A triumphant President Donald Trump emerged Sunday to claim “complete and total exoneration” after special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation did not establish that Trump or his campaign associates conspired with Russia to win the presidential election.
The report itself was more circumspect: in a letter to Congress, Attorney General William Barr said Mueller did not have enough evidence to prosecute Trump on obstruction charges, but did not exonerate him.
But the absence of clear evidence of wrongdoing was enough for Trump to boast of vindication after the nearly two-year cloud of the probe has lifted. His remarks foreshadow what advisers say will be an unsparing effort to cast the entire Mueller probe as a pointless and expensive folly.
“It was just announced there was no collusion with Russia, the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, none whatsoever,” Trump said, calling Mueller’s investigation “an illegal takedown that failed.”
Speaking to reporters on a tarmac before boarding Air Force One in Florida, Trump declared outright victory.
“It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame your President had to go through since before I was even elected,” he said.
Instead of calling for the country to move forward, Trump insisted investigators now turn their attention to alleged misdeeds committed by Democrats, though he did not specify any particular targets.
“It began illegally, and hopefully somebody’s going to look at the other side,” he said implying the formation of Mueller’s special investigation could now be subject to scrutiny.
People close to the President told CNN he has remained singularly fixated in the last several weeks — that he and his allies were harassed by investigators and that nothing similar should ever happen to another president. These people believe Trump could potentially push for an investigation into how the Russia investigation began now that it has ended.
Whether that happens or not remains an open question; a spokesman said Sunday there aren’t currently any plans for Trump to ask the attorney general to investigate Democrats. But for now, the President appears content to use Mueller’s conclusion that neither he nor his aides cooperated with Russia as a political bludgeon.
Until a tweet moments before his planeside comments, Trump had remained entirely silent this weekend – at least in public – about the conclusion of Mueller’s report. While he was cheered by news on Friday that Mueller would not issue any further indictments, he spent the weekend expressing cautious optimism while surrounded by his attorneys.
He tweeted only twice, and privately told people he did not know what Barr’s next move was.
His caution turned to cheerfulness after he was briefed by his legal team Sunday that the attorney general was set to release findings from the special counsel’s investigation, which said it did not find that his campaign colluded with Russia, sources told CNN.
When Barr’s chief-of-staff phoned Trump lawyer Emmet Flood to provide a readout of the report, the mood at Mar-a-Lago improved immediately.
“This is very good,” Trump said upon hearing the news inside his private quarters, according to a spokesman. He was in high spirits at his Florida club the rest of Sunday afternoon, people familiar with the matter said.
“Everyone was – is – thrilled,” a senior administration official said.
The White House has not yet seen Mueller’s full confidential report, the White House said Sunday evening.
Much of Trump’s legal team – including Flood and White House counsel Pat Cipollone – traveled with the President to Florida, as did a large coterie of senior aides. A person familiar with the matter said the group hoped to help shape Trump’s response to the investigation’s conclusion, conscious the moment would become an inflection point of Trump’s presidency.
That is part of the reason Trump avoided any mention of the report on Twitter for much of the weekend, sending only two tweets between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening. One wished his followers: “Have a great day!”
That was in contrast to the more-than 50 tweets he issued last weekend, a stream of anger and vitriol that some aides speculated was pent-up frustration at the then-ongoing Mueller probe.
The mood on Air Force One back to Washington was jovial, one person told CNN. The President spent the flight watching television, making telephone calls and conversing with staff members.
“I just want to tell you that America is the greatest place on Earth,” he told reporters as he walked inside the White House.
Still, even as Trump’s rode high on perceived victory, some of his associates who were ensnared in the investigation fumed Sunday as they reflected on how much they spent on legal fees, two people told CNN.
Several current and former Trump officials from his campaign and administration retained personal lawyers to help them respond to questions throughout the probe.
It is those expenses, along with the tarnished reputations of several one-time Trump allies, which the President has cast as the unintended victims of the Mueller investigation.
“So many people have been so badly hurt,” Trump said Sunday.
As the messaging wars over the special counsel investigation begin, some of Trump’s advisers have expressed private concerns the President could overreach during the upcoming victory lap, making an extreme case when, for now, simply pointing to the no collusion finding would suffice.
But those concerns were minor Sunday as Trump’s associates celebrated.
“This is like Geraldo Rivera and Al Capone’s vault all over again,” one said, a reference to Rivera’s ill-fated live television event unveiling the discovery of the notorious gangster’s vault – which ended up being empty.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to more precisely reflect Attorney General Bill Barr’s letter to Congress. Specifically, Barr quoted from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to say the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.