President Donald Trump didn’t offer a lot of specifics when he submitted written responses to questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but he did attempt to make one thing clear: That time he publicly asked Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails was just in “jest,” he said.
Among the many nuggets made public in the long-awaited Mueller report released Thursday were Trump’s written responses to the Special Counsel’s questions regarding Russian election interference and possible obstruction of justice. As the report notes, Trump replied more than 30 times that he had “no recollection” or did not “recall” specific information requested by Mueller’s team, including details of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, potential support from Russian President Vladimir Putin for his presidential campaign, or discussions pertaining to WikiLeaks head Julian Assange.
But Trump’s response was clearer when Mueller’s team asked why the President said during a July 27, 2016 press conference: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Clinton faced intense scrutiny over her use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state — including for more than 30,000 emails that were deleted and not turned over to the public. The Clinton campaign swiftly condemned Trump’s comments about her deleted emails, but Trump later emphasized his position on Twitter, writing “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
The President told Mueller:
I made the statement quoted in Question II (d) in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer. The context of the statement is evident in the full reading or viewing of the July 27, 2016 press conference, and I refer you to the publicly available transcript and video of that press conference. I do not recall having any discussion about the substance of the statement in advance of the press conference. I do not recall being told during the campaign of any efforts by Russia to infiltrate or hack the computer systems or email accounts of Hillary Clinton or her campaign prior to them becoming the subject of media reporting and I have no recollection of any particular conversation in that regard.
The newly released Mueller report also lays out the special counsel office’s efforts to cajole the President into speaking with them, a process that began in December 2017 and dragged on for more than a year:
We advised counsel that the President was a “subject” of the investigation under the definition of the Justice Manual-” a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.” … We also advised counsel that “[a]n interview with the President is vital to our investigation” and that this Office had “carefully considered the constitutional and other arguments raised by . .. counsel , and they d[id] not provide us with reason to forgo seeking an interview.” We additionally stated that “it is in the interest of the Presidency and the public for an interview to take place” and offered “numerous accommodations to aid the President’s preparation and avoid surprise.”
Eventually, the report notes, Mueller’s office offered Trump a chance to answer questions in writing. In late November 2018, the President submitted his answers on five topics: the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower; Russian hacking, Russian efforts using social media and WikiLeaks; the Trump Organization Moscow project; contacts with Russia and Russia-related issues during the campaign; and contacts with Russia and Russia-related issues during the transition.
The following month, the special counsel’s office noted the “insufficiency” of the President’s responses:
We noted, among other things, that the President stated on more than 30 occasions that he “does not ‘recall” or “remember” or have an “independent recollection” of information called for by the questions. Other answers were “incomplete or imprecise.” The written responses, we informed counsel, “demonstrate the inadequacy of the written format, as we have had no opportunity to ask followup questions that would ensure complete answers and potentially refresh your client’s recollection or clarify the extent or nature of his lack of recollection.” We again requested an in-person interview, limited to certain topics, advising the President’s counsel that “[t]his is the President’s opportunity to voluntarily provide us with information for us to evaluate in the context of all of the evidence we have gathered.” The President declined.
The report then goes on to note that it considered issuing a subpoena for the President’s testimony, but ultimately declined to do so because “at that point, our investigation had made significant progress and had produced substantial evidence for our report. We thus weighed the costs of potentially lengthy constitutional litigation, with resulting delay in finishing our investigation, against the anticipated benefits for our investigation and report.”
It goes on to state that “we determined that the substantial quantity of information we had obtained from other sources allowed us to draw relevant factual conclusions on intent and credibility, which are often inferred from circumstantial evidence and assessed without direct testimony from the subject of the investigation.”