WASHINGTON >> For nearly two years, President Donald Trump and his allies sought to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, attacking investigators’ credibility and playing down their findings. As a redacted version of Mueller’s report was finally released today, Trump resorted to bluster, broadsides and falsehoods to try, once more, to frame the moment as a political victory.
It began even before the public glimpsed the two volumes covering 448 pages. The report included an account of how the president attempted to seize control of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and force out Mueller from leading the inquiry. But that didn’t stop Trump from taking a public victory lap, declaring at a White House event that he was having “a good day.”
Twelve times Trump took to Twitter in the hours before Attorney General William Barr outlined the findings of the report. The president proclaimed his innocence and insisted that the investigation was politically motivated. As soon as Barr concluded his remarks, and more than an hour before Mueller’s report was released, Trump tweeted a taunt over an image inspired by the HBO show “Game of Thrones.”
“No Collusion. No Obstruction,” it said. “For the haters and the radical left Democrats — Game Over.”
It is true that Mueller did not charge that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. And Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in the attorney general’s four-page summary of the Mueller report that was released last month, declined to charge obstruction of justice.
But the report does recount how Trump repeatedly sought to intervene in a probe that has hovered over the first two years of his presidency.
Mueller recounted that Trump had been agitated at the investigation from the start. Trump reacted to Mueller’s appointment by saying it was the “end of his presidency.”
The report said that in June 2017, Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to call Rosenstein, who oversaw the investigation, and say that Mueller must be ousted because Mueller had conflicts of interest. McGahn refused, deciding he would rather resign than trigger what he regarded as a potential repeat of the Saturday Night Massacre firings from Watergate. During that crisis, President Richard Nixon first ordered his attorney general, and then the deputy, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor; they refused and quit on a weekend, but did not derail the independent investigation or Nixon’s collapse for long.
As for the question of whether Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia during the 2016 presidential race, Mueller wrote: “While the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”
At Justice Department headquarters, reporters buzzed around, hearing from Barr and awaiting the Mueller report. A few blocks away, there was calm on one of the defining days of Trump’s presidency.
The news media were led into the White House East Room, just before the report came out, for Trump’s appearance with wounded warriors. While newsrooms across the country digested the report, the White House guests, already seated while waiting for the president to arrive, were entertained by the U.S. Marine Band. Among the selections played: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Democrats criticized Barr for a news conference they said amounted to an attempt to frame the findings before the report was released.
“The differences are stark between what Attorney General Barr said on obstruction and what Special Counsel Mueller said on obstruction,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. in a joint statement. They said Mueller’s report “appears to undercut” Barr’s finding.
To some, Barr’s bristling appearance seemed to be the latest move by Trump and his allies to shape the narrative surrounding the investigation — featuring his incessant tweeting of “No Collusion” and his attacks on the credibility of the investigators.
The White House seized upon Barr’s four-page summary last month as vindication and played down the contents of the report itself.
“Knockout,” read a text message from Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s attorneys, to reporters after Barr finished speaking.
A further statement from Giuliani and Trump’s lawyers said “the report itself is nothing more than an attempt to rehash old allegations” and insisted that “the results of the investigation are a total victory for the president.”
Talking points went out to Trump allies while his supporters’ phones buzzed with text messages from the campaign looking to raise money off today’s developments.
“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,” said Trump’s re-election campaign manager, Brad Parscale.
Donald Trump Jr, the president’s eldest son, was featured prominently in the report for meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016. Though the report said “the campaign anticipated receiving derogatory documents and information” from Russians that “could assist Trump’s electoral prospects,” it said “the government would unlikely be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the participants at that meeting “had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful.”
Though a seemingly backhanded exoneration, the younger Trump tweeted a series of attacks on Democrats. “Better luck next hoax!” he said.
Senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said that because the White House didn’t interfere with Mueller’s wok, that “should make people feel good about democracy.”
“We’re accepting apologies today too,” Conway told reporters, adding Trump was in “a great mood.”
The president certainly seemed relaxed at the wounded veterans’ event at the White House. Presented with a small statue, Trump said it would have a permanent home “at least for six years, in the Oval Office.”
As the audience applauded and laughed. Trump said he was going to joke and say “at least for 10 or 14 years, but we would cause bedlam if I said that.”