Translating the Mueller report: Trump's response to public confirmation of Russia investigation
C. Trump’s reaction to Confirmation of the FBI’s Russia Investigation (p. 310/48)
Overview: In March 2017 the President learned Sessions was thinking of recusing himself from the Russia investigation and he tried to prevent this. After Sessions announced his recusal on March 2, the President expressed anger at him for the decision and then privately asked him to “un-recuse.” On March 20, 2017, Comey publicly disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Russia investigation. In the days that followed, the President contacted Comey and other intelligence agency leaders and asked them to push back publicly on the suggestion that the President had any connection to the Russia election-interference effort in order to “lift the cloud” of the ongoing investigation.
Dec 29, 2016. Obama Administration imposes sanctions on Russia for cyber-interference in presidential election. Sanctions hit Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska hard, the businessman working with Paul Manafort. Trump put out a statement: “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.” But he said he would meet with the intelligence community for a briefing on Russian interference.
January 6, 2017. Trump was briefed by intelligence community about Russian interference in November 2016 election. The intelligence community released a public statement that they had, ”high confidence that Russia had intervened in the election through a variety of means with the goal of harming Clinton’s electability.” The assessment also concluded with high confidence that Putin and the Russian government had developed a clear preference for Trump.
January 10, 2016. BuzzFeed reports unverified allegations (compiled by a former British intelligence officer Christopher Steel – The “Steel Dossier”) of candidate Trump’s Russia connections under the headline “These reports allege Trump Has Deep Ties to Russia.” (This is the dossier that Trump has requested AG Barr to investigate regarding Trump’s claim there is a “conspiracy at the top” in the “deep state.” Author)
Jan 11, 2016. President-elect Trump called the release of the Buzzfeed report, “an absolute disgrace” and said, “I have no dealings with Russia. I have no deals that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away. So I have no deals, I have no loans and I have no dealings. We could make deals in Russia very easily if we wanted to, I just don’t want to because I think that would be a conflict.”
Late February 2017 – The Department of Justice begins an internal analysis of whether Sessions should recuse from the Russia investigation based on his role in the 2016 Trump Campaign where he had two contacts with Russians.
March 1, 2017 – Trump called FBI Director Jim Comey and said he wanted to check in and see how he was doing. According to an email Comey sent to his chief of staff after the call, the President “talked about Sessions a bit” and said that he had heard Comey was “doing great,” and said he hoped Comey would come by to say hello when he was in the White House.
March 2, 2017 – Trump called White House attorney McGahn and urged him to contact Sessions to tell him not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. McGahn understood the President to be concerned that Sessions’ recusal would make him look guilty for omitting details in his confirmation hearing, leave the President unprotected from investigation and it would hobble the presidency and derail his policy objectives. McGahn reached out to Sessions and reported that the President was not happy about the possibility of his recusing himself. Sessions replied that he intended to follow the rules on recusal.
McGahn reported back to the President but Trump reiterated he did not want Sessions to recuse. Throughout that day McGahn continued trying on behalf of the President to avert Session’s recusal by speaking to Session’s personal attorney, his chief of staff and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and calling Sessions himself two more times. But that afternoon Sessions announced his decision to recuse.
Shortly after Sessions recused himself, the White House Counsel’s office directed that no one should be contacting Sessions based on his recusal.
March 2 2017 – Internal White House Counsel’s Office notes on March 2 stated, “No contact with Sessions” and “no communications (comms)/Serious concerns about obstruction.”
March 3, 2017 – The day after Session’s recusal, McGahn was called to the Oval Office. Other advisors were there too including Priebus and Bannon. Trump opened the conversation by saying, “I don’t have a lawyer.” He expressed anger at McGahn about the recusal and brought up Roy Cohn, stating he wished Cohn was his attorney. McGahn interpreted this to be directed at him, suggesting Cohn would fight for the President but McGahn was not. The President wanted McGahn to talk to Sessions about his recusal but McGahn told the President that DOJ ethics officials had weighed in on his decision to recuse. Bannon recalled telling the President that Session’s recusal was not a surprise and that before the inauguration they had discussed that Sessions would have to recuse from the campaign-related investigations because of his work with the Campaign.
March 4-5 Weekend – Attorney General Sessions and McGahn flew to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump. Sessions recalled the President pulled him aside to speak to him alone and suggested that he should “un-recuse” from the Russian investigation. Sessions had the impression that Trump feared the special investigation would spin out of control and disrupt his ability to govern, which Sessions could have averted if he were still overseeing it.
March 5, 2017 – White House Counsel’s office was informed that the FBI was asking for the “transition-period” records related to Flynn, indicating the FBI was still actively investigating Flynn.
March 6, 2017 – Trump told advisors he wanted to call the Acting Attorney General to find out whether the he was being investigated, although it is not clear whether the President already knew at the time of the FBI’s recent request concerning Flynn.
March 9, 2017 – Comey briefed the “gang of Eight” congressional leaders (security group) on FBI’s investigation of Russian interference, including identification of the principal US subjects of the investigation.
March 12, 2017 – Annie Donaldson, McGahn’s chief of staff, wrote in her notes: “POTUS in panic/chaos. Need binders to put in front of POTUS, 1) all things related to Russia.
Week of March 13, 2017 - Oval office was in contact with Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Senator Richard Burr about the Russia investigations and appears to have received information about the status of the FBI investigation.
March 20, 2017 – Comey was scheduled to testify before The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee made it clear they wanted Comey to provide information about the on-going FBI investigations. Dana Boente, at the time Acting Attorney General for the Russia investigation, authorized Comey to confirm the existence of the Russia investigation and agree that Comey should decline to comment on whether any individual, including the President, were being investigated. In his testimony Comey specifically was asked whether President Trump was “under investigation during the campaign” or “under investigation now.” Comey declined to answer.
According to McGahn and his Chief of staff Annie Donaldson, the President expressed frustration with Comey before his March 20th testimony. He previously criticized Comey for too frequently making headlines and for not attending intelligence briefings and Trump suspected Comey of leaking certain information to the media. McGahn said the President thought Comey was acting like “his own branch of government.”
Following Comey’s testimony, the press reports suggested that the FBI was indeed investigating the President contrary to what Comey had told the President at the end of his Jan 6, 2017 intelligence assessment briefing. McGahn, Donaldson and Stephen Miller recalled Trump was upset with Comey’s testimony and the press coverage that followed.
March 21, 2017 – McGahn contacted Attorney Boente several times for his assistance in having Comey (or the DOJ) correct the misperception that the President was under investigation. McGahn asked if there was a way to speed up or end the Russia investigation as quickly as possible. McGahn told Boente the President was under a cloud and it made it hard for him to govern. Boente recalled telling McGahn that there was no good way to shorten the investigation and attempting to do so could erode confidence in the investigation’s conclusions. Boente recalled that McGahn agreed and dropped the issue. Trump also sought to speak with Boente directly but McGahn told him that Boente did not want to talk to him about the request to intervene with Comey.
March 22, 2017 – Trump asked the acting Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats and CIA Director Michael Pompeo to stay behind in the oval office after a Presidential Daily Briefing. He asked them whether they could say publicly that no link existed between him and Russia. Coats said he had nothing to do with the investigation and it was not his role to comment. Coats told his office his meeting with Trump brought up the Russia investigation and he had been asked to contact Comey to see if there was a way to get past the investigation, get it over, end it, or words to that effect.” Coats made it clear he would not get involved with an ongoing FBI investigation. Pompeo had no recollection of being asked to stay behind after the March 22 meeting but did recall the President regularly urged officials to get the word out that he had not done anything wrong related to Russia.
March 25, 2017 – Three days after above meeting in Oval Office the President called Coats and again complained about the Russia investigation saying “I can’t do anything with Russia, there’s things I’d like to do with Russia, with trade, with ISIS, they’re all over me with this.” Coats advised the best thing was to simply let them run their course.
March 26, 2017 - Day after calling Coats, the President called National Security Administration (NSA) Director Admiral Michael Rogers expressing frustration with the Russian investigation, saying it made relations with Russians difficult. “The thing with the Russians is messing up” the ability to get things done. He also claimed the news stories linking him with Russia were not true and asked Rogers if he would do anything to refute the stories. Deputy Director of the NSA, Richard Ledgett, present for the call, said it was the most unusual thing he had experienced in 40 years of government service. Ledgett prepared a memo for the record for both he and Rogers to sign documenting the content of the conversation and placed this memorandum in a safe.
March 30, 2017 – Trump reached out to Comey directly about the Russia investigation. According to Comey’s record of the conversation, the President said, “he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult.” He asked Comey what could be done to “lift the cloud.” Comey said, “we are running it down as quickly as possible and there would be great benefit if we didn’t find anything .. but we had to do our work.” Comey also told the President that congress knew the FBI was not investigating the President personally. Trump said several times, “we need to get that fact out.” After the call ended, Comey called Boente (Deputy Attorney General, Russia investigation) and told him of the conversation, asked for guidance on how to respond and said he was uncomfortable with direct contact from the President.
March 31, 2017 – Following the news that Flynn offered to testify before the FBI and congressional investigators in exchange for immunity, Trump tweeted, “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss) by media and Dems, of historic proportion!”
April 11, 2017 - Trump calls Comey again. Per Comey’s contemporaneous record, the President said he was “following up to see if he (Comey) did what (the President) had asked him last time – i.e. to get the word out that he personally was not under investigation. Comey responded that he had passed the information on to Boente but had not heard back from him. Comey informed the President that the traditional channel for such a request would be to have the White House Counsel contact DOJ leadership. The President added “because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal we had that thing, you know.”
Later that day, the president told senior advisors (including McGahn and Priebus) that he had reached out to Comey twice. The President knew McGahn would not approve of the outreach to Comey because McGahn had previously cautioned the President not to do this in order to prevent the perception that the White House was interfering with investigations. The President told McGahn that Comey would make an FBI statement saying that he was not under investigation if the Department of Justice approved the action. McGahn followed up by contacting Boente and relayed what the President said. Boente said that Comey had told him there was nothing obstructive about the calls Trump made to him, but they made Comey uncomfortable. McGahn recalled Boente did not want to issue a statement because of the potential political ramifications. He did not want to order Comey to make a statement because that might prompt a Special Counsel investigation. Boente did not recall this statement himself, but he does recall saying direct outreach from the President to Comey was a problem. Boente recalled McGahn agreed and said he would do what he could do to address the issue.
Summary of Reaction to public confirmation of FBI Russia investigation.
Summary - The evidence does not establish that the President asked or directed intelligence agency leaders to stop or interfere with the FBI’s Russia investigation. The President told Comey that if “some satellite” was involved in Russian election interference “it would be good to find that out.” But the President’s intent in trying to prevent Sessions from recusing, and in reaching out to Coats, Pompeo, Rogers and Comey following Comey’s public announcement of the FBI Russia investigation, is still relevant to understanding what motivated the President’s other actions towards the investigation.
Evidence shows Trump was focused on the Russia investigation’s implications on his presidency and specifically, he was interested on dispelling any suggestion that he was under investigation or had ties to Russia. After Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the FBI’s Russia investigation on March 20, 2017, Trump was “beside himself” and expressed anger that Comey did not issue a statement correcting any misperception that he himself was under investigation.
Evidence suggests the President was angered by both the existence of the Russian investigation and the public reporting that he was under investigation as well, which he knew was not true based on what Comey had told him. The President complained to advisors that if people thought Russia helped him with the election, it would distract from what he had accomplished.