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Mueller’s obstruction of justice probe on Trump, explained

In the Mueller report's second volume, the special counsel lays out 10 incidents of potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. In each, Mueller identifies the obstructive action, what it obstructed and what the president’s intent was in performing it. In some cases, he found “substantial evidence” of obstruction, but in others, none. Lisa Desjardins and William Brangham report.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to our deep dive into the Mueller report.

    Earlier this week, we looked at Russia's interference in the election and how the Mueller — how Robert Mueller determined there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

    Tonight, we continue to examine the president's actions and whether Mueller documents evidence of obstruction of justice.

    Lisa Desjardins and William Brangham are again our guides.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Special counsel Robert Mueller investigated some 10 different acts by the president for potential obstruction of justice. Some of these overlap.

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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."

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The next day, the president was asked about the special counsel appointment.

  • Donald Trump:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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.

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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)."

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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."

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Jeff Sessions:

    Therefore, I have recused myself.

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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."

  • William Brangham:

    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."

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Tomorrow night, stick with us. We will look at Mueller's final conclusions.

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