Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report documents in painstaking detail Russia’s efforts to influence the presidential election and several instances of potential obstruction by President Donald Trump.
But in nearly 450 pages, he left unresolved a curiosity in South Carolina political circles:
What exactly was that “Charleston thing” the president discussed with his personal lawyer?
Trump was secretly recorded by his former attorney, Michael Cohen, as they talked about buying a Playboy model’s silence over an alleged affair.
“I think it’s probably better to do the Charleston thing, just this time,” Trump said just before that conversation, which happened in September 2016, two months before he won the White House.
The Charleston connection wasn’t explained then — and hasn’t been since.
That recording is mentioned in Mueller’s report, but only in passing.
With the mystery still intact — including whether they were even referring to Charleston, S.C., or some other Charleston U.S.A. — there were other items with South Carolina connections that surfaced Thursday.
Among them was a Hanahan episode illustrating Trump’s uncommonly warm embrace of Russia in the early days of his campaign.
The report's opening pages reference a news conference Trump gave in February 2016 as an example of how “he distinguished himself among Republican candidates by speaking of closer ties with Russia.”
“You want to make a good deal for the country, you want to deal with Russia,” Trump said in Hanahan, in one of his first stump comments on the world power.
The Lowcountry — by way of a College of Charleston alumna — emerged again as Mueller documents how after the election, the eventual national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
Flynn talked to the ambassador about the Obama administration’s decision to impose sanctions on Russia over its meddling in the presidential election. He was later charged with lying to the FBI about his interactions with the ambassador, and he pleaded guilty.
Mueller found that Trump’s team knew about their conversation, though. It was documented in an email his investigators obtained, and the president-elect sat in on a briefing about the sanctions that evening, apparently expressing doubts about Russia’s role in the election.
The meeting’s attendance was memorialized in an email written by Madeleine Westerhout, who was Trump’s personal secretary and became the gatekeeper to the Oval Office.
Westerhout graduated from the College of Charleston in 2013. She went on to work for Trump in the White House.
Meanwhile, beyond those three ties to the Palmetto State, the reaction from South Carolina politicos to the report broke along predictable political lines. Republicans trumpeted the fact the report found no evidence of collusion by Trump or his 2016 presidential campaign.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was in Africa when the report was released. In addition to being South Carolina’s senior senator and a close ally of the president, Graham is also the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Graham stated the committee was still reviewing the report, but he praised the report’s release.
“Once again, I applaud Attorney General Barr for his commitment to transparency and keeping the American people informed, consistent with the law and our national security interests,” Graham said in a statement.
Graham said he looked forward to hearing from Barr when he testifies before the committee on May 1.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., was on a bipartisan trip to South America when the report was released. His office released a statement, saying Scott is “confident that there was no collusion and no corruption.”
Scott’s spokesman Ken Farnaso also said the senator participated in “an informational call” regarding the Mueller report on Wednesday with leaders from Capitol Hill.
"No one from the administration was involved, just Congressional leaders," his office said. No other details were disclosed.
In other statements, most of the rest of the South Carolina Republican House members all took aim at Democrats.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, declared after the report’s release, “The conclusion: No collusion. No obstruction.” In a tweet, Duncan called claims of Russian collusion a “lie” that grew out of “hatred for @POTUS.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Lexington, urged Democrats to “accept the conclusions of the Mueller report and get back to work.”
U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, called on Democratic leadership to apologize to the American people.
In a 278-word statement, Norman defended the redactions even as House Democrats continue to call for the release of the full Mueller report.
“The purpose of redactions isn't to mask the truth,” Norman said. “Instead, they're necessary to protect our national interests and security."
The office of U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, said the congressman wanted to first read the report before commenting on its findings and implications.
Meanwhile, House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., focused his comments on criticizing the rollout of the report itself.
He tweeted his frustration about Barr’s Tuesday morning press conference in which Barr took questions about the report before it was released to the public.
“Disappointing to see Attorney General Barr acting more like the president’s general counsel than Attorney General of the United States,” Clyburn, D-Columbia, said. “This just shows that the American people ought to hear directly from Robert Mueller about the contents of this report.”
Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, a profile figure in the Trump administration until she stepped down last October, tweeted her response, focusing on how the investigation was launched.
"You can have as many people testify as you want but it won’t change the outcome," she said. "The question that should be asked is on what basis was the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant issued and who knew about it. The American people deserve to know the truth since they paid for this investigation."