Trump's legal team breathes a sigh, takes a victory lap

WASHINGTON (AP) — First they cooperated. Then they stonewalled. Their television interviews were scattershot and ridiculed, their client mercurial and unreliable. 

But President Donald Trump's legal team, through a combination of bluster, legal precedent and shifting tactics, managed to protect their client from a potentially perilous in-person interview during special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation . His lawyers are taking a victory lap after a redacted version of Mueller's findings revealed politically damaging conduct by the president but drew no conclusions of criminal behavior.

"Our strategy came to be that when we weren't talking, we were losing," Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's lawyers, told The Associated Press in a recent interview. Given that Mueller could not indict a sitting president, Giuliani said, the team kept its focus on Mueller's "capacity to report, so we had to play in the media as well as legally."

The aftershocks from the Mueller report released Thursday will help shape the next two years of Trump's administration. But while the report may cause some Democrats to take a renewed look at impeachment despite long odds of success in Congress, the legal threat to Trump that seemed so dangerous upon Mueller's appointment in May 2017 has waned.

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Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. The report contained two volumes. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)


At the outset, that appointment led Trump to predict "the end of my presidency." The White House struggled to recruit top Washington attorneys, many of whom were reluctant to work for a temperamental, scandal-prone president who repeatedly claimed he would be his own best legal mind.

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EDS NOTE: OBSCENITY - This portion of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, released in Washington on Thursday, April 18, 2019, describes Mueller's appointment and President Donald Trump's reaction to it. Trump’s legal team, through an unlikely combination of bluster, legal precedent and a decision to sharply shift tactics, protected their client from a perilous in-person interview and those lawyers took a victory lap this week when a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller findings was published,(AP Photo/Jon Elswick)


The initial strategy of the Trump legal team, including White House attorney Ty Cobb and personal defense lawyer John Dowd, was to be as cooperative as possible with Mueller's prosecutors and ensure that investigators got access to the documents they requested and the witnesses they wanted to interview. The Trump lawyers hoped to bring about a quick conclusion to the investigation.

 

Believing he could exonerate himself, Trump initially expressed a willingness to sit for an interview with Mueller's team. A date was set for that to take place at Camp David. But then the president's lawyers moved away from the plan, in part by arguing that the special counsel already had gotten answers to his questions.

"It became the most transparent investigation in history," Jay Sekulow, one of the president's personal lawyers, said in an interview.

Still, there was internal tumult along the way, including the March 2018 departure of Dowd, a veteran and experienced criminal defense attorney, and the additions of Giuliani and the husband-wife team of Martin and Jane Raskin.

Even as the legal team professed cooperation with Mueller's prosecutors, the lawyers expressed impatience, frustration and skepticism in a series of private letters that challenged the credibility of the government's witnesses and the demands to interview the president.

In a November 2018 correspondence, one of a series of letters obtained by news outlets, the president's legal team attacked the questions Mueller wanted to ask the president as "burdensome if submitted to a routine witness, let alone presented to the president of the United States, more than two years after the events at issue while he continued to navigate numerous, serious matters of state, national security and domestic emergency."

Those private complaints were dwarfed by louder public protests. Trump spent months engaging in daily, sometimes hourly, attacks on Mueller's team, declaring the investigation a "Witch Hunt" and questioning the integrity of the investigators.

Giuliani, in many ways more of a television spokesman than conventional lawyer, amplified those attacks. He went so far as to accuse the investigators of misconduct and to portray Mueller, who as a Marine officer had led a rifle platoon in Vietnam, as unpatriotic.

The former New York City mayor became a human smoke screen, making accusations and offering theories often meant to distract and obfuscate. He was a punch line on cable news channels, and his interviews were mocked as blunder-filled performances.

But there was a method to Giuliani's shtick, at least at times. More than once he let slip revelations that initially were perceived as gaffes but later were recognized as efforts to get out ahead of potentially damaging news stories. Two examples include payments to Stormy Daniels, a porn actress who claimed an affair with Trump, and a letter of intent to build a Trump Tower Moscow.

There were missteps, too.

The interviews granted by White House staffers filled the pages of the Mueller report with stories of West Wing chaos. At least one interaction caught Mueller's attention as a possible effort to discourage a witness from cooperating against the president.

Trump's lawyers communicated regularly with attorneys for other people under scrutiny in the investigation as part of a joint-defense agreement that enabled them to swap information. But the report reveals that after former national security adviser Michael Flynn withdrew from the agreement and began cooperating with the government, an unidentified Trump lawyer left a message with Flynn's attorneys reminding them that the president still had warm feelings for Flynn and asking for a "heads-up" if Flynn knew damaging information about the president.

While Giuliani, with an eye toward the members of Congress who might eventually decide the president's fate, focused on the public relations battle, the legal team also worked behind the scenes to argue that Mueller could not use a subpoena to compel Trump to give an in-person interview, which carried potentially grave risks for a president prone to making false statements.

"I think they were right to think that it would hurt him to speak to Mueller's team, and as it turns out, they were right to think that he could get away with refusing to speak with Mueller's team," said Stanford law school professor David Alan Sklansky.

Mueller's team, which spent about a year negotiating with Trump's lawyers over a potential interview, ultimately agreed to accept written answers on Russia-related questions but never spoke with the president in person.

Making the move to block an interview was "defense lawyering 101" because defense lawyers as a matter of course don't like to let clients in legal jeopardy speak to investigators, said Duke law professor Samuel Buell.

Mueller never acted to subpoena Trump. The special counsel did not conclude that Trump's campaign colluded with Russians. With an eye on following a Justice Department legal opinion that prohibits indicting a sitting president, Mueller did not rule on whether Trump obstructed justice. Attorney General William Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein declared that Trump did not.

"We're very, very happy. I mean, it's a clear victory. I think any lawyer would say when you get a declination, you just won," Giuliani told Fox News after the report came out.

Buell said it hard to know how much credit belonged to Trump's lawyers.

"I think that's where the real lawyering in a situation like this goes on, is the client management piece," he said. "Trump doesn't like to be managed, clearly ... but the Mueller report won't tell you what went on with the president's private lawyers and the president."

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Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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Follow Lemire on Twitter at //twitter.com/@JonLemire">http://twitter.com/@JonLemire> and Tucker at //twitter.com/@etuckerAP">http://twitter.com/@etuckerAP>

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For complete coverage of the Mueller report, go to https://www.apnews.com/TrumpInvestigations


A few things you might have missed from the Mueller report

By ERIC TUCKER Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Special counsel Robert Mueller's report focuses on the seminal questions of whether President Donald Trump's campaign colluded with the Russians and whether the president sought to illegally obstruct the investigation.

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Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. The pages refer to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

But tucked into the 448-page document are vivid anecdotes and meaningful revelations about a colorful cast of characters entangled in Mueller's investigation.

Here are some:

THE EMAIL HUNT

Even as Russians hacked Democratic email accounts, a haphazard group of Americans launched a parallel effort of their own: to find tens of thousands of emails deleted from Hillary Clinton's personal email server.

It had become an object of fascination for Trump, who asked multiple people around the campaign to find the missing emails.

Among them was Trump's future national security adviser Michael Flynn, who enlisted the help of a former Senate staffer named Barbara Ledeen and Peter Smith, an investment adviser who'd been active in Republican politics.

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FILE - In this Dec. 1, 2017, file photo, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The report documents multiple steps the two took to find the emails. Smith, for instance, recruited security experts and business associates and claimed to those he was seeking funding from that he was in contact with Russia-linked hackers.

It's not clear the bluster amounted to anything as Mueller found no evidence that any of the Americans were actually in touch with any Russian hackers or had any connection to them.

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SESSIONS INVESTIGATED

Mueller confirmed that his office investigated whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed perjury at his January 2017 confirmation hearing by saying that he "did not have communications with the Russians" during the campaign.

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FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2018, file photo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pauses during a news conference at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The statement was false because Sessions did in fact have two separate encounters with the then-Russian ambassador to the United States — once during the week of the Republican National Convention in July 2016 and again in his Senate office two months later.

Sessions would later explain that he understood the question to be narrowly focused on whether he had exchanged campaign information with Russians as opposed to having more routine interactions with them.

Mueller's report said prosecutors accepted that assertion as plausible and closed the case without prosecution.

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"WE'LL BE TAKEN CARE OF"

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates were among the first of the president's aides to be charged by Mueller, accused of a broad array of financial crimes.

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FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2017, file photo, Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, leaves the federal courthouse in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

For months, they stood united as co-defendants but that relationship was severed in February 2018 when Gates agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the investigation.

The report reveals a curious encounter one month earlier when Manafort sought to dissuade Gates from cutting a deal. He told Gates that he had spoken with the president's own lawyers and that "we'll be taken care of," according to the report.

Gates went ahead and pleaded guilty, testifying against Manafort in his trial. Manafort followed suit months later by pleading guilty and was recently sentenced to more than seven years in prison.

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COUNTLESS FBI AGENTS

The day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made a claim that even at the time rang false.

Turns out, it was.

Sanders, pressed on the president's decision to fire Comey, said the White House had "heard from countless members of the FBI" complaining about Comey's leadership and contradicting the conventional narrative that the rank-and-file was devastated by his termination. The next day, she again stood by her claim that she personally had been in touch "between emails and text messages" with a large number of FBI personnel who said they were very happy with the president's decision.

The assertion during a White House press briefing was so baffling that an exasperated reporter at one point proclaimed, "I mean, really?"

But when questioned by Mueller's team, Sanders changed her tune, saying her reference to "countless members" of the FBI was a "slip of the tongue." She acknowledged that she had no basis for a separate statement that rank-and-file agents had lost confidence in Comey.

Sanders claimed in a series of television interviews on Friday that the "countless" comment was a "slip of the tongue" and not a scripted talking point but that she stood behind her general sentiment.

"I'm sorry I wasn't a robot," she said in one of the interviews.

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JULIAN ASSANGE

In the summer of 2016, the WikiLeaks founder took an unusual interest in the Washington, D.C., murder of a former Democratic National Committee staffer.

News reports had already correctly attributed the hack of DNC servers to Russia, but Assange — whose anti-secrecy website had come in possession of stolen emails — wanted to "obscure the source of the materials" that it was releasing.

To do so, Mueller says, Assange seized on false conspiracy theories that linked the hacks to Seth Rich, the slain DNC staffer.

Even though, WikiLeaks had already been in touch with Guccifer 2.0, a fictitious Russian intelligence persona masquerading as a lone hacker, Assange promoted the idea that Rich may actually have been the source of stolen emails and connected to the DNC hack.

At one point, he announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Rich's killer.

In an August 25, 2016 interview, Assange said, "If there's someone who's potentially connected to our publication, and that person has been murdered in suspicious circumstances, it doesn't necessarily mean that the two are connected. But it is a very serious matter ... that type of allegation is very serious, as it's taken very seriously by us."

In an unrelated case, the Justice Department last week unsealed an indictment accusing Assange of conspiring with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to crack a U.S. government password.

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SANCTIONS TALK

The report sheds new light on the aftermath of Flynn's discussion on sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, the then-Russian ambassador to the United States, during the presidential transition period.

After a Washington Post columnist disclosed in January 2017 that Flynn and Kislyak had indeed discussed sanctions, Flynn — under pressure from the president-elect — directed K.T. McFarland, who served as deputy national security adviser, to contact the newspaper and deny that sanctions had ever been talked about.

McFarland made the call even though she knew she was relaying false information, the report said.

The following month, after Flynn was ousted from the White House, Trump sought to have McFarland draft an internal letter stating that he had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions with Kislyak. But McFarland refused because she didn't know whether that was true, the report says.

Flynn's sanctions discussions with Kislyak were central to the investigation and he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about it.

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Associated Press writer Chad Day contributed to this report.