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Interior Dept. Opens Ethics Investigation of Its New Chief, David Bernhardt

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WASHINGTON — The Interior Department’s internal watchdog has opened an investigation into ethics complaints against the agency’s newly installed secretary, David Bernhardt.

Mr. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and agribusiness industries, was confirmed by the Senate last week to head the agency, which oversees the nation’s 500 million acres of public land and vast coastal waters. He has played a central role in writing policies designed to advance President Trump’s policy of “energy dominance” and expanding fossil fuel exploration. He has been dogged by allegations of ethics violations since joining the Trump administration as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary in 2017.

Eight senators, all Democrats, and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open formal investigations into various aspects of Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct. Among the chief complaints have been allegations, revealed by three separate New York Times investigations, that Mr. Bernhardt used his position to advance a policy pushed by his former lobbying client; that he continued working as a lobbyist after filing legal paperwork declaring that he had ceased lobbying; and that he intervened to block the release of a scientific report showing the harmful effects of a chemical pesticide on certain endangered species.

In a letter sent Monday to the senators who filed the ethics complaints, Mary L. Kendall, the deputy inspector general of the Interior Department, wrote that she had received seven complaints from “a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflicts of interest and other violations” by Mr. Bernhardt, adding that she had “opened an investigation to address them.”

Mr. Bernhardt has maintained that he did not commit any ethical violations and, in fact, has worked to strengthen the culture of ethical compliance at the Interior Department, in part by hiring dozens of new ethics specialists.

Mr. Bernhardt’s spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort, wrote in a statement, “Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.” She added, “It is important to note that the Department Ethics Office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request and determined that Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance.”

A spokesman for the White House declined to comment.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has formally requested investigations into Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct, and who pushed for the delay of his Senate confirmation, wrote in a statement: “This is exactly why I wanted a delay in Bernhardt’s consideration. We now have an Interior Secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation.”

The inquiry into Mr. Bernhardt’s activities is the latest in a series of ethics concerns around Mr. Trump’s top energy and environment officials since the beginning of his administration. Mr. Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, and his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, both resigned last year amid allegations of ethics misconduct.

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.





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The Mueller Report Is 448 Pages Long. You Need to Know These 7 Key Things.

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The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, produced a report of more than 400 pages that painted a deeply unflattering picture of President Trump but stopped short of accusing him of criminal wrongdoing. Here are seven takeaways.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Mr. Trump that a special counsel had been appointed in May 2017, Mr. Trump grew angry: “I’m fucked,” he said, believing his presidency was ruined. He told Mr. Sessions, “This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Mr. Trump began trying to get rid of Mr. Mueller, only to be thwarted by his staff. In instance after instance, his staff acted as a bulwark against Mr. Trump’s most destructive impulses. In June 2017, the president instructed Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, to remove Mr. Mueller, but Mr. McGahn resisted. Rather than carry out the president’s order, he decided he would rather resign.

One of the unanswered questions of the past two years — which helped fuel the F.B.I. investigation, congressional inquiries and journalistic scrutiny — is why so many people lied, changed their stories and issued misleading statements to both the public and federal authorities.

The report recaps one false statement after another. Just a few examples:

Mr. Trump was livid when journalists revealed that he had unsuccessfully ordered Mr. Mueller’s firing. The president tried to get Mr. McGahn to say publicly that was false, but Mr. McGahn refused, saying that the news reports were accurate. Mr. Mueller’s report notably declared that Mr. McGahn was “credible.”

Mr. Trump also pressed the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to give a news conference about the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey. The White House press office wanted Mr. Rosenstein to say it was his idea. Mr. Rosenstein told the president that a news conference was a bad idea “because if the press asked him, he would tell the truth.”

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, admitted issuing a statement to the news media “in the heat of the moment that was not founded on anything.”

No, F.B.I. agents didn’t actually call the White House offering support for Mr. Comey’s firing. (Vol. II, Page 72)

Mr. Mueller can’t explain why the stories about Mr. Comey’s firing keep changing. (Vol. II, Page 77)


The president has spent the past two years denouncing the news media. He has repeatedly accused reporters of making up sources to destroy his presidency. The report, though, shows not only that some of the most unflattering stories about Mr. Trump were accurate, but also that White House officials knew that was the case even as they heaped criticism on journalists.

In May 2017, for instance, The New York Times disclosed that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey to end the F.B.I.’s investigation into the president’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Mr. Trump tweeted, “I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!”

“Despite those denials,” Mr. Mueller wrote, “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”

In another instance, Mr. Trump appeared to use criticism of the news media as a legal strategy. He attacked a Times article suggesting that his former lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, might cooperate with the Justice Department and provide information about Mr. Trump.


Mr. Trump was quick to declare the report a total vindication.

But federal authorities went out of their way not to exonerate Mr. Trump. They wrote that his conduct in office “presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.”

If the evidence cleared the president, Mr. Mueller would have said so. It didn’t. (Vol. II, Page 8)


Mr. Trump repeatedly said he was eager to sit for an interview with Mr. Mueller’s team, despite his lawyers’ insistence that doing so would be a terrible idea.

The report makes clear why his lawyers were so worried about it. Mr. Mueller had a huge cache of unanswered questions, misleading and conflicting statements, and unexplained actions with which to confront the president. Sitting for an interview, the report makes clear, would have exposed Mr. Trump to far more problems.

Mr. Mueller said he chose not to subpoena the president because a court fight would delay the investigation. But that decision meant that the authorities were never able to ask the central question in the obstruction case: What was Mr. Trump thinking when he tried repeatedly to undermine the federal investigation?

Mr. Mueller believed he had the authority to subpoena the president. (Vol. II, Page 13)


Mr. Mueller makes explicit what Mr. Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on: Russia secretly manipulated the 2016 presidential election.

The investigation ultimately found no evidence that anyone from Mr. Trump’s campaign participated in that effort, but the report reveals in stark detail the many suspicious interactions that had the F.B.I. so worried. Many of those have been reported, but the report amounts to a compendium that helps explain the origins of the F.B.I. investigation, known as “Crossfire Hurricane.”

For instance, it has long been known that George Papadopoulos, a young campaign aide, was told that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. But the report goes much further, revealing that Mr. Papadopoulos suggested an explicit offer by the Russian government to work with the Trump campaign to sabotage Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Papadopoulos indicated that Russia wanted to coordinate with the Trump campaign. (Vol. I, Page 89)


Prosecutors describe a president who was preoccupied with ending a federal investigation, a White House that repeatedly told misleading and changing stories, and a presidential campaign that was in repeated contact with Russian officials for reasons that are not always clear.

Even though prosecutors concluded that didn’t amount to provably criminal conduct, the report is astounding in its sweep. Yet it is also a reminder of how much the public has learned over the past two years about Mr. Trump’s conduct.

If the American public or members of Congress were learning these things for the first time, the political fallout would normally be devastating. The consequences of the report remain to be seen, but if people are not surprised or shocked by the revelations, then Mr. Trump may have benefited by the steady drip of news stories he has so loudly criticized.

The special counsel suggests a pattern of behavior by Mr. Trump to harm the investigation. (Vol. II, Page 157)





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Peace Conference Plans Derailed as Taliban Object to Afghan Delegation

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After several rounds of talks, the Taliban and American negotiators seem to be near a deal on major issues, including the withdrawal of American troops and a Taliban guarantee that international terrorist groups will not be allowed on Afghan soil. But that progress cannot be finalized until Afghans negotiate a political future for the country after the American withdrawal.

After the latest round of talks with Americans last month, the Taliban had quietly agreed to the participation, in a private capacity, of some government officials in the conference this weekend. But they regarded the final list of participants as essentially a government delegation, according to Taliban representatives and Western diplomats. It did not help that the office of Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, in announcing the list on Tuesday, called it “the delegation of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

Soon after the list’s release, the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a statement that the Qatari hosts had made it clear “both in written and verbal form” that no one at the conference would be representing the government, and that any official who was there would be participating in a personal capacity.

“The creators of the Kabul list must realize that this is an orderly and prearranged conference in a faraway Gulf country and not an invitation to some wedding or other party at a hotel in Kabul,” Mr. Mujahid said, alluding to the large number of participants.

Even before the latest complication, the makeup of the delegation had been a divisive issue for the political elite in Kabul. The peace talks are overlapping with national elections, in which Mr. Ghani is seeking another five-year term, and the question of who would participate in the conference was caught up in domestic political jostling with every player wanting a piece.

Mr. Ghani’s camp sees the opposition forces, normally divided, as united in one goal: using the peace process to topple him. For their part, opposition groups, along with some Western diplomats, regard Mr. Ghani’s team as stubborn, not genuinely committed to any peace efforts they cannot control, and firm in the belief that they have a better chance at retaining power if the talks are scuttled.



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What We Know So Far From the Mueller Report

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Investigators examined about 10 episodes in which the president may have obstructed justice, but Mr. Mueller said he could not reach a conclusion.

“The evidence we obtained about the president’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment. At the same time, 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, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Mr. Barr, however, opted to reach the conclusion that Mr. Mueller would not. “After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report, and in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other department lawyers, the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense,” Mr. Barr said at a news conference before the release of the report.

Mr. Barr said that he “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories” regarding obstruction but even accepting them found no basis for a criminal charge.

Among the incidents that the special counsel examined was Mr. Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, in May 2017, and an attempt by the president a month later to have his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, fire Mr. Mueller.

He also looked at the president’s efforts to hide details of a Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the election and to pressure Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, to reverse his decision to recuse himself from supervising the investigation.

Mr. Barr said he would not stand in the way of Mr. Mueller testifying on Capitol Hill about his findings. “I have no objection to Bob Mueller testifying,” Mr. Barr said.

[Get what you need to know delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.]

The last two years were filled with angry clashes, outbursts, threatened resignations and false statements as Mr. Trump reacted to the investigation.

After saying that Mr. Mueller’s appointment would mean “the end of my presidency,” Mr. Trump turned on Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, blaming him for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation. “How could you let this happen, Jeff?” he demanded.

The tension between Mr. Trump and Mr. McGahn, then the White House counsel, flared repeatedly. In June 2017, Mr. Trump called Mr. McGahn from Camp David twice and told him to have Mr. Mueller fired for alleged conflicts of interest. Mr. McGahn refused, saying he did not want to repeat the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of Watergate prosecutors.

Mr. McGahn prepared to submit his resignation. He called Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, and told him the president had asked him to “do crazy shit.” Ultimately, Mr. Trump backed off, but when The New York Times reported about the episode, he told Mr. McGahn to publicly deny it, which he would not do.

Mr. Trump referred to Mr. McGahn as a “lying bastard” and said that if he did not deny the report, “then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him.” He did not fire Mr. McGahn, who left later that year.

In his news conference on Thursday morning, Mr. Barr at times sounded like a defense lawyer, making no criticism of the president and instead offering an understanding interpretation of actions that Mr. Trump’s critics have said amounted to obstruction of justice.

[Read Mr. Barr’s full prepared remarks.]

In addressing obstruction, Mr. Barr said that the president had no corrupt intent and that his actions seen as impeding the inquiry were a result of being understandably “frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.”

Mr. Barr said he gave Mr. Trump’s lawyers access to the report early, which allowed them a chance to prepare their public defense.

“Earlier this week, the president’s personal counsel requested and were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” Mr. Barr said. “The president’s personal lawyers were not permitted to make, and did not request, any redactions.”

Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said he and three lawyers on the president’s legal team started reading the report on Tuesday night in a secure room at the Justice Department. “We couldn’t take it out. We couldn’t photograph it,” Mr. Giuliani said in an interview with Fox News on Thursday. He said he and the other lawyers each read the entire report and shared their thoughts with each other.

[Here’s what you need to know about the redactions and what they mean.]

Mr. Barr said he shared the report with Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers in accordance with the “practice followed under the Ethics in Government Act,” permitting those named in a report to read it before publication. However, that has not always been the practice. In 1998, the independent counsel Ken Starr declined to let President Bill Clinton or his lawyers read his report on the Monica Lewinsky case before he sent it to Congress.

Mr. Barr said that the White House made no claims of executive privilege over any information in the report.

At the news conference, Mr. Barr made sure to include Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who first appointed Mr. Mueller. He also sent a letter to lawmakers saying that he would allow select congressional leaders to see a full version of the report — without redactions except for grand-jury information.

Federal prosecutors are pursuing 14 other investigations that were referred by the special counsel, according to the report.

Of the 14, only two were disclosed in the redacted report: potential wire fraud and federal employment law violations involving Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, and charges against Gregory B. Craig, the former White House counsel under President Barack Obama, who was accused of lying to investigators and concealing work for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine.

The other 12 referrals were redacted because of concerns that if details were released publicly, they could harm continuing investigations.

The special counsel also transferred 11 cases to other federal prosecutors to be wrapped up, mostly involving defendants who are awaiting trial or sentencing.

Mr. Barr provided an important qualifier to the determination that Mr. Trump and the Trump campaign did not engage in illegal collusion — not with the Russian government that stole the Democratic emails, but with WikiLeaks, which published them.

“The special counsel also investigated whether any member or affiliate of the Trump campaign encouraged or otherwise played a role in these dissemination efforts,” he said. “Under applicable law, publication of these types of materials would not be criminal unless the publisher also participated in the underlying hacking conspiracy. Here too, the special counsel’s report did not find that any person associated with the Trump campaign illegally participated in the dissemination of the materials.”

In other words, since WikiLeaks did not participate in Russia’s underlying hacking of the emails, its actions were no crime. Thus, any Trump campaign collusion with WikiLeaks could not be an illegal conspiracy.

Mr. Trump responded to the report at an event at the White House for wounded troops, saying that it had vindicated him.

“They’re having a good day,” he said of the troops. “I’m having a good day too. It’s called ‘no collusion, no obstruction.’ There never was, by the way, and there never will be.”

“This should never happen to another president again, this hoax,” he added.

Even before the report was released, Mr. Trump was claiming victory and lashing out at investigators and his critics. He tweeted a photo resembling a “Game of Thrones” poster that depicted him staring into a cloud, saying “No Collusion. No Obstruction. For the haters and radical left Democrats: Game Over.”

The tweet was the latest of a barrage that the president posted starting early Thursday morning, long before the report was released.

Vice President Mike Pence, perhaps the president’s most loyal defender, said that Mr. Mueller’s report “confirms what the president and I have said since Day 1: There was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and there was no obstruction of justice.”

Mr. Pence also said the special counsel investigation had the “full cooperation” of the White House. But despite the special counsel’s requests, Mr. Trump’s lawyers would not let the president sit for an interview out of concern that the president would make a false statement and expose himself to criminal charges. Instead, Mr. Trump provided written answers to questions.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday afternoon that Mr. Mueller’s report provided clear evidence that the president “engaged in obstruction of justice and other misconduct” that necessitated additional scrutiny by Congress.

“The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement. “The responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for his actions.”

Mr. Nadler explicitly did not invoke the word impeachment, though his committee is the traditional home of such proceedings. He has already opened his own investigation into possible obstruction of justice, abuse of power and corruption.

Mr. Nadler said he would quickly issue a subpoena to compel the delivery of the full report and the evidence underlying it to his committee. Mr. Nadler did not offer a specific timeline, but an aide said the subpoena would not go out Thursday.

While attention focused on what was in Mr. Mueller’s report, many in Washington were also looking at what was left out.

Mr. Barr made what he called “limited” redactions to the report, taking out information he deemed sensitive. More than a dozen pages were fully redacted, or nearly so. Other pages had sections of text blacked out, including full paragraphs.

Much of the undisclosed material was in the first section of the report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its interactions with the Trump campaign. Far less was scrubbed from the second part of the report, on whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice.

Mr. Barr blacked out sentences or sections that fit into four categories: grand-jury testimony or evidence; classified intelligence; information that would compromise continuing investigations; and details that might harm the reputations or intrude on the privacy of “peripheral third parties.” The attorney general used different colors through the report to identify which sections were deleted for which reasons.

The phrase “harm to ongoing matter” came up alongside enough deleted material that it quickly become its own meme, inspiring the names of upcoming bar trivia teams and imaginary punk rock bands.


Katie Benner, Nicholas Fandos, Michael S. Schmidt, Eileen Sullivan, Michael Tackett and Noah Weiland contributed reporting.



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