About the series
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III spent nearly two years investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump obstructed the inquiry. When his 448-page report was released in April, Mueller left one major question unanswered: whether the president broke the law.
The special counsel determined that because Justice Department policy states that a president cannot be indicted, it would not be fair to take a position on whether Trump committed a crime. But his report laid out possible evidence of obstruction of justice, as well as a dramatic narrative of an anxious and angry president who tried to control a criminal investigation — even after he knew he was under scrutiny.
This six-part series is drawn directly from episodes detailed in the Mueller report in which prosecutors found possible evidence of obstruction of justice, as well as congressional testimony and Washington Post reporting. Dialogue in text bubbles is taken verbatim from Mueller’s report, which cited text messages, contemporaneous notes and investigative interviews with first-hand witnesses who described conversations among key players. Words within quotation marks reflect exact dialogue included in the report, or comments made at public events or in media interviews.
Links throughout each chapter refer to the specific pages of Mueller’s report that describe the scenes, as well as news stories. Illustrations of public events are based on news photographs taken at the time. The president’s tweets have been reproduced as they were written, although the number of “likes” and “retweets” may have changed over time.
Even as President Trump railed against the investigation, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team of prosecutors moved forward. Beginning in 2017, they quickly uncovered possible crimes committed by several of Trump’s advisers, including some acts unrelated to the 2016 campaign.
With his own associates in jeopardy, the president blasted those who cooperated with Mueller and left open the possibility of pardons for those who did not — raising fears that he was trying to influence their testimony and tamper with witnesses.
The first to feel the pressure was former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When Flynn was forced to step down in February 2017 after lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Trump publicly offered warm remarks about the retired general.
“Mike Flynn is a fine person.”
“When I looked at the information, I said, I don’t think he did anything wrong. If anything, he did something right.”
Nine months later, Flynn began cooperating with the special counsel’s office. On Nov. 22, 2017, Flynn’s attorney informed the president’s lawyers that Flynn was withdrawing from an agreement to share information with the president’s legal team. It was a sign that Flynn was switching sides and planned to help Mueller.
That night, Trump’s lawyer John Dowd left a voicemail for Robert Kelner, an attorney for Flynn.
“Maybe, I — I’m sympathetic. I understand your situation, but let me see if I can’t state it in starker terms. If you have — and it wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve gone on to make a deal with, work with the government — I understand that you can’t join the joint defense; so that’s one thing. If, on the other hand, there’s information that implicates the president, then we’ve got a national security issue, or maybe a national security issue, I don’t know — some issue that we’ve got to deal with, not only for the president but for the country. So, uh, you know, then we need some kind of heads-up — just for the sake of protecting all our interests, if we can, without you having to give up any confidential information. So, and if it’s the former, then, well, remember what we’ve always said about the president and his feelings toward Flynn and, that still remains. Well, in any event, let me know, and I appreciate your listening and taking the time. Thanks, pal.”
The next day, Flynn’s attorneys returned the call. They repeated that they could no longer have confidential communications with the president’s team. Dowd was indignant. He told Flynn’s lawyers that he planned to tell the president Flynn was now hostile toward him.
Flynn’s attorneys saw Dowd’s call as an attempt to get Flynn to reconsider his cooperation.
Dowd later said the special counsel did not provide the full context of his message in his report and changed “the tenor and the contents” of what he said.
Flynn didn’t buckle. Within days, on Dec. 1, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
Trump expressed sympathy for Flynn. The president suggested he hadn’t ruled out using the powers of his office to pardon him.
“We’ll see what happens.”
His former national security adviser had admitted to a felony, a disturbing development for the president. But if Flynn knew he was likely to be pardoned, he might give investigators less information.
In the days that followed, the president left the door open to a possible Flynn pardon.
“I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We’ll see what happens. Let’s see. I can say this: When you look at what’s gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.”
A few months after they were indicted, Manafort told Gates that he had spoken to the president’s personal lawyer. It would be stupid to plead guilty, Manafort said.
“We’ll be taken care of.”
Gates asked Manafort whether anyone had specifically mentioned that the two would be pardoned. Manafort responded that no one had used that word.
On Feb. 22, 2018, additional charges were filed against Manafort and Gates in Virginia. The next day, Gates pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Trump seemed anxious about the development.
He told aide Rob Porter that he never liked Manafort. He began asking aides whether Manafort might also cooperate with the investigation and whether the former campaign chief knew of anything that could hurt him.
In June 2018, prosecutors accused Manafort of trying to tamper with witnesses in his case. They asked a judge to revoke his bail and send him to jail while he awaited trial. On the day of a hearing in the matter, Trump spoke publicly about the case.
Trump was asked if he was considering a pardon for Manafort. He demurred — but did not rule it out.
“I feel badly about a lot of them because I think a lot of it is very unfair. I mean, I look at some of them where they go back 12 years. Like Manafort has nothing to do with our campaign.”
“I don’t want to talk about that. No, I don’t want to talk about that.”
“But look, I do want to see people treated fairly. That’s what it’s all about.”
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington agreed with prosecutors, revoking Manafort’s bail and ordering him to jail while he waited for his trial.
In interviews, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani seemed to reassure Manafort that Trump was on his side. While the president shouldn’t issue any pardons during an ongoing investigation, he said, Trump might pardon Manafort at some point in the future.
“When it’s over, hey, he’s the president of the United States. He retains his pardon power. Nobody is taking that away from him.”
As Manafort’s criminal trial opened in Alexandria, Va., on July 31, Trump repeatedly tweeted that his former campaign chairman was being treated unfairly.
Manafort’s situation upset the president. But nothing, it appeared, got him as worked up as the investigation of Michael Cohen, his longtime personal counsel. Cohen had been at his side for more than a decade and was intimately familiar with Trump’s personal and financial dealings. In 2016, the lawyer had led failed negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow — an effort that persisted through much of the campaign, even as Trump said he had no business interests in Russia.
In May 2017, Congress asked Cohen to provide documents and testimony about the Moscow project.
In a May 18, 2017, meeting, Trump told Cohen to cooperate with Congress. Cohen entered into an agreement to share information with the president’s legal team and began to speak frequently with them. At the same time, Cohen’s legal bills were being paid by the Trump Organization.
Cohen later recalled that one of Trump’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, told him that he would be protected as part of the group, but he would not be if he “went rogue.”
“The president loves you.”
Cohen recalled that he was told that if he stayed on message, the president would have his back. Sekulow has denied Cohen’s account of their conversations, calling Cohen a liar whose “instinct to blame others is strong.”
Cohen spent 10 days in August 2017 drafting his statement for Congress. Phone records show that he and Sekulow spoke nearly every day.
The day before Cohen submitted his written testimony, he and Sekulow spoke numerous times, in calls ranging from three to 18 minutes.
In late October, Cohen testified to lawmakers behind closed doors. Cohen later admitted his testimony included key falsehoods about the negotiations for the Moscow Trump Tower and how long they lasted.
Cohen said later that he was adhering to a “party line” designed to obscure Trump’s ties to Russia and that his statement was reviewed by the president’s lawyers before its submission.
Cohen was not done lying on behalf of his boss.
In early 2018, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Cohen paid $130,000 to adult-film star Stormy Daniels to keep her quiet before the election about an affair she claimed she had with Trump years earlier.
Cohen issued a statement in February saying he used his own money for the payoff.
“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction … and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly.”
That was not true. But the president was grateful, according to a text from a Trump lawyer to Cohen.
Client says thanks for what you do.
The pressure on Cohen soon escalated dramatically. On April 9, 2018, FBI agents investigating his finances and the payment to Daniels, among other issues, raided his home, hotel room and office in New York.
“So, I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys — a good man.”
“It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”
A few days later, Trump called Cohen to check in and ask whether Cohen was okay.
“Hang in there.”
But after the raid, the New York Times reported that Cohen felt isolated and could turn on the president.
Outraged, Trump insisted that would never happen.
Cohen later told investigators that he received messages from people close to Trump and Giuliani. Cohen said these people stressed to him that the president loved him and had his back. Cohen decided he should stay on message, believing if he did so, Trump would protect him.
Several weeks later, Trump was asked if he might pardon Cohen or Manafort.
“It’s far too early to be thinking about that. They haven’t been convicted of anything. There’s nothing to pardon.”
As Cohen’s legal woes intensified, the president’s words were not enough.
On July 2, he publicly turned on his longtime boss. Cohen told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he would cooperate with the government and that he had hired a new lawyer: Lanny Davis, a longtime confidant of former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
“I am done being loyal to President Trump, and my first loyalty belongs to my wife, my daughter, my son and this country.”
Trump’s posture toward his longtime lawyer abruptly changed.
Critics feared the president was trying to bully Cohen and affect his testimony.
On July 31, 2018, Manafort went on trial in Virginia for bank and tax fraud. Two weeks later, his case in federal court was submitted to the jury. Trump could not resist commenting on the trial, though there were fears that the president’s words could influence the jury.
“I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad when you look at what’s going on there. I think it’s a very sad day for our country. He worked for me for a very short period of time. But you know what, he happens to be a very good person.”
Trump was asked whether he would pardon Manafort.
“I don’t talk about that now. I don’t talk about that.”
Aug. 21, 2018, was a grim day for the president. A jury in Washington found Manafort guilty on eight felony counts — increasing the pressure on him to cooperate with Mueller in the hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
Minutes later, in Manhattan, Cohen pleaded guilty to bank and tax fraud, as well as campaign finance violations related to hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and another woman.
Cohen implicated Trump directly, telling the judge he committed the campaign finance violations “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” He agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Trump immediately began contrasting Cohen, who was assisting the government, with Manafort, who was proving more difficult for prosecutors.
Cohen “makes a better deal when he uses me, like everybody else. And one of the reasons that I respect Paul Manafort so much is that he went through that trial — you know they make up stories. People make up stories. This whole thing about flipping, they call it, I know all about flipping.” Flipping, was “not fair” and “almost ought to be outlawed.”
Days later, Giuliani told The Washington Post that Trump had asked his lawyers about pardoning Manafort. Trump was advised against considering a pardon — but not necessarily forever, Giuliani said. The president was told he should put the idea on hold until the investigation had ended.
“They tried to crack him and it didn’t work. Over the last two to three weeks, [the president has] expressed anger and frustration about how he’s been treated.”
On Sept. 14, 2018, Manafort pleaded guilty to a second set of charges in Washington. At that point, he also began to work with prosecutors, sitting for multiple interviews and appearing before the grand jury. News organizations, however, reported that Manafort’s attorneys remained in an agreement to share information with Trump’s lawyers and regularly briefed them about what Mueller’s investigators asked and how Manafort answered.
On Nov. 26, the special counsel’s office informed a federal judge that Manafort had breached his plea agreement by lying to investigators.
Rather than criticize Manafort for being untruthful, Trump told two reporters for the New York Post that his former campaign chairman had been “very brave” not to “flip.” He said he believed Manafort was telling the truth.
In the interview, Trump was again asked if he would pardon Manafort.
“You know this flipping stuff is terrible. You flip and you lie and you get — the prosecutors will tell you 99 percent of the time they can get people to flip. It’s rare that they can’t. … It’s actually very brave.”
“Why would I take it off the table?”
On Nov. 29, Cohen again pleaded guilty — this time to making false statements to Congress about the Trump Tower project in Moscow, saying he lied to protect Trump.
The president went on the attack.
“He’s a weak person. And by being weak, unlike other people that you watch — he is a weak person. And what he’s trying to do is get a reduced sentence. So he’s lying about a project that everybody knew about.”
Trump then began to publicly suggest that Cohen’s family members were guilty of crimes.
On Dec. 12, 2018, Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison. Before he reported to serve his time, he spent a day before Congress, offering withering testimony about his former boss.
“Mr. Trump called me a ‘rat’ for choosing to tell the truth – much like a mobster would do when one of his men decides to cooperate with the government.”
Mueller would ultimately indict or convict six Trump associates for a wide variety of crimes — though none were charged with conspiring with Russia to interfere in the 2016 campaign.
Along with Cohen, there was former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who served 12 days in prison for lying to the FBI. Manafort was sentenced to 7½ years in prison. Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone was convicted of lying, obstruction and witness tampering. Gates, who had assisted the government, was still awaiting his sentencing as the end of 2019 approached.
Two years after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents, he switched course and changed his legal team. In October 2019, his new attorneys argued that Flynn had not intended to lie and had instead been entrapped by the FBI. They asked the judge to toss out his case.
For Trump, the question remained: would he pardon his former aides?
As for the president himself, the special counsel stopped short of declaring whether he had broken the law.
“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Mueller wrote, “it also does not exonerate him.”
Chapter 6: The president goes after Mueller’s witnesses
How President Trump’s actions in public emerged as powerful evidence in the special counsel investigation. With reporters Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger.
Rosalind S. Helderman
Art direction and design
Katherine Lee, Suzette Moyer and Brian Gross
Design and development
Project photo references: Alexey Agarishev/Sputnik/Associated Press, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press, David Becker/The Washington Post, Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, Bruce Boyajian/The Washington Post, Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post, Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post, Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post, Shealagh Craighead/The White House, D. Myles Cullen/Department of Defense, Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, Olivier Douliery/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, Richard Drew/Associated Press, Patrick Dove/Getty Images, Tia Dufour/The White House, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Katherine Frey/The Washington Post, Salwan Georges/The Washington Post, Zach Gibson/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, Yuri Gripas/Reuters, Aude Guerrucci/Getty Images, Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Associated Press, Andrew Harnik/Associated Press, Andrew Harrer/Getty Images, Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post, Andrew Innerarity/The Washington Post, iStock Photos, Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press, Andrew Kelly/Reuters, Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, Justin Lane/EPA/Shutterstock, Jin Lee/Bloomberg News/Getty Images, Saul Loeb/Getty Images, Melina Mara/The Washington Post, Cheriss May/NurPhoto/Getty Images, Matt McClain/The Washington Post, Brendan McDermid/Reuters, Leah Millis/Reuters, Thomas Mukoya/Reuters, NBC News, Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post, Yana Paskova/Getty Images, Kate Patterson/The Washington Post, PBS NewsHour, William B. Plowman/NBC/Getty Images, Michael Reynolds/EPA/Shutterstock, Russian Foreign Ministry Photo/Associated Press, Markus Schreiber/Associated Press, Mike Segar/Reuters, Ting Shen/Xinhua/Zuma, Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post, Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post, Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post, Evan Vucci/Associated Press, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, Michael Williamson/The Washington Post, Alex Wong/Getty Images, 123RFstockimages.com
The Mueller Report Illustrated: The Obstruction Investigation
Release Date: December 2019
Scribner and The Washington Post, which teamed together this spring to produce the No. 1 bestselling book edition of the Mueller report, will publish a graphic non-fiction book centered on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s obstruction of justice inquiry. Titled “The Mueller Report Illustrated: The Obstruction Investigation” (Scribner, $20.00/paperback original), the book will be released Dec. 3 and also available as an e-book.
The Mueller Report
Read the findings of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, with accompanying analysis by the Post reporters who have covered the story from the beginning.