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Everything we know about President Trump’s obstruction of justice scandal

President Donald Trump walks towards Marine One to depart for Cincinnati on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 7, 2017.
Eric Thayer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
President Donald Trump walks towards Marine One to depart for Cincinnati on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 7, 2017.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating whether the president of the United States abused his power to try to impede law enforcement investigations that he doesn't like — an investigation with enormous stakes that could determine the future of Donald Trump's presidency.

That means the FBI and Department of Justice's Russia investigation has expanded beyond the topic of whether Donald Trump's associates colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign. Now, much of it is focused on whether Trump committed obstruction of justice while in office.

And Trump himself isn't happy about it. "They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice," he recently tweeted.

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While much of the original Russian interference investigation remains shrouded in mystery, many elements key to understanding the obstruction of justice controversy have either leaked or played out in full public view.

The most important of them are:

Of course, there remains much we don't know about how the president has acted behind the scenes. And it's not yet clear whether any of his actions ever crossed the line into being illegal.

But to help keep things straight as we continue to learn more, I've pulled together a timeline of what we know about the matters key to the obstruction of justice controversy so far. I'll keep updating it as the story continues to develop.

I. Setting the stage

July 2016: The Russia investigation begins. In late July 2016, the FBI opens an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's emails. In the ensuing months, government officials will attribute this and other political hackings to the Russian government.

This investigation turns toward examining broad Russian interference in the US election process, links of Trump associates and the Trump campaign to the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. In the ensuing months, other agencies — including the CIA, the NSA, and the Treasury Department's financial crimes unit — get involved. They scrutinize financial transactions and intercept Russian communications, per the New York Times.

January 6, 2017: Trump and Comey first meet during the transition to talk Russian hacking and supposed "kompromat." The context for this meeting is that Trump had repeatedly professed, both before the election and then during the transition, that he was skeptical that Russia was behind the hackings. So on January 6, FBI Director James Comey and other top intelligence officials meet with President-elect Trump to present him the evidence on Russian culpability.

According to Comey's later testimony, at the end of the briefing, he is tasked by other officials with pulling the president-elect aside to tell him about a salacious and unverified dossier claiming Russia had collected compromising information about him. (This dossier, assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele, is posted online by BuzzFeed Newsfour days later, and at least some of its claims seem very dubious.)

Comey's testimony also says that at this meeting, with the prior approval of FBI leadership, he offers the "assurance" to Trump that he isn't being investigated personally. He says this "was true; we did not have an open counterintelligence case on him." Immediately afterward, he says, he documents what happened in the meeting in a memo.

Sometime shortly before the inauguration: Trump asks Comey to stay on. According to Comey's testimony, Trump calls him shortly before becoming president to reaffirm his rejection of the allegations in the dossier, and tells him, "Hope you're going to stay, you're doing a great job."

On January 18, Comey tells senior FBI employees in a conference call that Trump has asked him to stay in his post, according to the New York Times, quoting "people briefed on the matter." The story also says that according to those people, Trump's aides "have made it clear" to Comey "that the president does not plan to ask him to leave."

January 22, 2017: Two days after Trump is sworn in, he has a brief, awkward encounter with Comey at a public event. The new president holds a reception for law enforcement leaders at the White House. Comey is invited, and Trump signaled him to come over for what proves to be an awkward part hug, part handshake. "He's become more famous than me," Trump says. Comey testified that during the handshake, Trump whispered in his ear, "I really look forward to working with you." Comey will later tell a friend he felt very uncomfortable during this encounter.

January 27, 2017: One week after Trump became president, he has Comey over for a private dinner, and reportedly asks for his "loyalty." Comey's testimony describes this unusual dinner, which he says he documented in a memo immediately afterward, at length.

  • Comey says Trump invited him earlier that day, but that he didn't expect it would be just the two of them there.
  • Trump began the dinner by asking him whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director, which Comey says he found strange considering he thought Trump had already asked him twice to stay on. Comey says he suspects Trump wanted to create "some sort of patronage relationship" with him, and that he responded by saying he was not "reliable" in the political sense but that he'd always tell the truth.
  • Per Comey, Trump responded, "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty," while he himself tried to remain stone-faced.
  • Later in the dinner, Comey says, Trump again told him, "I need loyalty." Comey says he offered "honesty," that Trump responded by saying he wanted "honest loyalty," and that he himself then agreed, "You will get that from me." Comey says it was "a very awkward conversation."
  • Additionally, Comey says Trump again brought up sexual material in the Steele dossier, denied that it was true, and suggested he might order the FBI to investigate it to prove its falsehood. Comey says he cautioned Trump by saying that "might create a narrative that we were investigating him personally, which we weren't" — his second assurance to Trump that he wasn't under investigation.

President Trump's account of the dinner, given in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt in May, claims instead that it was not him but Comey who asked to have dinner "because he wanted to stay on."

The president and his personal attorney have also flat-out denied that Trump ever asked Comey for loyalty. "I will tell you that I didn't say that," Trump said at a June 9 press conference. "The President also never told Mr. Comey, 'I need loyalty, I expect loyalty' in form or substance," Trump's attorney Marc Kasowitz said in a statement that same week.

II. From Michael Flynn's firing to Jeff Sessions's recusal

February 9 to 13, 2017: A series of leaks from government officials about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn eventually spur Trump to fire him. Back during the transition, as President Obama was announcing new sanctions on Russia, Vladimir Putin responded in a surprisingly low-key fashion. National security officials soon leaked that Flynn had a series of communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day the sanctions were announced, which raised questions about whether Flynn undermined the sanctions or offered the Russians any assurances.

In the ensuing months, transition and administration officials like Vice President-elect Mike Pence and press secretary Sean Spicer would assert that sanctions had never even come up in those calls. But government surveillance of Kislyak's communications apparently proved otherwise, suggesting Flynn had misled Pence and Spicer. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, warned White House counsel Don McGahnabout this on January 26 and 27, suggesting Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail, but he remained on in his job.

But on February 9 and 13, a pair of anonymously sourced stories in the Washington Post make the contents of Yates's private warning public, revealing that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions, and that Yates had warned the administration about this.

So on the night of February 13, Trump finally fires Flynn. In the ensuing weeks, the president will become increasingly agitated about leaks from the government.

February 14, 2017: Trump asks Comey to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, according to Comey's testimony. The next morning after Flynn's firing, Comey attends an Oval Office briefing of the president with a large group of advisers. At the end of the meeting, Trump clears the room so he can speak with Comey alone. According to Comey's testimony, here's what ensued:

  • Once the two were alone, Trump said, "I want to talk about Mike Flynn." He said Flynn hadn't done anything wrong in talking to the Russians, but that because he had misled Pence, he had to be fired.
  • Trump then complained about leaks for some time, before bringing up Flynn again. "He is a good guy and has been through a lot," Trump said, according to Comey. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." Comey says that his only reply was, "He is a good guy."
  • Comey then documents the conversation in a memo, and will testify that he "understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December" — not requesting that the Russia probe be dropped entirely.
  • Still, Comey will say, he found the interaction "very concerning," documented it in a memo, and told senior leadership at the FBI. "The FBI leadership team agreed with me that it was important not to infect the investigative team with the President's request, which we did not intend to abide," Comey will say.

President Trump has

denied ever asking Comey to back off on an investigation into Flynn.

February 15, 2017: The president publicly defends Flynn and says he was "treated very, very unfairly." He also tweets:

March 1, 2017: News breaks that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador. The Washington Post's Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Miller report that Sessions failed to disclose two contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016 — one was a meeting in his Senate office, and one was a brief encounter at a public event.

This contradicts Sessions's oral testimony during his confirmation hearing, in which he said, "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that [Trump] campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians."

March 2, 2017: Sessions recuses himself from the Russia investigation. After a day of criticism and new calls for his recusal, the attorney general announces in a press conference that he'll recuse himself "from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns" for president in 2016. He will claim that he's recusing himself simply because he worked on the Trump campaign, not because he believes he did anything improper regarding Russia.

Since Trump's deputy attorney general nominee has not yet been confirmed, Dana Boente — a holdover US attorney from the Obama administration — will be the Justice Department official in charge of the Russia probe for the time being.

March 4, 2017: Trump accuses President Obama of tapping his phones. Following a day in which the president has

expressed fury over Sessions's recusal from the investigation, Trump lobs various accusations at his predecessor on Twitter on a Saturday morning. Specifically, he says that Obama "had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower," that his "phones" were tapped, and: "This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!"

No evidence has yet emerged to substantiate this charge.

March 5, 2017: The New York Times reports that Comey "asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Trump's assertion" that President Obama tapped his phones. Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) says his committee will make inquiries into the matter. Two days later, he will schedule his first public hearing on the Russia investigation for March 20.

March 15, 2017: Comey agrees to testify at the House Intelligence Committee's upcoming hearing. Nunes signals that he plans to press Comey on the surveillance matter at the hearing.

III. Comey goes public with the investigation — and President Trump isn't happy

March 20, 2017 (early morning): Trump sends a flurry of angry tweets complaining about the Russia investigation.

!

Later that same morning: Comey publicly confirms the FBI is investigating whether Trump's campaign or associates coordinated with Russia. During testimony at the House Intelligence Committee hearing, Comey shocks Washington by saying:

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

Overall, his comments are interpreted as a signal that the investigation into Trump associates is indeed a very serious matter, rather than being a "hoax" or "fake news" as the president has claimed (and as he will continue to claim).

Comey does not say whether the president himself is or isn't being investigated. (He will later testify that Trump was not under investigation at this time.)

During the testimony, Comey also rejects Trump's claims that President Obama had his phones tapped. "I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI," he says.

March 22, 2017: Trump reportedly asks Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to try to get Comey to back off Flynn. According to a report by the Washington Post's Adam Entous, after a White House briefing on this date, Trump requested that everyone present leave the room except Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Then, according to Entous's sources ("officials" familiar with Coats's description of what happened), Trump "started complaining about the FBI investigation and Comey's handling of it." He then asked Coats "if he could intervene" with Comey "to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe."

Afterward, Entous's sources tell him, "Coats discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate."

When asked about this Post story during testimony before the Senate, Coats wouldn't confirm or deny it. He said instead that he didn't want to talk about his private conversations with the president, but that he didn't feel pressured to do anything improper.

Late March 2017: Trump reportedly reaches out to Coats and to NSA Director Mike Rogers on the Russia matter: According to a report by the Washington Post's Entous and Nakashima, around this time, Trump separately appeals to both Coats and Rogers, "urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election." (Coats and Rogers decide not to do it.)

Also around this time, the report continues, "senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn."

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal's Del Quentin Wilber, Shane Harris, and Paul Sonne, Trump's outreach to Rogers occurred in a phone call that was documented in a memo by Rogers's now-retired deputy, Rick Ledgett.

The Journal reporters write that per "people familiar with the matter," Trump "questioned the veracity of the intelligence community's judgment that Russia had interfered with the election and tried to persuade Mr. Rogers to say there was no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russian officials" during this call.

During later Senate testimony, Rogers does not confirm or deny that this interaction happened, but he does say that he never felt pressured by the president to do anything improper.

March 30, 2017: Trump calls Comey and complains about the Russia investigation being a "cloud." According to Comey's testimony, Trump called him on this morning and said the Russia investigation was "'a cloud' that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country." After again denying any Russia-related wrongdoing, Comey says Trump "asked what we could do to 'lift the cloud.'"

Comey says he reiterated to the president that he wasn't personally under investigation, and that Trump repeatedly responded, "We need to get that fact out." Comey's testimony continued:

"The President went on to say that if there were some 'satellite' associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn't done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren't investigating him."

Per Comey, Trump then also made a reference to reports that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe's wife ran for office and got donations from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA), a Clinton ally. Then he again referred to "the cloud" hurting his ability to make deals for the country and asked Comey to get the information out that he wasn't getting investigated. "I told him I would see what we could do," Comey testified.

March 31, 2017: In response to press accounts that Michael Flynn was seeking immunity from prosecution, Trump tweets.

April 11, 2017: Trump calls Comey to follow up on his request. Per Comey's testimony, Trump "asked what I had done about his request that I 'get out' that he is not personally under investigation." Comey said he had passed his request along to Dana Boente (the Justice Department official then overseeing the probe) and encouraged Trump to reach out to Boente, not to him.

Per Comey, Trump responded: "Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know." Comey says the call soon ended and he never spoke to the president again.

April 12, 2017: Trump talks about Comey in a TV interview. Asked during a Fox Business Network interview whether it was "too late" to ask Comey to step down, Trump says, "No, it's not too late, but you know, I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens. It's going to be interesting." He goes on to criticize Comey for not bringing charges against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

April 25, 2017: The Senate confirms Trump's nominee Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general, which means he will now oversee the Russia probe (due to Session's recusal).

May 2, 2017: In response to Hillary Clinton blaming Comey for her loss, Trump complains that Comey "gave her a free pass for many bad deeds."

IV. Comey's firing and the aftermath

May 3, 2017: Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among other things, Comey will testify that his late actions in the Clinton email investigation made him feel "terrible," adding, "It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election."

May 6 and 7, 2017: Over the weekend, Trump reportedly complains to people about Comey's testimony: According to a team of Washington Post reporters, while Trump was at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course, he complained that Comey's testimony was "strange" and that he was sanctimonious.

A team of New York Times reporters adds that Comey told aides there was "something wrong with" Comey. And Reuters's Steve Holland and Jeff Mason will write that per one official, Trump was upset that Comey wouldn't give him a heads up on what he would say.

May 8, 2017: Trump reportedly tells aides that he's ready to fire Comey — and invites Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein over for a meeting. Per the Post, in the morning, Trump tells Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon, White House counsel Don McGahn, and other aides "that he was ready to move on Comey." The New York Times reports reports that Pence, McGahn, and Jared Kushner were all on board with firing Comey.

The question of what, exactly, happened at the meeting between Trump, Sessions, and Rosenstein will likely be the source of much investigative interest. It is unclear what exactly Trump said, whether he told them his mind was already made up about firing Comey, and whether he said he wanted Comey gone because of the Russia investigation. (The last of these is particularly important because Sessions is supposed to be recused from overseeing that investigation.)

The outcome, however, is clear — over the next day or so, Rosenstein writes a memo criticizing Comey's leadership of the FBI, primarily over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation (essentially saying he was too tough on her and usurped Justice Department authorities).

In the evening, Trump sends these tweets complaining about the Russia investigation:

May 9, 2017: Trump fires Comey. In the late afternoon, the White House announces that Trump has fired the FBI director. By way of explanation, they release Rosenstein's memocriticizing Comey's conduct in the email case, paired with a brief statement from Sessions expressing agreement and recommending Comey's firing.

Trump's own statement says he has accepted Sessions and Rosenstein's recommendation and that Comey is "hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately." He also claims that Comey told him three times that he wasn't under investigation (a statement we now know is accurate):

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

Altogether, the releases are designed to leave the impression that Trump is firing Comey because of these recommendations from top Justice Department officials, and not because he had previously made up his mind to do so, or because of the Russia case in any way. This story will quickly fall apart — first due to a flurry of leaks indicating otherwise, and second due to the president's own words.

May 10, 2017: Trump reportedly tells Russian officials that firing Comey takes "pressure" off him. In an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump reportedly discusses Comey's firing.

According to a US document summarizing the meeting — an account of which was later leaked to the New York Times's Matt Apuzzo, Maggie Haberman, and Matthew Rosenberg — Trump said, "I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job." He added: "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

The White House hasn't disputed this account, though some officials have claimed that Trump was making the comments as part of a negotiating ploy.

May 11, 2017: In an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, Trump openly says that the "made-up" Russia investigation was on his mind when he fired Comey. He also confirms that he was going to fire Comey regardless of what Rosenstein said.

He [Rosenstein] made a recommendation, he's highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him, the Republicans like him. He made a recommendation. But regardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it!

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've won."

And the reason they should've won it is, the Electoral College is almost impossible for a Republican to win, it's very hard, because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.

That same day, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post stories will question Trump's claim that Comey told him he wasn't under investigation. (Comey, however, will later confirm this claim is true.)

And the New York Times's Michael Schmidt reports Comey's account of Trump asking him for "loyalty" at their dinner in January.

May 12, 2017: Trump hints that he might have taped his conversations with Comey.

Since then, the president has refused to confirm or deny whether he tapes his conversations in the White House. (When Comey is asked about this possibility during his testimony, he will say, "Lordy, I hope there are tapes.")

May 16, 2017: The Times reports that Comey wrote a memo saying Trump asked him to let the investigation into Flynn go. The story, from Michael Schmidt, is treated as a major bombshell and appears to be what prompted Rosenstein to appoint a special prosecutor.

May 17, 2017: Rod Rosenstein names former FBI Director Robert Mueller special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. In a statement, Rosenstein says he has "determined" that "based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command."

"Special Counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result," Rosenstein continues.

V. What's happened since Mueller's appointment

May 18, 2017: The president tweets that he is the subject of a "witch hunt."

May 23, 2017: Trump hires Marc Kasowitz, a longtime associate, as his main personal lawyer for the investigation. The White House will increasingly refer questions about the Russia scandal to Kasowitz.

June 2, 2017: Mueller will expand his probe to include a grand jury investigation into Michael Flynn, according to Reuters reporters Nathan Layne, Mark Hosenball, and Julia Edwards Ainsley.

June 3, 2017: Mueller has taken over a separate probe into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is under scrutiny for business dealings with foreign entities, according to the Associated Press's Sadie Gurman, Eric Tucker, and Jeff Horwitz.

June 8, 2017: Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an extraordinary critique of the president's conduct in office and character as a whole. He gives his account of the dinner in which he says Trump asked for his "loyalty," the meeting in which he says Trump asked him to drop the Flynn investigation, and the two phone calls in which Trump discussed the "cloud." He also argues that Trump and his White House initially told "lies" about why he was fired and attempted to "defame" him.

June 9, 2017: At a press conference, Trump responds to Comey's testimony, specifically denying that he ever asked for Comey's loyalty and that he asked him to let the Flynn investigation go.

June 11 and 12, 2017: Trump allies in conservative media begin to float the idea that Trump should fire Mueller. Eventually, Trump friend Christopher Ruddy will publicly statethat he's heard the president is considering this. Other reporters will confirm that the president has been

this possibility.

June 13, 2017: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testifies that he believes only he can fire Mueller and that he can only do so for "good cause." The implication is that if the president wants to fire Mueller without good cause, that will mean getting rid of Rosenstein as well. "I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders," Rosenstein says.

That same day, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will refuse to answer several questions about his conversations with the president about Comey and the Russia investigation during Senate testimony.

June 14, 2017: The Washington Post reports that Mueller is investigating President Trump for potential obstruction of justice. The Wall Street Journal confirms the report. Mueller reportedly plans to interview Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Mike Rogers about their late-March interactions with the president about the Russia probe, described above.

After this story breaks, a Trump press staffer states that the president "has the right to" fire Mueller but "has no intention to do so."

June 15, 2017: The president tweets about the "phony story," and again calls it a "WITCH HUNT."

Where we are, and what comes next

There remains no solid public evidence that Trump or his associates coordinated with the Russian hacking efforts, or that any of the more speculative scenarios about hidden scandalous connections between the president and Russia are true.

But the pattern of leaks, testimony, and public statements from the president suggesting a potential pattern of obstruction of justice is clearer. And now special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating this topic.

Now, there are several big questions going forward. Have the president and his top aides taken any other actions to interfere with investigations into the Russia matter or into Trump's associates? What other evidence will Mueller turn up? And will he judge what he finds to be potentially criminal?

Even if no "smoking gun" evidence emerges regarding coordination with Russia or obstruction of justice, that might not be an end to Trump associates' political and legal woes. Financial crimes that rise to investigators' attention, or false statements made to the investigators themselves, could also result in charges.

But if Mueller does find evidence suggesting that the president himself has committed crimes, it's not clear what comes after that. The matter of whether a sitting president can be criminally indicted has never been settled by the courts. He could end up presenting what he finds to Congress and letting them decide whether to impeach Trump.

Yet since impeachment is generally a political and not a legal topic, it remains a very remote prospect for the time being. And there are a host of questions about how the president himself will respond if his legal problems worsen.

He does, after all, have the nuclear codes.