The episode, which discomfited even some of Trump’s most loyal advisers, was read by some legal observers as one of the clearest cases laid out in Mueller’s report of potential obstruction of justice by the president. In unequivocal terms, the report states that there was “substantial evidence” that Trump hoped his actions would derail Mueller’s investigation and prevent further scrutiny of his campaign and his own conduct.
But senior Justice Department officials took a more skeptical view, which informed Attorney General William P. Barr’s later conclusion that Trump could not be charged with obstructing justice, according to people familiar with the thinking.
The differing interpretations might help explain how Barr ultimately came to his decision, despite the detailed evidence in Mueller’s report.
“All the attorney general was deciding was whether this was a prosecutable offense, and we don’t bring criminal charges at the department unless we believe we can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury,” a senior Justice Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The White House declined to comment.