(Reuters) - There are several aspects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election campaign that were not previously known until the release of his report on Thursday.
U.S. President Donald Trump believed the appointment of a special counsel to take over an active federal investigation would spell the end of his presidency, according to Mueller’s report.
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump of Mueller’s appointment on May 17, 2017, the report said, Trump slumped back in his chair and said: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
Trump asked Sessions, whom he had berated for months for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the election: “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” and told Sessions he had let him down.
Trump told Sessions he should resign, and Sessions agreed to do so. When Sessions delivered his resignation letter to Trump the following day, Trump put the letter in his pocket but said he wanted Sessions to stay on the job.
That alarmed chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior advisor Steve Bannon, who worried Trump would use the letter to control the Department of Justice, and they tried to return it to Sessions.
Trump took the letter with him on a trip to the Middle East, where he showed it to several senior advisers and asked them what he should do about it. On May 30, he finally returned the letter to Sessions with a note saying: “Not accepted.”
Mueller tried for more than a year to interview Trump, but in the end Trump refused. Trump provided written answers on some Russia-related topics, but did not agree to answer questions about possible obstruction of justice or events that took place during the presidential transition.
Mueller said he thought he had the legal authority to order Trump to testify before a grand jury, but he decided not to take that course because of the “substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation.”
Trump tried to get Mueller fired in June 2017, shortly after he was appointed, according to the 448-page report. Trump called then-White House counsel Don McGahn twice and directed him to order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller on the grounds that he had conflicts of interest.
McGahn felt “trapped,” but did not carry out the order, deciding that he would rather resign, Mueller said.
Other White House advisers later talked McGahn out of resigning, and Trump did not follow up to ask whether McGahn had fulfilled his directive.
Trump pressured McGahn to deny that these events took place when they surfaced in news accounts in January 2018, but McGahn refused, according to Mueller’s report, some of which was blacked out to protect some sensitive information.
Trump also enlisted his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowksi, to try to narrow the investigation’s scope. The report said Trump asked Lewandowski in June 2017 to tell Sessions that he should publicly announce that the Russia probe was “very unfair” to the president, say Trump had done nothing wrong, and limit Mueller’s probe into interference in future elections, not the one that had put him in the White House.
A month later, Trump asked Lewandowski about the status of his request and Lewandowski assured Trump he would deliver the message soon. Trump then publicly criticized Sessions in a New York Times interview and a series of Twitter messages.
Mueller says Lewandowski did not want to deliver the message to Sessions, so he asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to speak to him. Dearborn also did not want to carry out the task. Ultimately, the message never reached Sessions.
Mueller found that campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s efforts to work with his former business partners in Ukraine were greater than previously known, as he tried to use his insider status on the campaign to collect on debts owed for his past work by Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Shortly after he joined the campaign in the spring of 2016, Manafort directed his deputy Rick Gates to share internal polling data and other campaign materials with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Ukrainian business partner, with the understanding that it would get passed on to Deripaska, the report said.
During an August 2016 meeting in New York, Manafort told Kilimnik about the campaign’s efforts to win the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the report said. Trump ended up winning three of those states in the November election.
Manafort worked with his Ukrainian allies until the spring of 2018, after he had been indicted by Mueller, to promote a peace plan that would have split the country in two. These efforts did not constitute coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts to disrupt the election, Mueller found.
Manafort urged Gates not to plead guilty after they were both indicted by Mueller, apparently believing that they would be pardoned by the president if they did not cooperate with investigators. Trump’s numerous sympathetic statements before and during Manafort’s criminal trial could be interpreted as an effort to sway the outcome, but they also could be interpreted as a sign that he genuinely felt sorry for Manafort, Mueller said.
PLAN FOR U.S.-RUSSIA RECONCILIATION
Relations between Washington and Moscow had deteriorated under two previous administrations and the United States had imposed sanctions on Russia. Following Trump’s election victory, Russian financier Kirill Dmitriev worked on a proposal to improve ties with Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager who is friends with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. Dmitriev runs Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and reports directly to Putin.
Gerson gave the plan to Kushner before Trump was sworn in, Mueller’s report said, and Kushner gave copies to Bannon and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
After Trump took office in January 2017, Dmitriev told Gerson that his “boss” - an apparent reference to Putin - wanted to know if there was a reaction to the proposal, which called for cooperation on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and economic matters. When Putin and Trump spoke by phone, Dmitriev told Gerson that their plan had “played an important role.”
Gerson told Mueller’s team that he acted as an intermediary between Trump and Russia on his own initiative, not at the request of Trump’s aides.
Compiled by Andy Sullivan; editing by Grant McCool