Trump bid to choke off Russia probe

US President Donald Trump tried to seize control of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
US President Donald Trump tried to seize control of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Public at last, special counsel Robert Mueller's report revealed to a waiting nation that President Donald Trump tried to seize control of the Russia probe and force Mueller's removal to stop him from investigating potential obstruction of justice by the president. Trump was largely thwarted by those around him who refused to go along.

Mueller laid out multiple episodes in which Trump directed others to influence or curtail the Russia investigation after the special counsel's appointment in May 2017. Those efforts "were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests," Mueller wrote.

After nearly two years, the two-volume, 448-page redacted report made for riveting reading.

In one particularly dramatic moment, Mueller reported that Trump was so agitated at the special counsel's appointment on May 17, 2017, that he slumped back in his chair and declared: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm f***ed."

With that, Trump set out to save himself.

In June of that year, Mueller wrote, Trump directed White House Counsel Don McGahn to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the probe, and say that Mueller must be ousted because he had conflicts of interest. McGahn refused - deciding he would sooner resign than trigger a potential crisis akin to the Saturday Night Massacre of firings during the Watergate era.

Two days later, the president made another attempt to alter the course of the investigation, meeting with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and dictating a message for him to relay to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The message: Sessions would publicly call the investigation "very unfair" to the president, declare Trump did nothing wrong and say Mueller should limit his probe to "investigating election meddling for future elections." The message was never delivered.

The report's bottom line largely tracked the findings revealed in Attorney General William Barr's four-page memo released a month ago - no collusion with Russia but no clear verdict on obstruction - but it added new layers of detail about Trump's efforts to thwart the investigation. Looking ahead, both sides were already using the findings to amplify well-rehearsed arguments about Trump's conduct, Republicans casting him as a victim of harassment and Democrats depicting the president as stepping far over the line to derail the investigation.

The Justice Department released its redacted version of the report about 90 minutes after Barr offered his own final assessment of the findings at a testy news conference. The nation, Congress and Trump's White House consumed it voraciously - online, via a compact disc delivered to legislators and in loose-leaf binders distributed to reporters.

The release represented a moment of closure nearly two years in the making but also the starting bell for a new round of partisan warfare.

A defiant Trump pronounced it "a good day" and tweeted "Game Over" in a typeface mimicking the "Game of Thrones" logo. By late afternoon, he was airborne for his Mar-a-Lago private club in Florida with wife Melania for the holiday weekend.

Top Republicans in Congress saw vindication, too.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said it was time to move on from Democrats' effort to "vilify a political opponent." The California lawmaker said the report failed to deliver the "imaginary evidence" incriminating Trump that Democrats had sought.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said Republicans should turn the tables and "investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation."

But Democrats cried foul over Barr's preemptive press conference and said the report revealed troubling details about Trump's conduct in the White House.

In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer wrote that "one thing is clear: Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller's report appears to undercut that finding."

Australian Associated Press