On March 24, 2019, two days after U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted the "Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election" to the Department of Justice, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to declare that there was "No Collusion, No Obstruction," and that the report represented a "Complete and Total EXONERATION" of him:
No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2019
This was not the first time Trump made such a claim, nor was it the last. The president and his defenders have repeatedly claimed that Mueller found no evidence of collusion or obstruction of justice, and that this two-volume report represented a total exoneration. But is that what Mueller concluded?
We'll take a deeper look into the issues of collusion and exoneration in a future article. For now, we’ll focus on the contents of the second volume, which dealt largely with issues of obstruction of justice.
Federal code 18 U.S.C. § 1503 defines "obstruction of justice" as an act that "corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice."
Mueller was given the jurisdiction to investigate "federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses" in his May 17, 2017, appointment order.
Did Mueller say there was "no obstruction" by Trump? No.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, addressed this issue during the opening moments of Mueller's testimony on July 25, 2019. When Nadler asked Mueller about the president's repeated claim that the report found no obstruction, Mueller responded that that is not what the report stated.
Here's a transcript of that exchange. The full video of Nadler's questioning is embedded below:
NADLER: Director Mueller, the president has repeatedly claimed that your report found there was no obstruction and that it completely and totally exonerated him, but that is not what your report said, is it?
MUELLER: Correct. That is not what the report said.
Does the phrase "no obstruction" appear in Mueller's report? No.
If we take Trump's claim in the most literal sense — that Mueller's report said "no obstruction" — we can simply search the report for the answer. A number of media outlets have published searchable forms of this 400-plus-page document, but for the purposes of this article, we'll be using a PDF from the Justice Department website. The phrase "no obstruction" appears nowhere in this report.
Did Mueller's report clear Trump from an obstruction charge? No.
Much of the confusion over this issue comes from Mueller's decision to not reach a traditional prosecutorial judgment regarding the president's potentially obstructive actions. Mueller cited a number of legal statutes preventing him from reaching such a decision and did not make a determination, one way or the other, on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Although Mueller's decision not to reach a prosecutorial judgment has been touted by Trump and others as a sign of Trump's innocence, the special counsel's report made clear this was not the intent.
The following passage comes from the concluding paragraph of the special counsel's summary of Volume II of the report (emphasis ours):
Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President's conduct. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
Mueller did not make a determination one way or the other on whether Trump obstructed justice. Rather, he investigated the issue and laid the evidence out in his report.
Did Mueller find evidence related to potential issues of obstruction of justice involving the president? Yes.
Volume I of the special counsel's report dealt with Russia's attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Volume II focused solely on the issue of obstruction of justice. In the latter, Mueller highlighted 11 issues related to potential obstruction of justice by Trump.
Each of the following listed items is linked to the relevant portion of Mueller's report:
- The campaign's response to reports about Russian support for Trump.
- Conduct involving FBI Director James Comey and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
- The president's reaction to the continuing Russia investigation.
- The president's termination of Comey.
- The appointment of a special counsel and efforts to remove him.
- Efforts to curtail the special counsel's investigation.
- Efforts to prevent public disclosure of evidence.
- Further efforts to have the attorney general take control of the investigation.
- Efforts to have White House Counsel for U.S. President Donald Trump Don McGahn deny that the president had ordered him to have the special counsel removed.
- Conduct towards Flynn and Trump's 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
- Conduct involving Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Did Mueller conclude that an underlying crime was required for an obstruction charge? No.
On occasions when Trump has elaborated on his claim that Mueller's report found "no obstruction," one of his repeated talking points has been that obstruction is impossible because there was no underlying crime. In May 2019, for instance, Trump asked in a tweet, "how do you Obstruct when there is no crime?"
While some high-ranking officials have also made this argument, including Trump's lawyer, Rudy Guiliani and Attorney General William Barr, this article is concerned with the contents of the special counsel's report. In that report, Mueller specifically stated that "obstruction statutes do not require proof of such a crime."
Did Mueller conclude that Trump obstructed justice? No.
Mueller detailed 11 issues related to the topic of obstruction of justice, but he did not make a traditional prosecutorial decision in regards to the matter. Instead, he collected evidence while "memories were fresh and documentary materials were available" and detailed those findings in this report.
While we can't say if Trump obstructed justice (that determination is up to Congress, and, largely, the American public), we can say this: The special counsel's report did not state that Trump committed "no obstruction."