WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that President Donald Trump attempted to thwart the investigation into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russian officials, but that his efforts were stymied by top aides who repeatedly declined to carry out his orders.

While Mueller's 448-page report said that a sitting president cannot be indicted on federal criminal charges, he pointedly said that his office could not clear Trump from attempting to try to block the special counsel's investigation. 

The report released Thurday accused Russia of a “sweeping and systematic” effort to damage the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. But it also revealed  that time after time the White House staff either protected or tried to protect Trump from self-destructive, self-preserving instincts that could have violated the law.

Mueller reported in the summer of 2017, Trump telephoned then-White House counsel Don McGahn at his home to have the Justice Department dismiss Mueller, who had been named to investigate Russia's involvement in trying to sabotage Clinton's 2016 campaign.

According to the report, McGahn threatened to resign rather than “carry out the direction,” fearing it would lead to another Saturday Night Massacre, a reference to President Richard Nixon’s 1973 firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox who was investigating the Watergate scandal.

The report also said that Trump urged adviser Corey Lewandowski to tell then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the special counsel investigation to “investigating election meddling for future elections.” Lewandowski ultimately did not deliver the message, though he tried to have senior White House official Rick Dearborn do so in his stead. Dearborn, also, was too uncomfortable with the task to follow through.

In addition, the report said that when the Justice Department named Mueller as special prosecutor in May of 2017, the president responded: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm f---ed."

Trump demanded that Sessions resign, but when the attorney general sent in his resignation, Trump declined to accept it upon the urging of his staff.

The report paints a picture of a president fixated with worry that the investigation would serve to de-legitimize his presidency, with both communications aides Hope Hicks and Sean Spicer telling the special counsel of Trump’s fears.

Although Trump and ardent supporters such as Republican Jim Jordan of Urbana claimed the report cleared the president, Mueller’s report declared that “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”

"Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment,” the report said.

Mueller followed Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel guidance that a sitting president could not be indicted or criminally prosecuted, but noted that while "a sitting president may not be prosecuted, it recognized that a criminal investigation during the president's term is permissible.”

By doing so, Mueller took the same position that Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski adopted in 1974 when he named Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in a cover-up of efforts by Nixon’s campaign team to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex.

Instead, Jaworski concluded that while a president could be indicted after leaving office, the Constitution required Congress to impeach and remove a president from office before he or she could be charged with a criminal offense.

The special counsel charged that Russia launched a “targeted operation” that “favored” Trump and “disparaged” Clinton, a former secretary of state who had angered Russian President Vladimir Putin during her years in the Obama administration.

Mueller concluded that “while the investigation identified numerous links between” Russian officials and people associated with the Trump campaign, the special counsel did not find “sufficient” evidence that any member of Trump’s campaign team “conspired with” Russian officials to impact the campaign."

Democratic central Ohio Congresswoman Joyce Beatty said, “After an initial review of the redacted version of the Mueller Report, it is clear to me that Trump, members of his administration, campaign, and associates repeatedly lied before, during, and after the 2016 election and continue to mislead the American people—these are facts that even Attorney General Barr’s carefully orchestrated press conference cannot whitewash."

The report indicates as well that Trump seemed to believe he could fire his way out of the investigation. When he fired FBI Director James Comey in 2017, he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak "that's taken off ... I'm not under investigation."

And when he fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was being investigated for his interactions with the Russians, he told adviser and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, "Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over."

Christie laughed and responded, "No way," according to the report.

Jordan said Democrats should "read the special counsel's report before jumping to conclusions," adding "it would be a miscarriage of justice to use cherry-picked bits of information from the report to sow further divisiveness and spread conspiracies that serve only to undermine our democratic institutions.

"One thing, however, is clear with the release of the report today: this sad chapter of American history is behind us. It is time to turn back to the people's work of improving the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness of how their tax dollars are spent."

Ohio Republican Chair Jane Timken declared, "This is a complete and utter exoneration of President Trump."

Democrats, meanwhile, were more critical, unsurprisingly.

Rep. Tim Ryan, a Niles Democrat who is running for president, said, "this report proves once again that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election with the explicit goal of helping Donald Trump win the presidency. It is time for President Trump to stop believing Putin over our intelligence community."

Trump's re-election campaign said in a statement: "Now the tables have turned, and it’s time to investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation into President Trump, motivated by political retribution and based on no evidence whatsoever."

>> Read the full report here

Your browser does not support theiframe HTML tag.Try viewing this in a modern browser like Chrome, Safari, Firefox or Internet Explorer 9 or later.

jwehrman@dispatch.com

@jessicawehrman

jtorry@dispatch.com

@jacktorry1