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Obstruction or not, Mueller report shows Trump's panic during Russia investigation

The 448-page report details 10 cases of possible obstruction of justice, but brings little new information to the public about Donald Trump's behaviour and was not the bombshell Democrats had been hoping for.

After special counsel named in 2017, Trump told then-attorney general 'I'm f---ed'

From left: Special Counsel Robert Mueller, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr. ( Alex Wong, Win McNamee, Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After a contentious two-year investigation into possible ties between U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign and Russian operatives in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election, the final report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, released Thursday, provides insights into Trump's state of mind during the probe.

While it found no evidence of active co-ordination or conspiracy between Trump's campaign and Russian officials and was inconclusive on the subject of obstruction, the 448-page report vividly illustrates just how panicked Trump was by the investigation.

The President's efforts to influence the investigation 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 report

Mueller refused to make a determination on whether the president obstructed justice by trying to interfere in the investigation. His report did, however, outline 10 instances of possible obstruction from Trump's associates. These include Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, along with efforts to remove Mueller and impede his investigation. 

"The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful," the report said. "But that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests." 

The report gives more details and context about the Trump campaign's interactions with Russian officials, as well as the president's increasing unease with the investigation and numerous occasions where he appeared to be interfering in it.

The report is full of behind-the-scenes intrigue and sometimes salty language. According to notes quoted in the report, when Trump first learned a special counsel had been appointed in 2017, the president slumped back in his chair and said: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm f---ed."

Battle over Comey

The report casts more light on Trump's attitude to Comey, who he fired in May 2017.

The Mueller report said that according to notes from Jody Hunt, chief of staff for then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, Sessions told Trump he should consider replacing Comey as FBI director.

Four pages of the Mueller Report on a witness table in the House intelligence committee hearing room on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Cliff Owen/The Associated Press)

During a conversation in May 2017 with Steve Bannon, then the chief strategist in the White House, Trump said Comey was "a showboater. He's a grandstander. I don't know any Russians. There was no collusion."

Bannon told Trump that he could not dismiss Comey because "that ship had sailed." Bannon said that firing Comey was not going to stop the investigation, cautioning Trump that while he could fire the FBI director, he couldn't fire the FBI.

Mueller was appointed as special counsel to investigate Russian election meddling in May 2017, right after Comey's firing.

'You were supposed to protect me'

Trump was agitated when Sessions recused himself from overseeing Mueller's investigation in March 2017. The president tried to get Sessions to "unrecuse" himself and lashed out at him, saying, "You were supposed to protect me."

The attorney general is the head of the Justice Department and tasked with upholding the rule of law, free of partisan interests. Protecting the president is not part of the attorney general's job description.

Trump didn't seem to understand that independence. "You're telling me that … Obama didn't tell Eric Holder who to investigate?" Trump said, referring to the attorney general who served until 2015, according to the report.

This photo illustration shows an editor looking at a photograph of Barr, left, speaking about the release of the redacted version of the Mueller report, juxtaposed with Trump's latest tweet, 'Game Over,' in a Game of Thrones-style montage that pictures him standing in dramatic fog. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)

In May 2017, Trump asked White House counsel Don McGahn to reach out to then-acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein as part of an effort to get Mueller fired as special counsel. McGahn said he wouldn't make the call and that Trump shouldn't either.

McGahn said it would look like he was "still trying to meddle in [the] investigation" and "knocking out Mueller" would be another "fact used to claim obst[ruction] of justice."

According to the report, McGahn later told an associate that Trump had asked him to do "crazy shit."

Trump subpoena considered

In the report, Mueller said that his team sought an interview with Trump for more than a year, but the president declined.

"We considered whether to issue a subpoena for his testimony," but the factors that they weighed were "the costs of potentially lengthy constitutional litigation with resulting delay in finishing our investigation."

Trump agreed to submit written answers, but only about the allegations of Russian interference, not on obstruction of justice. In his written answers, Trump used some variation of "I do not recall" 37 times, by CBC News' count.

Mueller leaves Capitol Hill following a closed-door meeting in Washington in 2017. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

The investigators said they viewed Trump's written responses "to be inadequate." But they determined "that the substantial quantity of information we had obtained from other sources allowed us to draw relevant factual conclusions on intent and credibility."

Partisan wrangling over the report, its redactions and the charges already levied against Trump's inner circle are set to continue in Washington.

Russia investigation hurts U.S. relations with Russia

Other evidence presented in the report indicates Trump was concerned about the impact of the Russia investigation on his "ability to govern."

The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen early Thursday in Washington, D.C. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

"The president complained that the perception that he was under investigation was hurting his ability to conduct foreign relations, particularly with Russia," the report states.

The president told Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, that he "can't do anything with Russia." 

Mueller's investigation has led to indictments against 34 people and three organizations, 199 criminal charges and five guilty pleas, including from Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

"Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations," the report said.

Why Mueller, Barr differed on obstruction 

As to why Mueller declined to come to a decision about obstruction, the report states that some of Trump's impugned actions, such as firing Comey, were within his constitutional authority as president.

Mueller also said the investigation's failure to establish any underlying crime committed by Trump in connection with Russian election interference was a factor.  

However, Mueller did seem to indicate that Trump's actions after becoming aware that he personally was being investigated could be seen as evidence of a corrupt intent to obstruct justice.

On this point, he and Attorney General Barr differed. Barr said Thursday that Trump's motivation throughout was to protect his presidency from what he knew were unsubstantiated allegations and a hostile media.

Barr added that the president did not try to thwart the special counsel's access to documents or witnesses, and made no claims of privilege. This could be part of the reason why Barr ruled that Trump did not obstruct justice.

"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," the report said. "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment."

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