Trump Stories: Obstruction : Embedded Embedded tells the story of another part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation--the question of whether President Trump may have obstructed justice by attempting to thwart the Russia investigation. It's a crime that could have been committed regardless of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia in the 2016 election.
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Trump Stories: Obstruction

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Trump Stories: Obstruction

Trump Stories: Obstruction

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Hey, before we get started, we just want to thank you for listening to EMBEDDED and ask you to help us out by telling us what you like about the show and how it can improve. You can do that by completing a short, anonymous survey at It takes just a few minutes. You'll do all of us at EMBEDDED a big favor by filling it out - Thanks. Here's the show.


MCEVERS: Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED. It's two days after the inauguration of Donald Trump - January 22, 2017. And he is standing in a room in the White House called the Blue Room.


MCEVERS: It's this long, oval-shaped room with portraits on the walls and, not surprisingly, a lot of blue stuff - blue upholstery, a big blue rug, blue drapes. And lined up along the edge of the room are a lot of the country's top law enforcement officials who have just helped with security during the inauguration. The president's invited all of them to thank them. Way over on the other side of the room from Trump is the FBI director, James Comey, who is not super psyched to be there...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to have a great eight years together.

MCEVERS: ...Doing this photo op with the president.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Jim is against displays of chumminess between the president and the FBI director irrespective of their views of one another.

MCEVERS: This is Ben Wittes. He's a longtime friend of Comey's. He edits a national security blog, and he's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


MCEVERS: So Comey's in the Blue Room, doesn't want to interact with Trump, and he decides he should try to just kind of disappear.

WITTES: He was wearing a blue blazer. And he noticed that the drapes were blue...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

WITTES: ...And he sort of, like, slunk over to stand by the drapes. The problem is he's 6-foot-8.

MCEVERS: I was just going to say, he's not a small man. Like, he's not (laughter)...

WITTES: He is not a small person. And he's standing there. And if you watch the video of the event, he actually gets away with it...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

WITTES: ...For the entire event.

MCEVERS: Like, Trump's calling over all these other people to shake his hand.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you, sir.


MCEVERS: And at first, Comey manages to not get called.

WITTES: And he describes to me - sort of congratulating himself for, like, hey, I sort of pulled this off, you know?


WITTES: Here I am sort of, like...

MCEVERS: I'm in the curtains. Like, I did it. Yeah.

WITTES: ...Camouflaged against the drapes, right? And right at the end...


TRUMP: So let's - oh, and there's James.

WITTES: The president singles him out, and says something that, I think, exacerbated all the problems, which is, oh, there's Jim. He's even more famous than I am...


TRUMP: He's become more famous than me.


WITTES: ...Which Jim interpreted as a explicit effort to compromise him - to sort of remind people that he was controversial.

MCEVERS: Controversial, at this point, because Comey was the one who had announced the FBI was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton just days before the election, a move Clinton says cost her the election. And in the Blue Room, it seems like the president wants to thank Comey for that, or at least make it look like they're on the same team, which is not how it's supposed to be. So Comey realizes he's going to have to go over to the president.

WITTES: And he's all the way on the other side of the room. It's not a small room. And he's crossing this room and deciding on the way there is not going to be a hug. Now, one of the things about being 6'8" is that your arms are long.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

WITTES: And so he reaches out early to kind of keep it at - literally at arm's length.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

WITTES: And Trump grabs his hand and pulls him into what he tries to make a hug, and the hug is entirely one-sided.

MCEVERS: Trump reaches his other arm around Comey's back. Comey kind of leans in but not really.

WITTES: He was quite mortified by the entire episode.

MCEVERS: Then, there's this awkward applause.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Director Comey.


MCEVERS: And this - this awkward hug-handshake thing - ends up being a major moment in Trump and Comey's interactions over the next few months - interactions that are now under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.


MCEVERS: They start with a meeting. Then there's this Blue Room moment. Then there are phone calls, dinners, requests for loyalty - interactions that ultimately end with Comey getting fired. That is a huge concern to the special counsel because Comey was part of a team that was investigating whether Trump and his people coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, which is a possible crime. And then, once Trump actually won that election, some people think the president tried to thwart that investigation, which is also a possible crime - a crime called obstruction of justice.


MCEVERS: People who believe Trump obstructed justice say he basically tried to influence, slow down or even stop the Russia investigation in his interactions with Comey and with some other people. And the deal with obstruction is even if the Russia investigation turns up nothing on Trump - if there's no there there, as Trump and his party insist, he can still be found to have obstructed justice. Like, you can obstruct a thing that doesn't turn out to be a thing. Trump supporters say the idea that he obstructed anything is ridiculous. And they say Trump's just an unorthodox president who does things like a New York City real estate developer. We should say right here at the beginning that Trump's lawyers declined our request for an interview.


MCEVERS: So what we're going to do today is lay out a bunch of key moments over the first year of Trump's presidency - basically, everything we know that could be considered evidence of possible obstruction - a lot of these big, major news stories that pop up on your TV and your news feed - so that when you hear the next headline about obstruction of justice, you'll know what it means because this part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, this is the one that some legal experts say might actually be adding up to a case against the president.


MCEVERS: Hey, let me turn on Carrie's mic. Are you two - I think you are.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah, I hear - I hear - yeah. We're good.

MCEVERS: OK. So NPR's Carrie Johnson is going to help us tell this story. She's been covering the Justice Department for more than a decade.

Carrie, we cannot thank you enough. I know you have a bazillion things keeping you busy.

JOHNSON: Well, if somebody quits or gets fired, you know, I'll run out, but otherwise, I'm all yours.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) All right. To start off with, why don't you just do what you can to describe what is obstruction of justice?

JOHNSON: So what it means is to attempt to impede or hinder some kind of investigation - a congressional investigation, an FBI investigation, a Justice Department investigation - with corrupt intent. So the law says you don't have to succeed in derailing the investigation. You just have to try. But the key words there are corrupt intent - some kind of bad purpose. And it can be hard to prove that. Not everybody comes out and says I am firing this person because I want to jam up this investigation which is targeting me or my children. So you have to try to prove, if you're a prosecutor, some kind of pattern of behavior and also a good reason - a good reason to tell the judge and eventually the jury about why this person would work so hard to jam up a federal investigation. That's what an obstruction is.

MCEVERS: OK. So that's the definition we're going to be working off of. And before we start telling the story of the first year of Trump's presidency and all these incidences of possible obstruction, it's probably important to say the names of all the people you're going to hear about because there are kind of a lot of them. There's Michael Flynn...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Trump announcing retired General Michael Flynn for National Security Adviser...

MCEVERS: ...National Security Adviser.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tonight, the dramatic testimony from Sally Yates...

MCEVERS: Sally Yates, for a brief time, the acting attorney general...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Don McGahn, the White House counsel.

MCEVERS: Don McGahn, the top lawyer for the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Don McGahn was Donald Trump's campaign lawyer.

MCEVERS: James Comey, FBI director, who you just heard about.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: James Comey faces new criticism.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: James Comey goes to Capitol Hill and meets...

MCEVERS: Jeff Sessions, current Attorney General.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Attorney General Jeff Sessions says...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein...

MCEVERS: And Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, which means he is the No. 2 at the Justice Department.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: The president appointed Rod Rosenstein.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: That's a Trump appointee.




MCEVERS: So this story starts right after Trump is elected - actually a little bit before he's inaugurated. And it starts with Michael Flynn. He was this big Trump supporter during Trump's campaign.


MICHAEL FLYNN: Lock her up. That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Lock her up, lock her up.

FLYNN: Yeah, that's right. Lock her up.

MCEVERS: And then, once Trump is elected, he picks Flynn to become his national security adviser. So it's the transition period after the election but before the inauguration. The Obama administration is still in place, and that administration imposes new sanctions on Russia for interfering in the election.


MCEVERS: And then this pretty major thing happens. Michael Flynn actually talks about these sanctions on the phone with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Some people say this is improper. Others say it's fine.


MCEVERS: He asked the Russians not to escalate the situation. Like, don't impose reciprocal sanctions. And the Russians call back and said they won't escalate. Flynn then reports all this back to Trump's transition team. And the idea is that once Trump is president, the U.S. and Russia can have a better relationship. We now know all this from Flynn's Statement of Offense. That is a court document outlining the government's case against him. But at the time, no one knew this.


MCEVERS: So a couple of weeks after the phone calls, The Washington Post reports that the phone calls happened, but the Trump team continues to deny that Flynn and the Russian ambassador talked about sanctions. Then the soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence goes on CBS' "Face The Nation."


MIKE PENCE: I talked to General Flynn about that. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose a censure against Russia.

JOHN DICKERSON: So did they ever have a conversation about sanctions ever on those days or any other day?

PENCE: They did not have a discussion contemporaneous with U.S. action.

DICKERSON: But what about ever?


MCEVERS: But this is false, right? And it turns out the FBI had been listening to the Russian ambassador's calls as part of its routine surveillance, and they picked up Flynn's calls and knew Flynn had talked about sanctions.

In the middle of all this, the inauguration happens, Trump becomes the president and the FBI decides they need to talk to Flynn about these phone calls. Here's Carrie Johnson again.

JOHNSON: Flynn was interviewed by the FBI inside the White House on January 24. Some FBI agents went to the White House and talked with Mike Flynn on the 24.

MCEVERS: And this gets the attention of Sally Yates, who, at the time, is the acting attorney general.

JOHNSON: And on the 26, Sally Yates is so concerned that she calls the White House lawyer, Don McGahn, and says we got to meet about this.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Ms. Yates, what did you tell the White House about Mr. Flynn?

MCEVERS: Here's Yates testifying to the Senate about this months later.


SALLY YATES: I called Don McGahn first thing that morning and told him that I had a very sensitive matter that I needed to discuss with him, that I couldn't talk about it on the phone and that I needed to come see him.

MCEVERS: Yates and another Justice Department official go to the White House and into McGahn's office.


YATES: We began our meeting telling him that there had been press accounts of statements that have been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn's conduct that we knew to be untrue. We told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn't true.

MCEVERS: And Sally Yates is basically saying Pence and other people in the White House should probably stop saying Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador weren't about sanctions because we know they were about sanctions.


YATES: And additionally that we weren't the only ones that knew all of this.


MCEVERS: Here's the other thing - the Russians knew it, too.


YATES: Not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromised situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.


MCEVERS: In other words, the Russians could now, if they wanted, try to get favors from Flynn by threatening to tell everyone he wasn't being honest about the calls. And remember, Michael Flynn was the national security adviser. This is a very big-deal job. And as Yates puts it, her going to McGahn was just a big heads up.

JOHNSON: She wanted the White House to know these things so it could take action if it saw fit.


YATES: So that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.


JOHNSON: On January 27, Sally Yates goes back to the White House.

MCEVERS: For a second meeting with the White House counsel.

JOHNSON: Don McGahn has some more questions for Sally Yates about Mike Flynn.

MCEVERS: He wants to know what Flynn told the FBI when they interviewed him a few days earlier.


RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Did you tell Donald McGahn that then National Security Adviser Flynn told the truth to the FBI?

YATES: No. He asked me how he had done in the interview, and I specifically declined to answer that.

BLUMENTHAL: Because it was part of an investigation.

YATES: That's right.

BLUMENTHAL: And lying to the FBI is a crime, correct?

YATES: It is, yes.

BLUMENTHAL: A violation of 18 United States Code 1001.

YATES: That's right.

BLUMENTHAL: And it's punishable by five years in prison.

YATES: Yes, it is.

BLUMENTHAL: So if Michael Flynn lied to the FBI, he had a ton of legal trouble facing him.

YATES: He could face criminal prosecution if he lied to the FBI, yes.


JOHNSON: Reading between the lines, she's informed the White House counsel that they have a big problem with the national security adviser. Puzzle that one out, Don McGahn. And McGahn finally says to her, can I look at the evidence? Can I look at the underlying evidence that you have.

MCEVERS: Like, how do you know the calls were about sanctions?

JOHNSON: And she said, let me go back to DOJ and the FBI and figure that out. And she said you know what? You can come back and look at that evidence the following Monday.


YATES: And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence. He had to call me back. He was not available then. And I did not hear back from him until that afternoon of Monday the 30.

JOHNSON: But something else happens by the end of the day on January 30.


SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: And that was the end of this episode. Nobody came over to look at the material.

YATES: I don't know what happened after that because that was my last day with DOJ.



MCEVERS: Sally Yates got fired.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #15: Again, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates has been fired.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #16: For refusing to defend his executive order on immigration. Shortly after Sally Yates was fired...

JOHNSON: Sally Yates got fired by the White House. The White House says because she refused to defend its travel ban, its executive order barring visitors from several Muslim-majority countries.

MCEVERS: Right, a completely separate issue.

JOHNSON: So the White House says, yes.


MCEVERS: The White House says Yates got fired for not enforcing this travel ban. Sally Yates defenders say she got fired because she raised red flags about Michael Flynn and his contact with Russia. They say this was part of a pattern. They say U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was fired because he had jurisdiction over Trump's businesses in New York City, which are also part of the Russian investigation. If - this is a big if - those are the reasons they were fired, then that could be a problem.

JOHNSON: And here we go. Here's the rub. It's perfectly permissible for a White House to get rid of a political appointee for almost any reason. Sally Yates was going to go anyway.

MCEVERS: Because she was appointed by Obama.

JOHNSON: The president is entitled to his own U.S. attorneys. No big deal. What's questionable and worthy of investigation is whether these people were let go for some kind of corrupt reason.

MCEVERS: If so, that could be possible obstruction.


MCEVERS: So Sally Yates is fired. And Michael Flynn has talked to the Russians about sanctions, though this isn't public yet. Just remember all this because it definitely keeps coming up. Right around this same time, there are two interactions between Trump and FBI Director James Comey that we need to tell you about. And the first one is a dinner.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Let me move to the January 27 dinner.

WITTES: OK. So this is a very important moment.

MCEVERS: That's Ben Wittes again. And we are also hearing senators questioning Comey later as he testifies about this. So this dinner starts when Comey gets a phone call from President Trump.


JAMES COMEY: He called me at my desk at lunchtime and asked me, can you come over for dinner tonight?

WITTES: Jim was called to the White House to have dinner privately with the president.


COMEY: And then he said, I was going to invite your whole family. But we'll do that next time. I want you to come over. And then he said, how about 6:30? I said, whatever works for you, sir. And then I hung up and had to call my wife and break a date with her. I was supposed to take her out to dinner that night. And...

ANGUS KING: That's one of the all-time great excuses for breaking a date.


COMEY: In retrospect, I would've - I love spending time with my wife. I wish I had been there that night.


MCEVERS: So Comey goes to the dinner. And Comey says President Trump starts by asking Comey if he wants to keep his job. He says Trump says lots of people want the job. And Comey says he took all this to mean that he would be able to keep his job in exchange for something else. And that something else, Comey says, was this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The president asked you repeatedly to be loyal to him.

MCEVERS: Trump wants Comey to pledge his loyalty. But Comey doesn't want to do that.

WITTES: He had to say no to the president.

MCEVERS: So he says this instead.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: And you responded you would be honest?

WITTES: You know, I can only give you honesty.


COMEY: Correct. I tried honest first. I tried to hold the line, hold the line. It got very awkward. And I then said, you'll always have honesty from me.

MCEVERS: But Comey says Trump keeps pressing. That's what I want, Trump says, honest loyalty.


COMEY: He said honest loyalty. And then I acceded to that as a way to end this awkwardness.

WITTES: And then they kind of compromised on honest loyalty, which I'm sure meant different things to the two of them (laughter).

MCEVERS: And here's why Ben Wittes says this is a problem.

WITTES: It's hard to imagine as an executive branch official a more inappropriate interaction. It's unthinkable that that interaction would've happened with Barack Obama, with George W. Bush, with Bill Clinton.

MCEVERS: Or with other presidents. We should say very clearly here President Trump denies that he asked for Comey's loyalty during that dinner. He says Comey actually requested the dinner and that Comey was the one who asked if he could stay on as FBI director.


MCEVERS: Either way, the reason Comey has such a detailed memory of these interactions with Trump is because after each one, he would write everything down. He started this after his very first one-on-one meeting with Trump during the transition.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: What was it about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to start putting down a written record?

WITTES: And when he's asked - why did you do that? That's a weird thing to do - his answer was, because of the nature of the person.

MCEVERS: The nature of Trump.


COMEY: And then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting. And so I thought it really important to document. That combination of things I've never experienced before. But it led me to believe, I got to write it down. And I got to write it down in a very detailed way.


MCEVERS: OK. So now we have covered the loyalty pledge dinner. It happened in late January 2017. And before we get to the next potentially troubling interaction between Trump and Comey on Valentine's Day, we have to talk about what else is happening on Valentine's Day 2017. All right. So the Washington Post has broken the news that Sally Yates and the White House already know, right? - that Michael Flynn did, in fact, talk about sanctions with the Russian ambassador. And Michael Flynn has been asked to resign.


SEAN SPICER: Good afternoon.

MCEVERS: Then at the press briefing on Valentine's Day, Sean Spicer confirms that President Trump knew Flynn was talking to the Russians about sanctions. He was told the day Sally Yates had her first meeting with Don McGahn.


SPICER: The president was informed of this. He asked the White House counsel to review the situation.

MCEVERS: But, Spicer says, the White House didn't think Flynn broke any laws.


SPICER: We had to review whether there was a legal issue, which the White House counsel concluded there was not.

MCEVERS: So the White House says they didn't fire Flynn because he talked to the Russians about sanctions. They fired Flynn because he lied to Mike Pence about talking about sanctions. Remember, Mike Pence went on TV and said Flynn didn't talk about sanctions.


SPICER: This was an act of trust. Whether or not he actually misled the vice president was the issue. And that was ultimately what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn. That's it - pure and simple. It was a matter of trust. That's it. Thank you, guys. We'll see you tomorrow. Happy Valentine's Day.

MCEVERS: So at this point, Flynn is gone. But the White House is still kind of defending him. And now comes the second possibly troubling interaction between Trump and Comey. It happened on that same day, Valentine's Day, in another part of the White House. Here's Carrie Johnson again.

JOHNSON: FBI Director Jim Comey is back at the White House for a big briefing on counterterrorism. A whole bunch of people are there - the president of the United States, Vice President Mike Pence, presidential aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others. This meeting breaks up. And the president signals to Comey that he wants to talk to Comey alone.


COMEY: My impression was something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken.

JOHNSON: And Attorney General Sessions, by Comey's account, and Jared Kushner kind of linger for a while at the table.


COMEY: My sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn't be leaving, which is why he was lingering. And I don't know Mr. Kushner well, but I think he picked up on the same thing.

JOHNSON: They knew maybe he shouldn't be meeting alone with the president, but they didn't wind up doing much about it.


COMEY: And so I knew something was about to happen that I need to pay very close attention to.

MCEVERS: And remember, Michael Flynn has just been fired. And Trump knows Flynn was interviewed by the FBI about his conversation with Russians. Again, you're going to hear Carrie and senators reading from Comey's notes.

JOHNSON: The president ushers them out, clears the room, talks to Comey alone and says...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: It says, quote - this is the president speaking - "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go."

JOHNSON: "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He's a good guy."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: "He's a good guy."

JOHNSON: "I hope you can let this go."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: "I hope you can let this go."

MCEVERS: Let what go, exactly? Like I said, we know Trump knows that Flynn has been interviewed by the FBI. And we know Trump has been briefed on some other allegations about coordination between his campaign and Russia. So Trump could know at this point that Flynn is part of a larger investigation. But we're just not sure that he does. Either way, here's how Comey understands it.

JOHNSON: Comey understands this to mean a request from the president of the United States to the FBI director to back off the Flynn investigation saying.


MCEVERS: Now, we should say Republicans do not think this was a request from the president of the United States to back off. Here they are when Comey is testifying.


COMEY: But that's the way I took it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: You may have taken it as a direction, but that's not what he said.

COMEY: Correct. That's why...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: He said, I hope.

COMEY: Those are exact words. Correct.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK. You don't know of anyone that's ever been charged for hoping something. Is that a fair statement?

COMEY: I don't as I sit here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

JAMES LANKFORD: The key aspect here is if this seems to be something the president's trying to get you to drop it, seems this like a pretty light touch to drop it - to bring it up at that moment the day after he had just fired Flynn - to come back in and say, I hope we can let this go. But then it never reappears again. Did it slow down your investigation or any investigation that may or may not be occurring with Michael Flynn?

COMEY: No, although I don't know there any...

MCEVERS: That was Republican Senator James Lankford, who says he didn't exactly approve of the president's conduct in this scenario, but he didn't exactly see anything nefarious, either. We talked more about this later with Lankford in our own interview.

LANKFORD: While other people can portray, hey, you're the president - anything you say can be portrayed as some sort of heavy hand - for someone like President Trump that is notorious for being very, very blunt when he wants to be blunt, that seemed to be an awful light touch for him.

MCEVERS: So you're saying if he wanted to get involved in this investigation in that moment, he would have just said it straight up.

LANKFORD: My perception of the president is if he has something in his head that he wants to say bluntly and clearly, he has the capability to do that.

MCEVERS: So you don't think he obstructed justice then.

LANKFORD: I don't. Based on that dialogue and that conversation, I don't hear obstruction of justice in that. What I hear is someone saying, gosh, I wish this was different, but it's not.

MCEVERS: So that's the Republicans' view of this interaction between Comey and Trump. Here's Ben Wittes' view.

WITTES: The most significant thing about that interaction to me is not the precise words that the president said. It is the fact that he isolated Jim alone in order to have that conversation.

MCEVERS: And, Ben Wittes, says the issue here is also the fact that it was the president of the United States saying to the director of the FBI, I hope you can let this go. Like, it's all about context.

WITTES: So take for example the sentence, that's a nice house. It would be a shame if something happened to it. If you were an insurance salesman trying to sell somebody a home insurance policy, that is a perfectly ordinary business pitch. Now, if you are a mobster, and the owner of that house is a witness, that is a classic obstruction of justice.


MCEVERS: There is just one more question about this Valentine's Day meeting between Trump and Comey. And that is this - did Trump already know that Flynn had lied to the FBI, which is a crime - a crime that Flynn later pleaded guilty to? Because if Trump did know that, then he would be telling Comey to lay off a guy who he knew had committed a crime, and that could strengthen the case for possible obstruction of justice. More on that, plus the recusal of an attorney general and Comey's last day on the job after the break.


MCEVERS: All right. So up until now, we have people getting fired from the administration - perhaps because they raised questions about Russia - we have Trump asking James Comey for loyalty, we have the Trump administration knowing Michael Flynn lied about his call with the Russian ambassador and Trump saying to Comey about Flynn - and possibly about a larger investigation - I hope you can let this go. So some people would say there's already a pattern of corrupt intent to obstruct, as Carrie Johnson laid out at the top. But still, there's probably not enough evidence to bring against a president. In a case like that, legal experts say, you have to have a very strong body of evidence. Plus Trump and his supporters say there is no corrupt intent here.

Up until this point in the story - early 2017, remember - no one has actually said publicly that there is a formal investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. And Trump calls any attempts to do that a sham. So the thinking goes why would he bother to obstruct something that he sees as bogus? And Trump's people say he's the president. He can fire who he wants and have dinners and conversations with who he wants. So by this point, it is March 2017, and it is time to talk about Jeff Sessions.


JOHNSON: So Jeff Sessions obviously played a big role in the president's campaign. He was a top surrogate.


JEFF SESSIONS: We need to make America great again.


JOHNSON: And in the course of his confirmation hearing in the Senate early last year, early 2017, Jeff Sessions promised that he would step aside from any investigation involving Hillary Clinton because he had made some statements on the trail about Hillary Clinton, and it was just not fair game. So Justice Department reporters and I kept asking Jeff Sessions, you know, what about the Russia investigation? What's going to happen with the Russia investigation? Are you involved in the Russia investigation? And he wouldn't commit to being in charge of that one way or another. And the questions kept coming and coming and coming. And then The Washington Post reports that Sessions had a couple of meetings with Sergey Kislyak in 2016 that he did not disclose before his confirmation hearing.

MCEVERS: Sergey Kislyak - the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time.

JOHNSON: And then, one day, surprise...


SESSIONS: It's good to be with you. Welcome to the Department of Justice.

JOHNSON: We get summoned to the Justice Department in March 2017. Jeff Sessions comes out in front of the cameras, and Sessions says...


SESSIONS: Therefore, I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.

JOHNSON: He's decided to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia probe because of advice he got from Justice Department ethics lawyers.


SESSIONS: I believe those recommendations are right and just.

JOHNSON: He said that he's taken no actions regarding - anything regarding Russia. He just said that he's concluded he shouldn't be involved in them because of what he did in the campaign for Donald Trump last year.


JOHNSON: And that was a big deal. I mean, he made a big, public commitment on camera.

MCEVERS: It's a big deal because it means Jeff Sessions is no longer overseeing what we now know was the FBI's investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia. Like, that job now falls to someone else.

JOHNSON: This made the president really, really angry, so angry that he stayed angry with Jeff Sessions, we think, to this very day. There's lots of public evidence of that.

MCEVERS: Trump tweets that Sessions is beleaguered, that he's taken a weak position on, quote, "Hillary Clinton's crimes." When asked whether he will fire Sessions, Trump says time will tell.

JOHNSON: The president has been beating up on the Justice Department and the FBI for months. He called the Justice Department a laughingstock. In fact, he had an interview with The New York Times.


TRUMP: Right after he gets the job, he recuses himself.

PETER BAKER: Was that a mistake?

TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself.

JOHNSON: He said he would've picked somebody else.


TRUMP: I think it's very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would've recused himself before the job, I would have said, thanks, Jeff, but I can't, you know, I'm not going to take you.


MCEVERS: So again, Trump is raising the issue of loyalty. He's already asked for loyalty from his FBI director, and now he's saying his attorney general should be loyal, and that's not their job. So Sessions stays on as attorney general, and we will hear more about him as the year goes on.


MCEVERS: For now, let's get back to FBI Director James Comey. We are in the spring of 2017. Trump has a couple of calls with Comey. He tells him how the cloud of a Russia investigation is interfering with his ability to run the country. He asked Comey to lift the cloud, and he asked Comey to publicly say Trump is not personally under investigation, which Comey says privately but does not say publicly - all this according to Comey's notes and testimony. And then comes May 4, 2017. So now let's go to the weekend at Bedminster.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #17: President Trump is spending the weekend away from the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #18: He even tweeted about it. Quote, "rather than causing a big disruption in New York City, I will be working out of my home in Bedminster, N.J., this weekend. Also saves the country money."

JOHNSON: So it May 4 - The New York Times says that the president was supposed to be golfing with Greg Norman, the Australian shark, the great golf champion - right? - of his era. But it's raining, so the president can't play golf.


JOHNSON: So instead, he sits and starts stewing about Jim Comey.

MCEVERS: He's stewing, The Times reported, because even while Comey wouldn't say publicly that Trump himself wasn't under investigation, weeks earlier Comey had confirmed during testimony to Congress that the FBI was investigating...


COMEY: Whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

MCEVERS: This is what The Times says Trump is thinking about on that rainy day.

JOHNSON: And he gets angrier and angrier. He's talking to Jared Kushner, who's there with him at the golf club. He's talking to Stephen Miller, one of his top advisers on immigration and other things. And the president directs Stephen Miller to take notes in a letter that the president wants to send to the FBI director to fire Jim Comey. Stephen Miller takes these notes, drafts this letter, and then they all bring it back to the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #19: Meanwhile, President Trump is headed back to the White House later today after his weekend at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

JOHNSON: And they discuss it with senior officials in the White House, including the top lawyer in the White House, Don McGahn. According to The New York Times, Don McGahn is so alarmed by some of the language in this draft letter that he insists it can never be sent. We need to fix this letter.

MCEVERS: This is a big deal.


JOHNSON: We don't know what's in the letter. We don't have the letter.


JOHNSON: Special counsel Robert Mueller has the letter. So instead, they call in the Justice Department. They call in Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who, by the way, is not supposed to be involved in the Russia investigation anymore because he recused himself. They call in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Now, both Sessions and Rosenstein are not happy with Jim Comey about Hillary Clinton's emails, and they just don't kind of like the guy. So the president says, why don't you guys create some correspondence, and we'll get rid of Comey? And that's what happens.

MCEVERS: Rosenstein writes a memo saying he can't defend Comey's handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton, how the FBI first closed its investigation and Comey announced that, then reopened it and Comey announced that just before the election. Jeff Sessions adds his own letter agreeing with Rosenstein, and then Trump fires Comey.


MCEVERS: Do you remember the day Comey got fired? I mean, you must, right?

JOHNSON: I do remember - hard to forget.

MCEVERS: Where were you? How did you find out?

JOHNSON: Well, believe it or not, I was home early that day. My mom was in town, and I was in the other room, and my mother hollered to me that she had heard that Trump had fired Comey.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #20: Good evening, everybody. We begin with breaking news - big news. President Trump tonight firing FBI Director James Comey.

JOHNSON: And I said, Mom, really?

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Your mom was your first source on your beat.

JOHNSON: And I rushed into the room, and, in fact, it was true.


WITTES: It was a horrifying moment.

MCEVERS: Again, that's Ben Wittes, Comey's friend.

WITTES: He learned about it while giving a speech at a bureau field office in Los Angeles.

JOHNSON: From a news report on television that was blaring in the background while he was speaking to people and not even looking at the TV.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #21: Tonight, how Comey learned himself, seeing it on TV.

WITTES: There was a question about whether he was going to even be able to fly home on the plane that was supposed to be at his disposal.

JOHNSON: And he does - and he does get on the FBI plane and go back home that night.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #22: The White House now saying Comey mishandled the email investigation into Hillary Clinton, that Comey overstepped his role in his scathing review of Clinton. But many on Capitol Hill asking - is the White House really concerned about Clinton, or is this about Russia?


MCEVERS: So then over the next couple days, you see the White House give its reasons for why Comey was fired. And what happens is those reasons change. So let's start from the beginning and sort of track that if we could.

JOHNSON: First, the explanation from the White House is that the Justice Department, the attorney general, has determined he needs a fresh start and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, is deeply unhappy with Comey's repeated violations of DOJ process with respect to the Hillary Clinton investigation. Then Rod Rosenstein finds out the White House is using his memo as an excuse to fire Comey and put his hand up and says uh-huh, uh-huh. So Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary...


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Good afternoon, everybody.

JOHNSON: The new White House press secretary says Comey had been terrible for morale at the FBI.


SANDERS: The rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director.

JOHNSON: And, in fact, she had received many calls from people at the FBI saying they were happy that Comey was let go.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: So what's your response to these rank-and-file FBI agents who disagree with your contention that they lost faith in Director Comey?

SANDERS: Look. We've heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things.

MCEVERS: Turned out that maybe that was not the case. In fact, Ben Wittes made a formal request for FBI correspondence and found there was broad support for Comey. So the White House is saying Trump fired Comey because of the Sessions-Rosenstein memo and because the FBI lost confidence in Comey. And then this happens.

JOHNSON: And finally, the president, President Trump, tells Lester Holt on NBC...

MCEVERS: The decision to fire Comey was not based on Rosenstein and Sessions' recommendation. It was his own decision.


LESTER HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in the room?

TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There's no good time to do it, by the way. They were...

HOLT: Because in your letter, you said, I accepted their recommendation. So you had already made the decision?

TRUMP: Oh, I was going fire regardless of recommendation.

HOLT: So there was...

TRUMP: He made a recommendation...

MCEVERS: And then Trump says this.


TRUMP: And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won. And the reason they should have won it is...


MCEVERS: That's a big change, right? That's way different than the original justification. And why is that potentially problematic?

JOHNSON: Remember, when you're thinking about things as possible obstruction of justice, there has to be some kind of state of mind. And it's a high bar to get a corrupt state of mind. The president has now said on national television that he was thinking of Russia when he fired Jim Comey, who was playing a big role in the Russia investigation. And so that doesn't get you all the way there, but it provides some insight into the president's state of mind, into his thinking.

MCEVERS: So the head of the FBI is fired, and the president of the United States says it's about the investigation the world now knows the FBI is leading into whether the president and his people did wrong. Democrats and even some Republicans start to pressure the Justice Department, saying this investigation is getting too politicized. So the Justice Department - actually, Rod Rosenstein - appoints a special counsel to run this investigation instead.

This is how we get Robert Mueller. Robert Mueller is a Republican. He's a former Marine. He's former head of the FBI. He is very well respected in Washington. And now he's got his own team, his own budget, the power to issue subpoenas. And he does not report directly to the president.

And remember, the appointment of these kinds of prosecutors doesn't happen very often. There was Archibald Cox. His investigation ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon even though Nixon fired him during the process. There was Kenneth Starr. His investigation led to the impeachment but not removal of Bill Clinton. And there was Patrick Fitzgerald. His investigation led to the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. What I'm saying here is when these special prosecutors get appointed, stuff happens.


MCEVERS: After the break, Mueller's team gets its first guilty plea from a former member of the White House and more on those possible obstruction questions that have been raised in the presidency and up until now. Did Trump know that Flynn lied to the FBI? What else do we know about Trump, Sessions and Mueller? How could this all lead to a possible case for obstruction, and what could happen after that?


MCEVERS: All right. Now it is December 1, 2017. And Michael Flynn appears at a federal courthouse and pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about those phone calls with the Russian ambassador. And then there's an even more surprising development.

JOHNSON: The next morning, December 2, the president woke up and a tweet came out from his account.

MCEVERS: Here's the tweet - I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI.

JOHNSON: Here's the president's Twitter account saying he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI. We didn't know that before, at least we didn't know that from the White House, right? The White House had maintained that it was not aware that Flynn had lied to the FBI, that Sally Yates never told Don McGahn that Flynn had lied to the FBI.

MCEVERS: Remember this from before, right? If Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI, that means when he told Comey he hoped Comey could see his way clear to letting this go, he's telling Comey to stop investigating someone who's committed a crime. That's what people take from this tweet. And then the White House backtracks on the tweet.

JOHNSON: The president's personal lawyer, John Dowd, who's been around Washington 40 years or more, done a lot of things in his life, he says that he is the one who created this tweet, that it was sloppy. He's sorry. He misspoke in the tweet.

MCEVERS: I am out of the tweeting business, Dowd says. I did not mean to break news. And then John Dowd really starts to split hairs. He says the White House didn't know that Flynn was lying to the FBI. Instead, he says, the Justice Department told the White House that Flynn told the FBI the same thing he told Pence. But the thing he told Mike Pence that he didn't talk to the Russians about sanctions was a lie. We know this is confusing, but this is what John Dowd said. He also said the White House was never told by the Justice Department that Flynn was accused of lying. NPR tried to get John Dowd to clarify all this, but he declined our request for an interview.


MCEVERS: So yeah, every few months, another little detail from the story drops and everyone on the TV starts yelling about obstruction. There are just two more of these that we need to talk about. They both happened recently, and they both go back to things we've already told you about. First, remember when Jeff Sessions recused himself and Donald Trump was really mad about it?

Well, we now know that Trump instructed his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to tell Sessions not to recuse himself. This is according to The New York Times. It says McGahn was unsuccessful in this endeavor and, quote, "the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him."

Quote, "Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general had done for his brother, John F. Kennedy." And this, the fact that the president believes his attorney general should safeguard him, is what many obstruction watchers think could be a problem.


MCEVERS: And the second major recent news event that has a lot of people talking about obstruction again is this.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #23: According to The New York Times, the president ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller back in June.

MCEVERS: And again, it involves White House counsel Don McGahn.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #24: Trump only backed down from his demand to fire Mueller after Don McGahn threatened to quit.

JOHNSON: It now appears that the White House counsel, Don McGahn, is confirming key elements of that story that, at one point, the president had expressed a desire to fire Robert Mueller. McGahn said he wasn't going to do it and that he'd rather quit than do something like that. And the president never actually executed on that order.

MCEVERS: Again, this is according to The New York Times.


WOLF BLITZER: Experts say the attempt to fire Mueller following the firing of FBI chief James Comey is growing evidence for a case of obstruction of justice. What's Mueller's next move?

MCEVERS: The news totally blows up. For months, Trump had been denying that he wanted to fire Mueller, and he continues to deny it.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Mr. President, did you seek to fire Mueller?

TRUMP: Fake news, folks - fake news. Typical New York Times fake stories.

MCEVERS: But Don McGahn and the White House have not denied the New York Times report. How does his intention to fire Mueller figure into this larger picture and this larger question about obstruction?

JOHNSON: You could put up a chart on the wall of all the people at the Justice Department and the FBI who have been involved in some way or another with this Russia investigation who have left the Justice Department or the FBI under pressure, fired or resigned. And that's an increasingly long list, right?

MCEVERS: Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, James Comey and the man he reportedly wanted to fire, Robert Mueller. Why would that be of interest to someone investigating whether or not he's committed obstruction of justice?

JOHNSON: Well, one way to derail an investigation of you, if you wanted to do that, is to systematically get rid of all the people who are investigating you. That's the pattern that some people are identifying now. Now, the president's lawyers and the president himself would say, listen, I'm in charge here. I have the right to get rid of these people. The question going back to where we started is whether he's doing that with some kind of corrupt intent.


MCEVERS: So here's where we are - a year and change of the Trump transition and presidency. And now, some legal experts are saying that of the two things Robert Mueller is investigating, whether Donald Trump in his campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the election and whether Trump obstructed justice, there's more evidence that's been made public that could connect him to the latter crime, the possible crime of obstruction.

Even considering the fact that a president has broad powers to hire and fire who he likes, some legal scholars say the evidence that's been made public is starting to add up to possible corrupt intent. And the other thing we know is that Mueller and his team are in negotiations with Trump's lawyer to interview Trump. And some people think that means the obstruction phase of Mueller's investigation is coming to an end. Carrie Johnson says there are three ways this could go. First, Trump could decide to sit for a voluntary interview.

JOHNSON: If he does that, there's some negotiation back and forth about the topics that are on the table and the topics that are off the table. If he does that, his lawyers can be present in the room and issue objections or guide the conversation in one way or another. And if he does that, they can go and interview him in the Oval Office or someplace in the White House.

MCEVERS: But if Trump's team decides not to do that...

JOHNSON: The special counsel team could decide to issue a grand jury subpoena and try to compel the president of the United States to appear at the courthouse. Can you imagine the spectacle? And if you go to the grand jury, you have to go on your own. Your lawyer doesn't get to sit in the room. You have to appear on your own and take an oath in front of all these grand jurors and submit to questioning with no help in the room - no legal help on your side.

MCEVERS: It turns out Bill Clinton actually negotiated a kind of hybrid interview - a grand jury interview with his lawyers at the White House. Either way, a controlled sit-down interview is the ideal scenario for most politicians. But Carrie says Trump's lawyers are wary of this option too.

JOHNSON: If the president misstates something or engages in an intentional false statement, he could create a legal problem for himself as president even if he didn't do anything else wrong. So there is a possibility that despite all these pledges of cooperation with the special counsel that President Trump refuses to sit for an interview or refuses the grand jury subpoena. In that case...

MCEVERS: Oh, you can do that? You can refuse?

JOHNSON: Well, you know what? Everybody has constitutional rights. One of them is the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. And the president could in fact invoke his Fifth Amendment right.


JOHNSON: For most politicians in office, legal experts tell me, that would be political suicide. But Donald Trump is not most politicians.


JOHNSON: And it's not clear to me at all that his base of supporters would be bothered if he decided to take five, as we say at the courthouse - take the Fifth Amendment and not talk to Mueller.


MCEVERS: Whatever happens with this interview - whether it ever happens or not - the question is still what if Mueller does have enough evidence for obstruction - then what? Now remember. This is all hypothetical. Most legal experts agree. You can't indict a sitting president. So you either wait until he's not president, or you pass what you have to Congress. And just remember. In the cases of the only two presidents in modern history who have faced articles of impeachment in Congress, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, they both included charges of obstruction of justice. So I asked Carrie about a hypothetical impeachment scenario for Donald Trump.

I want to talk about the elephant in the room because people literally from every Uber driver that I ever have to like my relatives ask me about this. Like, how does impeachment figure in? I think there's a large part of the voting public that thinks like, oh, Mueller's going to find all this bad stuff. And then he's going to hand it all to Congress. The Democrats are going to win in the midterms. And then they're going to impeach Trump. And then it's all over.

JOHNSON: That's a lot of ifs.


JOHNSON: That's a lot of ifs.

MCEVERS: Tons of ifs - the biggest one, of course, being do Democrats control the House and Senate. But, you know, from like the standpoint of an obstruction of justice case, could it even lead there? And what all would have to happen for it to do that?

JOHNSON: So let's say Robert Mueller compiles a boatload of evidence. Where does he take that evidence?

MCEVERS: The way it's set up now, Mueller first has to give his evidence to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Rosenstein - remember - is in charge of this because Jeff Sessions recused himself. And then Rosenstein has to decide what to do with that file. He could give it to Congress. At that point, the House could vote whether or not to impeach. If that vote is yes, the Senate would hold impeachment proceedings like a trial where a two-thirds majority is needed to convict. Carrie says everybody who's imagining these impeachment proceedings should probably slow down.

JOHNSON: That's way ahead of where we are right now at this moment in time. And it requires a lot of assumptions - like that there is evidence that the president of the United States committed some kind of legal violation, that people in the House of Representatives are willing to accept that information and do something with it.


JOHNSON: I'm not sure that either of those things are true at the moment that we are speaking.


MCEVERS: And there is one last thing. Just because some people think this obstruction part of Robert Mueller's investigation might - and this is a big might - be nearing some kind of end, the part of Mueller's investigation about whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia in many ways is still very much ongoing. We did a whole episode about this. If you haven't heard it yet, go listen. In that part of the investigation, there are witnesses, former Trump staffers, who are now cooperating with investigators. And there are sentencing hearings and trials that haven't even happened yet, which means we still don't know where this all is going to go.


MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Carrie Johnson, written by me and produced by Chris Benderev. It was edited by Neal Carruth, Tom Dreisbach, Phil Ewing and Beth Donovan with help from Brent Bachman and Mark Memmott. Fact-checking by Sarah Knight. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. You can check out the FBI correspondence and a lot of other coverage of these investigations on the site he edits Our theme song is by Colin Womscan (ph). Other original music is by Ramtin Arablouei. EMBEDDED is executive produced by me, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann.

That is it for these Russia investigation episodes. EMBEDDED will be back soon with more stories. And remember. The best way to know when we have new stuff is to subscribe to this podcast. We put updates in the feed. And when a new episode comes out - boom - there it is. So subscribe. Subscribe. Subscribe. And remember. You can always hear more NPR on your local public radio station. Thanks for listening.


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