of that cooperation,” Mueller’s office wrote. “Because of privilege issues, however, we could not determine whether the president was personally involved in or knew about the specific message his counsel delivered to Fynn’s counsel.”