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What the Mueller report says about Trump’s firing James Comey

In the NewsHour’s week-long series analyzing the details of the Mueller report, we turn to its second volume, which deals with the question of whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice. Specifically, how does the special counsel view Trump's firing of former FBI Director James Comey, and what prompted Trump to take that step? Lisa Desjardins and William Brangham report.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We continue our look now at what is in the Mueller report.

    The last two nights, we looked at volume one, Russian interference and outreach to the Trump campaign. Given that most Americans don't have the time to read the entire 448-page report, we're trying to help explain its key concepts.

    Tonight, we turn to volume two and look at alleged obstruction of justice.

    Lisa Desjardins and William Brangham are our guides.

  • William Brangham:

    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.

    Last week, Mueller made headlines saying this about the president's actions:

  • Robert Mueller:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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.

    He put this in more plain language when he spoke last week.

  • Robert Mueller:

    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.

  • William Brangham:

    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."

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mueller says the job of assessing whether a sitting president broke the law, and what to do about it, belongs to Congress.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as Mueller does in this section of the report, let's move on to the case for and against obstruction.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The report sees the president's actions in two phases, before and after one key event: the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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.

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That same week, the president says this to Lester Holt of NBC News:

  • President Donald Trump:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    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."

  • William Brangham:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, of course, Comey's firing led directly to the appointment of the special counsel and an investigation of the president.

    Tomorrow night, we will look at more of that obstruction investigation.

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