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Mueller report reveals how Trump’s advisers protected his presidency by saying no

Nearly half of the Mueller report focuses on whether President Trump obstructed justice. Though it does not reach a definitive conclusion, it makes clear that Trump was sometimes protected by his advisers’ unwillingness to yield to his demands. Yamiche Alcindor talks to The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig about who in the president’s orbit pushed back and the pressure they felt when they did.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We've devoted a significant amount of time to the special counsel's investigation into Russia and the president.

    But there are many details in the more than 450-page redacted report that are worth highlighting.

    Yamiche Alcindor will continue our look at moments when people close to the president disregarded his orders.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Nearly half of Mueller's report focuses on whether President Trump obstructed justice. While it doesn't reach a definitive conclusion, in one critical section, Mueller makes clear the president was protected by his advisers.

    The special counsel's report states — quote — "The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful. But that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out the orders or accede to his requests."

    It makes clear that many people in the president's orbit were saying no. The list includes former White House counsel Don McGahn and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

    We're going to talk about a few of them now with Washington Post investigative reporter Carol Leonnig.

    Carol, thanks so much for joining me.

    Talk to me a little bit about how former White House counsel Don McGahn was pushing back against the president.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    It starts with when the president returns from New Jersey and says he wants to fire FBI Director Comey.

    In that instance, the White House counsel is a little bit gobsmacked that that is the plan for the day, but tries to carefully tone down the rhetoric and the rage of the president at the FBI director, and make sure that his original draft of how he's going the fire this person is not the one that he actually uses.

    And there is a notation in one of the notes taken of White House counsel Don McGahn's deputy saying, this original talking point shouldn't see a light of day, the president's original missive, because it legally is questionable how the president plans to do this and why, and it looks like obstruction of a criminal investigation.

    So then the next moment that Don McGahn tries to fend off a problem for the president is when he insists that — again, rageful, insists that Sessions shouldn't recuse himself from the probe and insists that Don McGahn get involved and make sure that doesn't happen.

    And Don is explaining to the president the law and saying that the Department of Justice ethics rules are governing this, and Sessions is doing the right thing. That's a hard one to take.

    But, finally, we get to that moment when the president, furious that a person he trusts is not running the investigation, furious that Bob Mueller is, insists that Don McGahn fire him. The president is in Camp David when he makes these orders, and he's calling Don McGahn at home over the weekend.

    And Don McGahn packs up his things, as if he's going to basically leave, that that is his only option. Ultimately, the president relents, doesn't insist on him firing Mueller. And Don McGahn doesn't have to quit.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I want to now ask you about former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

    There's this remarkable detail where Jeff Sessions is carrying around a resignation letter every time he goes to the White House, because he's scared he's going to be fired.

    Talk to me about the pressure that Jeff Sessions faced both publicly and privately, and what that tells us about the president's understanding of the role of the attorney general.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    You know, I think this is such an important question that you raise, because , publicly, we were watching it in real time, you and I.

    At The Washington Post, we had team of reporters working all weekend, because we envisioned the attorney general getting sacked on our watch. The president was tweeting publicly, almost goading — in his humiliating tweets, goading the attorney general to give up the ghost and resign.

    And Jeff Sessions didn't. He was being encouraged by his friends not to do it. In private, the president was also haranguing Jeff Sessions, getting minions of his to communicate to him that he should resign or unrecuse.

    And it was a stunning moment. The pressure that Sessions was under was something we have never seen before in Washington, save for the Saturday Night Massacre of President Nixon, when he actually fired Archibald Cox.

    But what was also striking about it — and you hinted at it in your question — was, the president doesn't delineate between the White House counsel, the attorney general, and even his personal attorneys. In his mind, they're all his guys. They're all supposed to be pulling the yoke for him to protect his flank.

    And that is not the role of the attorney general. That is not the role of the White House counsel. And yet that is what President Trump expected.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Your paper, The Washington Post, as well as The New York Times, reported on a lot of the details inside the Mueller report as they were happening in real time over months and months.

    What impact do you think that had on how this report was received? And did the president benefit from that reporting?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    I mean, this is such an interesting point.

    They — it's clear to me that the president benefited from this not being a shocker. It is stunning, the level of detail that Mueller's team brings to bear from people who are under oath and testifying before a grand jury or giving statements to the FBI, the dialogue inside the White House that we didn't know about, the pushback that some of the aides were giving the president.

    We didn't know all of the details. We didn't know the color of the drapes, so the speak.

    But the president is a little bit helped politically by the fact that many of these stories have been told in their raw form, so it is not so shocking to get this 448-page tome dropped in your lap.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What does it mean for the future of the president, and specifically President Trump, if his orders can simply be ignored? If there is an international crisis, if there's things that he wants done, what does it mean that he can just not be listened to?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    I think it's such a good question.

    The — it's clear to me in this report that several people felt uncomfortable doing the president's bidding when it crossed lines they recognized, crossed the lines between the White House and a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice, crossed lines between the White House Counsel's Office and the attorney general's office, these borders that we all observe.

    However, this is part and parcel of the Trump presidency. Welcome to the world in which many of the president's senior aides have tried to talk him out of things that are his whim, his impulse, his instinct.

    And, sometimes, they have not even had the sort of wherewithal to directly confront him, but actually they have just not carried through on his orders, on everything from domestic policy, to immigration, to foreign policy, pulling out of NATO, one of the president's requests.

    These are things that many people who serve around him have tried to avoid happening. And they believe that they're serving the president by preventing him from doing what he wants to do.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Of course. My pleasure to be here.

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