When Robert Mueller broke his silence in May, his main point was that his long-awaited report spoke for itself. But the report is 448 pages long. So Lisa Desjardins and William Brangham decided to dig into what the findings say – and what they don't. Here, in less than 30 minutes, are all of the most important points from the Mueller report.
Hi, I'm Lisa Desjardins from PBS NewsHour. When special counsel Robert Mueller released his report in March, he indicated that the report speaks for itself. But that report is 448 pages long. It is dense, and many of us just don't have time to read it. So my colleague William Brangham and I decided to dig into what the report does – and does not say. We began with the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Through two years of this investigation, through the indictment of 34 individuals, and then spelled out clearly in his final report, Robert Mueller made one thing crystal clear — Russia attempted to interfere with our 2016 election.
Here's the last thing Mueller said.
And I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American. Thank you.
And so that's where we will start.
Volume one of his report, it's just over half of the total report, and it deals exclusively with what the Russians did.
Mueller lays this out, like the entire report, essentially as a large outline, saying Russia attacked in two ways.
He writes, first, that it carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. And, second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer intrusion operations against entities, employees and volunteers working on the Clinton campaign. Translation — Russia used the Internet to fool American voters and hackers to attack Democratic computer networks.
According to Mueller's report, the Russian campaign began in mid-2014. That's when the employees of what's known as the Internet Research Agency first came to the U.S. to gather the material that they would later use in their elaborate social media postings.
This is the IRA's headquarters in St. Petersburg, Russia.
By the end of 2016, the Russians had set up fake social media account that reached millions of voters aimed at promoting Trump or dividing Americans.
The Russians created fake hashtags, like #KidsForTrump. They bought thousands of online ads. They impersonated U.S. citizens and set up political rallies, like a 2015 Confederate rally in Houston. They made posters like this one of "Miners for Trump" to promote a rally in Pittsburgh in 2016.
The Mueller report lays out how this ensnared real American political operatives, including the Trump campaign and its allies.
Donald Trump Jr. and top advisers like Kellyanne Conway all retweeted these fake accounts. Let's go to page 34 for an example.
It shows a 2016 Facebook post from candidate Trump himself where he thanked organizers and promoted a rally in Miami.
But Mueller writes that Russians in the IRA organized that rally, and even used a fake Facebook account to brag that Mr. Trump posted about our event.
According to the report, IRA staffers also posed as American citizens and tried to communicate with the Trump campaign to ask them for assistance coordinating some of these fake rallies.
But the report notes, "The investigation has not identified evidence that any Trump campaign official understood these requests were coming from foreign nationals."
And Mueller's investigators found no similar connections between the IRA and the Clinton campaign.
Next, the report looks at Russia's hacking, concluding, Russia's largest foreign intelligence service, known as the GRU, attacked the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.
The investigation found the GRU stole the password and identities of network administrators and used those to get access to Democratic files. The report said, "The GRU's operations extended beyond stealing material, and included releasing documents stolen from the Clinton campaign and its supporters."
To release those materials, the Russians created online personas with names like DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 to establish a relation with WikiLeaks, which then released these stolen files to the public.
On page 45, Mueller documents how, in early July of 2016, WikiLeaks contacted the Russians privately on Twitter, saying: "If you have anything Hillary-related, we want it in the next two days preferable."
And then, on July 22, three days before the Democratic National Convention began, WikiLeaks released more than 20,000 emails and other stolen documents. It was a clear attempt to embarrass Clinton and weaken her candidacy.
Timing is a constant theme in this report. The week after the Democratic Convention, Mueller writes, candidate Trump made this controversial statement —
President Donald Trump:
Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.
Now, President Trump has repeatedly insisted this was a joke.
But Mueller writes, within five hours of candidate Trump saying those words, the GRU targeted Clinton's personal office for the first time. Notably, Mueller found no evidence that the campaign knew that Russians would respond, but the report showed for the first time how soon Russians acted after the president spoke.
There were other new revelations in the report as well.
Mueller says the Russians directly targeted our election systems. They used cyberattacks against private technology firms that make election software, as well as officials in several states and county governments.
The question is, did the Russians' effort change or affect votes?
Mueller doesn't address it, instead writing that the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and states are still investigating.
One final note about this part. This Russian section is where you see some of the most heavily redacted pages in the report, much of it blocked out because of ongoing investigations.
So we've explained how Mueller documented Russia's elaborate meddling — how Russia tried to manipulate voters and hack election systems. Next, we look at how the Special Counsel details the many interactions between Russians and the Trump campaign, and whether any of that added up to coordination or a conspiracy.
For more than 100 pages, Robert Mueller lays out scores of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign or the Trump presidency.
From the start, Mueller is frank about why, to see whether those contacts constituted attempted Russian interference or influence on the election, and whether these contacts resulted in coordination or conspiracy with the Trump campaign.
And Mueller's conclusion about this conspiracy comes right away.
In the very next line, Mueller writes, "Based on the available information, the investigation didn't establish such coordination."
Mueller reached that conclusion even though, he writes, there were numerous links between the campaign and the Russians, that several people connected to the campaign lied to his team and tried to obstruct their investigation into their contacts with the Russians.
OK, let's talk about specifics with these contacts, starting with the Trump business and a big event in Russia.
In 2013, Donald Trump takes his Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow. The Mueller report points out, this is how the Trumps got to know Aras Agalarov, a Russian billionaire and ally of Vladimir Putin. He owned the event hall where the pageant was held.
His son Emin is a pop singer who sang at the event.
Things start moving pretty quickly. Within a few months, Donald Trump Jr. signs a preliminary agreement with Agalarov's company to build a big Trump Tower property in Moscow.
Ivanka Trump visits the country in 2014, scouting out possible locations. Then things seem to stall.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
In June, Mr. Trump announces his candidacy.
Mueller points out that, three months later, a new effort to build the Trump Tower in Moscow begins, this time led by Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, and developer Felix Sater.
On page 69, Mueller makes it clear that candidate Trump knew this was happening.
He writes "Cohen provided updates directly to Trump about the project throughout 2015 and into 2016."
But Mueller stresses that, publicly, candidate Trump repeatedly denies any such dealings.
I have nothing to do with Russia. I don't have any jobs in Russia. I'm all over the world, but we're not involved in Russia.
Meanwhile, Felix Sater tells Michael Cohen he's working with high-level Russian officials.
He emails Cohen, saying, "Buddy, our boy can become president of the USA, and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this."
The Moscow Trump Tower project is just one source of Russian contacts. Mueller outlines about a dozen of them in total. They vary widely.
Campaign aide Carter Page meets with Russians and gives a speech in Russia. Aide J.D. Gordon says he pushed for a change in the Republican platform to water down tough language about Russia and Ukraine. Policy adviser Michael Flynn gives speeches in Russia and has numerous contacts with the Russian ambassador, including a discussion of softening sanctions.
Foreign policy and national security adviser Jeff Sessions also meets with the Russian ambassador. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort regularly shares internal polling data with a man tied to Russian intelligence. And fellow Trump aide George Papadopoulos repeatedly meets with a different man connected to Russian intelligence, who tells Papadopoulos the Russians have dirt on Hillary Clinton.
For all of these connections, Mueller gives dates and times, often to the very minute.
And another contact point was the infamous New York Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016.
That morning, Donald Trump Jr. tells colleagues he has a lead on negative information about Hillary Clinton. That lead comes from a source you might remember, the pop singer Emin Agalarov, and his father, who is tied to Putin.
One of their staffers pitches the meeting to Trump Jr., claiming they had dirt on Clinton. Trump Jr. responds, "If it's what you say, I love it."
Mueller's report says this dirt from the Russians was that two Clinton donors had broken Russian laws and laundered money. But the Russian representative can't directly tie that to Clinton campaign funds.
The Trump Tower meeting ends with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, calling it a waste of time.
On page 185, the report says "The special counsel considered whether to charge Trump campaign officials with crimes in connection with the June 9 meeting." But they decide no, for two reasons.
First, Mueller can't prove that Trump's team knew they were acting illegally. It is against the law to take political contributions from foreign nationals. And, two, the value of the information may have been too low to prosecute.
This brings us back to Mueller's main conclusion in this part of the report, that, despite these varied contexts, the evidence was insufficient to show that the Trump campaign coordinated or conspired with Russia.
Mueller notes that collusion is not a specific offense, that the actual crimes are conspiracy or coordination.
One more thing Mueller points out investigators couldn't get all the information they wanted. Donald Trump Jr. never agreed to an interview, the same with several key Russians. Some witnesses lied to investigators initially. Some campaign aides deleted their texts.
And Mueller states the president's written answers were inadequate. Mueller specifically says it's possible this missing information could shed new light on the investigation.
OK, so we've looked at the details of volume one of the Mueller Report — about Russian interference and interaction with the Trump campaign.
Now, let's turn to Volume II and how the Special Counsel investigated alleged obstruction of justice. First: how did Mueller view President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, and what prompted Mr. Trump to take that step?
Did President Trump commit obstruction of justice? That's the question that takes up the final roughly 200 pages of the Robert Mueller's report.
Mueller made headlines saying this about the president's actions —
If we had had confidence that the president clearly didn't commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.
That conclusion, with no conclusion on whether the president is guilty or innocent, is where Mueller starts this part of the report.
He explains his lack of action by invoking an overriding question: Can a sitting president be indicted? On page one, his answer is no.
Mueller points to Justice Department policy that the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting president would undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.
Under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited.
So, then, why investigate? The report states that a president can be indicted after leaving office.
In his report, the special counsel is thinking of the future, writing: "We conducted a thorough, factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available."
Mueller says the job of assessing whether a sitting president broke the law, and what to do about it, belongs to Congress.
So, as Mueller does in this section of the report, let's move on to the case for and against obstruction.
The report sees the president's actions in two phases, before and after one key event: the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
So let's look at how the report examines Comey's firing.
Mueller makes the case that the president repeatedly wanted assurance that Comey was the president's ally, and he didn't get it. At a private dinner with Comey, the FBI director says the president asks for his loyalty. In February, the president clears out the Oval Office to be alone with Comey, and asks him to let go of the investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.
Mueller's report states Comey felt these were direct orders from the president.
Tension builds quickly.
On March 20 of 2017, Comey publicly tells Congress that the FBI is investigating Russian attacks on the election and any links to the Trump campaign. The Mueller report shows the president immediately starts contacting or relaying messages to the acting attorney general, intelligence officials, and repeatedly to Comey himself, asking for public declarations that the president is not under investigation.
On May 3, Comey testifies before Congress and doesn't say what the president wants.
The president fires Comey six days later.
On page 70, Mueller writes that, on the night of Comey's firing, the White House wanted to put out a statement saying it was acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's idea to fire Comey. But Rosenstein said he wouldn't participate in putting out a false story.
That same week, the president says this to Lester Holt of NBC News:
And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.
Now, many held that interview up as a clear admission that the president fired Comey to obstruct the Russia investigation.
But Mueller's report says the full NBC interview actually showed the opposite. On page 74, "The president stated that he understood when he made the decision to fire Comey that the action might prolong the investigation."
Mueller's report concludes that the evidence doesn't establish that the termination of Comey was designed to cover up a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Mueller says there's substantial evidence that the catalyst, the thing that pushed the president to do it, was Comey's unwillingness to tell the public that the president wasn't under investigation.
But, of course, Comey's firing led directly to the appointment of the special counsel and an investigation of the president.
But when it came to possible obstruction of justice, special counsel Robert Mueller wasn't just looking at the firing of James Comey. We look now at other actions by the President that Mueller investigated and whether those could be considered obstruction.
Special counsel Robert Mueller investigated some 10 different acts by the president for potential obstruction of justice. Some of these overlap.
In each instance, Mueller lays out three things: what the president did, what may have been obstructed by those actions, and what the president's intent was. Mueller's conclusions range from a clear no evidence of obstruction to cases with substantial evidence. Those cases, those with the most evidence, center on the president's attempts to fire or limit special counsel Mueller himself.
The report begins this segment with an eye-popping statement.
Page 77, Mueller writes: "The acting attorney general appointed a special counsel on May 17, 2017, prompting the president to state that it was the end of his presidency."
Mueller recounts a scene in the Oval Office that day where Attorney General Jeff Sessions tells the president that Mueller's been appointed. And the president says, "Oh, my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm (EXPLETIVE DELETED)."
Top aide Hope Hicks testifies later that she had only seen the president like that one other time, when the "Access Hollywood" tape came out during the campaign.
The next day, the president was asked about the special counsel appointment.
Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch-hunt, and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can always speak for myself and the Russians. Zero.
But, privately, the report says, the president undermined the special counsel's credibility.
Page 80, "The president repeatedly told advisers that special counsel Mueller had conflicts of interest."
But, the report says, top aide Stephen Bannon and other key staff disagreed, telling the president they were not true conflicts and even ridiculous.
According to the report, what happens next is critical.
June 14, The Washington Post reveals that the president is under investigation for obstruction of justice. According to Mueller, three days later, President Trump tells White House counsel Don McGahn to call acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to say Mueller has conflicts and can't serve anymore. The president says Mueller has to go. McGahn doesn't comply.
Now, this is all based on McGahn's testimony.
Mueller points out the president publicly disputes much of it. But, in the end, Mueller finds McGahn highly credible, reporting that he reacted strongly to the president's words.
Mueller writes, "McGahn packed up his office, prepared to submit a resume letter and told Chief of Staff Reince Priebus the president had asked him to do crazy (EXPLETIVE DELETED)."
Another serious charge about the president is that he tried to block Mueller from investigating him or his campaign.
On June 19, 2017, President Trump asks his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to take a note to Attorney General Jeff Sessions directing Sessions to say publicly, "I am going to meet with the special prosecutor and let the special prosecutor move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections," meaning Robert Mueller wouldn't investigate what happened in the 2016 election.
Lewandowski never passed on that message.
These acts, taken together, prompted some of Mueller's strongest language in the report. On page 89, he writes: "Substantial evidence indicates the attempts to remove the special counsel were linked to investigations of the president's conduct."
Page 97, "Substantial evidence indicates that the president's effort to limit the special counsel's investigation was intended to prevent further scrutiny of the president's and his campaign's conduct."
Now, we realize this is a lot, but with regards to other actions by the president, Robert Mueller found much less and sometimes no evidence of obstruction. Take Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Therefore, I have recused myself.
Months earlier, he had recused himself from overseeing this Russia probe because of his own undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador.
The president repeatedly pressured Sessions to unrecuse himself and retake control of the investigation. But Mueller finds only a reasonable inference, not specific evidence, that this was meant to protect the president.
Next, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort.
Mueller investigated whether Mr. Trump floated potential presidential pardons for them in order to influence their testimony or cooperation with the special counsel.
Mueller writes, "The evidence regarding Flynn is inconclusive," but, with Manafort, "The evidence indicates Mr. Trump wanted Manafort to believe a pardon was possible."
And, finally, Michael Cohen.
Mueller looks at whether the president directed his lawyer to lie to Congress about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
The report says, "While there is evidence the president knew that Cohen has made false statements," Mueller also writes, "The evidence doesn't establish that the president directed or aided Cohen's false testimony."
So, we've gone through the report by special counsel Robert Mueller and tried to highlight its key findings. Let's take a step back now and finish with a look at the investigation in its entirety.
The Mueller report is unique in American history. At times, it reads like a novel, even a thriller. At other times, it is dense legal opinion.
So what did it find?
First, that the Russians attacked the 2016 election. The Mueller report is loaded with examples of how Russian operatives launched what they call information warfare on the U.S. They wanted to distract and inflame voters to benefit Donald Trump's candidacy and to damage Hillary Clinton's.
And while Mueller shows the Trump campaign worked with individual Russians, he found the evidence didn't show any conspiracy or coordination by the Trump campaign.
There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, and none whatsoever.
That's been the president's mantra ever since Mueller's report came out. And like Lisa said, on the collusion-conspiracy issue, the president is right. The Mueller report doesn't establish any such wrongdoing.
But on the issue of obstruction, Mueller doesn't agree with the president.
To Mueller, obstruction is a crime of paramount importance. He went out of his way to say that in public.
When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government's effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.
Mueller's report lays out a long string of examples where it finds evidence, sometimes substantial evidence, that the president tried to obstruct justice.
For example, the president asked FBI Director James Comey to let go of one investigation. He told his White House counsel, Don McGahn, that Mueller has to go, and later told him to lie and deny that conversation ever happened.
In other cases, Mueller says what seems like suspicious activity wasn't obstruction, like when President Trump tried to bury emails showing how his son welcomed a meeting with Russians who were offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller concludes that didn't affect the investigation.
Overall, Mueller writes, "The evidence does point to a range of personal motives animating the president's conduct. Those include concerns the investigation would call into question the legitimacy of his election and whether certain events could be seen as criminal activity by the president, his campaign or family."
But, despite that, Mueller decided not to indict the president. The reason, he said, is a Justice Department opinion issued during the Watergate scandal. It says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. This is internal agency policy from 1973, not a law or court ruling. Because of this policy, on the issue of obstruction, Mueller put his conclusion this way —
Mueller seems to understand this is not a satisfying conclusion for anyone, saying the case raises difficult issues.
But he writes, "U.S. law rests on the fundamental principle that no person in this country is so high that he is above the law."
On the question of what to do now, Mueller points to Congress.
The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.
He's talking, of course, about the impeachment process. This is why the stakes are so high with this investigation. But the report, written as a legal document, is tough to absorb.
Mueller actually writes that he wants to help readers. He does this in the appendix with a glossary of 211 people and entities mentioned in the report, as well as the president's full written answers to Mueller's questions. Both are worth checking out.
OK, so what did this investigation produce?
Mueller lists all of the court cases triggered by his probe. So far, a total of 34 people have been indicted. The vast majority of those are Russian nationals.
But the investigation also led to a three-year prison sentence for Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen on fraud and campaign finance violations. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is serving seven-and-a-half years on charges unrelated to the campaign. Manafort's deputy, Rick Gates, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn both pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and have yet to be sentenced.
Meanwhile, another big case is heading to trial. Trump confidant Roger Stone is charged by Mueller with obstruction and lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks and the release of Democratic documents stolen by the Russians.
And there are more than a dozen other ongoing cases Mueller cites, but those are fully redacted, and we just don't know who or what is involved.
The report leaves open its most wrenching and difficult question, whether the president himself broke the law.
The report's final conclusion is that single, complicated paragraph you may have heard before.
It reads in part: "If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly didn't commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report doesn't conclude that the president committed a crime, it also doesn't exonerate him."
Thank you. Thank you for being here today.
Mueller so far has spoken publicly for just nine minutes about this report. He indicated he wants to leave the stage and return to private life.
Whatever Mueller's future, his report remains a challenge for America's leaders on all sides.
We did our best, but, obviously, this was a 448-page report with a lot of detail. So, we thank you for watching, but we also encourage you to look for yourself. The full Mueller report is on our website.
Watch the Full Episode
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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