On the evening Robert Mueller submitted his report to the Justice Department, ending the special counsel investigation that has clouded all but a few months of his presidency, President Donald Trump was not huddled in a war room or dictating defiant tweets to his underlings.
Instead he was on the tiled patio of Mar-a-Lago, bathed in golden light, with his wife and son Barron, who had reached teenagerhood two days earlier.
In the eyes of the President and his aides, many of whom traveled to South Florida for the weekend, it was a moment to celebrate: the conclusion of an investigation that did not find enough evidence to indict the President or his confidants for conspiring with Russia to win the 2016 election.
Whether the end of Mueller’s probe means the end of Trump’s long legal albatross, or just the beginning, is largely a matter for Congress and the various other prosecutors who have taken on ancillary investigations.
Even as Mueller’s team vacates the bland Washington office building where he’s been working every day since May 2017, another struggle is beginning, opening a new chapter Trump will try to control but which he will write only part of the script.
Still, Trump and his allies are already signaling the report is an unequivocal victory, once that exonerates the President from the various misdeeds – collusion, obstruction – that his opponents have used as bywords for what they regard as a shambolic presidency.
While there was not a strict plan in place ahead of the report’s conclusion, Trump and his Republican allies immediately launched an effort to cast the document as absolving him of wrongdoing.
Talking points distributed by the Republican National Committee encouraged Trump’s allies to stress that “after two years, millions of taxpayer dollars, and multiple congressional investigations confirming there was no collusion, it’s good this report has finally concluded.”
News the investigation had ended became official on Friday around 5 p.m. ET, as Trump was discussing trade and Brexit in a businesslike phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his Florida club. Earlier, Emmet Flood – the White House lawyer tasked with overseeing matters related to the Russia probe – received a phone call from an aide to Attorney General William Barr telling him the report had been delivered to the Justice Department.
Flood, who almost never travels with the President, had decided to accompany him to Palm Beach this weekend, anticipating what all of Washington seemed to know: that Mueller was nearing the end of his investigation. He helped comprise a larger-than-usual coterie of aides who descended on the President’s Italianate club.
In the early evening, many of them were seen milling about the main floor of the estate, all waiting to learn what might be contained in Mueller’s report. In the days and weeks leading up to the report, there were few planning sessions to prepare for the document, according to people familiar with the matter. While vague plans for statements and reaction were laid, West Wing staffers said there was little to indicate how the White House would respond once the investigation concluded, and a source close to the President told CNN Saturday the White House does not have a war room set up in anticipation of the report’s release, unlike the Clinton administration ahead of the release of former independent counsel Ken Starr’s report.
“I have no idea about the Mueller report,” Trump told reporters on Friday morning as he headed to Florida, insisting he would be keeping busy at his resort between a meeting with Caribbean leaders and various other sessions on trade. Trump himself was kept updated by his team of lawyers, whom he quizzed periodically about the status of the report over the last several weeks.
Trump himself had grown impatient with the waiting game, aides said, which dominated his beloved cable news for several days. As it became clear Mueller was nearing the end of his investigation, Trump appeared in a combative and sometimes foul mood. It was hard to separate the two things, and aides openly speculated his 50-tweet rage last weekend and his renewed attacks on Sen. John McCain were an attempt to counter-program the investigation’s end.
A source close to the President, who spent time playing golf at his resort on Saturday, told CNN Trump is happy the investigation has finished and that “no one is panicking” ahead of the next Mueller-related news. The source added that “we’re letting it play out.”
Others in Trump’s orbit described him as cautiously optimistic, but with an emphasis on the caution: Trump did not tweet about the report – or anything else – on Saturday.
Those who interacted with him described him as calm.
“What a great man, so down to earth and so fun to be with!!” tweeted the singer Kid Rock, who joined Trump on the golf course.
He posted a photo of photo of himself – clad in American flag-print trousers – alongside the President.
On Friday, before the President sat down to dinner with his family at a cordoned-off table, he and his lawyer Flood were seen in easygoing conversation. Guests and aides said Trump was in a spirited mood as he was briefed on various pieces of information that were emerging from the Justice Department, including that Mueller was not recommending any further indictments. His eldest son Donald Trump Jr. – long the subject of legal speculation – mingled with guests, his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle by his side.
Later, he appeared on stage at an fundraiser for the Palm Beach Republicans underway in the Louis XIV-style ballroom named in his honor. Trump didn’t mention the Mueller report in his remarks – but as his close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham was calling on the FBI to investigate Hillary Clinton, Trump looked on as the crowd broke into a “lock her up” chant.
That could be a signal of the direction Trump and Republicans plan to head as the President launches his re-election campaign without the looming presence of the special counsel.
White House aides and those close to Trump were universally optimistic on Friday and Saturday that Mueller’s report would provide a boon politically, showing the Democrats and the media had vastly overstated the implications of the ongoing probe.
“It’s a great day for America,” one Trump campaign adviser said. “We won.”
“The fat lady has sung,” another White House official said, adding that it’s “absolutely embarrassing” for Democrats who have been predicting a collusion finding for two years.
Whether the report exonerates Trump or not, it has remained a persistent cloud on his presidency from the day it was announced in 2017. And it’s colored the first half of the Trump presidency in ways that will forever be entwined with the country’s 45th commander in chief.
He’s cycled through several iterations of a legal team, each offering their own strategy, from outright cooperation to a campaign to discredit the entire operation. His current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has enjoyed a late-in-life return to political life as a tottering — and sometimes wildly off-message — legal guru.
After recusing himself from oversight of the Mueller prove, Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, became a punching bag, never recovering the President’s trust. After more than a year of insults, he departed last year.
By Trump’s own telling, the investigation had embarrassed him in front of foreign leaders, who he believed viewed him as less-than-legitimate amid questions about how he was elected.
Developments kept popping up as he traveled abroad, from the Justice Department announcement it was appointing a special counsel days before his very first foreign trip to the testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen that dominated headlines while he was in Vietnam attempting to broker a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump’s denunciations of the investigation will be engraved in a modern political lexicon: “No collusion,” “witch hunt” and “hoax” have all been uttered or tweeted so often they now stand alone as political rallying cries, devoid of context or any explanation at the President’s political rallies or on his social media.
The minutia of the investigation have become so engrained in the President’s day-to-day patter, one sometimes forgets how complicated the whole thing was – or the revelations that have been discovered as part of Mueller’s probe.
For all of Trump’s talk about “lovers” and “dirty cops” and “12 angry Democrats,” there have been startling discoveries about the President and his circle that would not have been uncovered were it not for the special counsel’s work. His former campaign chairman is serving years in prison. His national security adviser lied to investigators. And Trump himself has been implicated in a campaign finance crime involving sex with a pornographic actress.
Those discoveries have not seemed to damped Republicans’ quiet glee at the comparatively benign ending to the Mueller investigation, though as of Saturday morning there were few people who could say for certain what was contained in the report.
Perhaps the best indication the White House is still holding its breath: Trump’s own silence. Instead of proclaiming victory from the podium of the Donald J. Trump Ballroom on Friday evening, the President avoided the topic altogether. Instead, he let the moment speak for itself.
“Enjoy yourselves,” he told the crowd.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins, Pamela Brown, Jeff Zeleny and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.