The first years of President Donald Trump’s tenure were marked by chaotic attempts among aides to thwart his efforts to curtail the special counsel’s investigation, according to Robert Mueller’s redacted report, an exercise that relied on subterfuge and deceit that does little to dispel the sense of disarray reigning at the White House.
Trump is depicted in the report as entirely consumed by the probe, which he bemoaned would be the “end of my presidency.” One aide said the matter of Russian interference was his “Achilles heel.” The resulting West Wing atmosphere was one marred by conflict and governed by deception.
Portraits of the Trump administration as an untidy collection of warring advisers, overseen by an impetuous boss, have been frequent over the past two years. Frayed departing staffers have affirmed those accounts.
But Mueller’s report provides a cinematic view of the disorder, recounted through named interviews delivered under criminal penalty of lying to the FBI. Trump is depicted as foul-mouthed and loyalty obsessed, ringed by aides who shrugged off his orders, scoffed at the “crazy sh**” he was demanding, and carried resignation letters with them constantly.
Trump, meanwhile, is shown repeatedly threatening the jobs of those he deemed intransigent, fostering a culture of paranoia in the White House that led multiple aides to adopt the practice of taking contemporaneous notes to better recollect encounters later on.
Not all advisers are described as playing a central role in preventing the President from short-circuiting the probe, and some seemed more willing than others to go along with his orders. But a clear picture emerges of an inner circle intent on protecting Trump, both from Mueller and from himself, and highly attuned to his madcap impulses.
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” Mueller wrote in the report.
At the eye of the storm were members of Trump’s family, including Donald Trump Jr., daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner. Others at his side included Hope Hicks, his onetime communications chief; Sarah Sanders, his press secretary; campaign aide Corey Lewandowski, who did not join the White House staff but continued to act as a trusted confidant; and Don McGahn, the White House counsel who sat for more than 30 hours of testimony with Mueller’s investigators.
Meanwhile, his former lawyer Michael Cohen is depicted as a constant presence during the campaign who dramatically fell from favor once he began cooperating with the special counsel’s office. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman who is now a convicted felon, is written off by Trump as an ineffective operative. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, is portrayed as constantly under siege to the point he brought a resignation letter every time he met with Trump.
And prominent figures, such as Vice President Mike Pence and first lady Melania Trump, are barely mentioned at all.
The report paints a vivid picture of aides repeatedly ignoring or brushing aside Trump’s dictates – both in the interest of guarding the President from his own worst instincts and of protecting themselves from further legal implications.
At the same time, it portrays aides as misleading the public (and, at times, each other) about his actions and mindset around some key developments. And it characterizes deep enmity and tension between the President and his top officials, some of whom told Mueller they were themselves shocked by certain developments related to the investigation.
Who’s the boss?
According to White House officials, that dynamic has been a constant undercurrent to Trump’s presidency, including on matters of policy including immigration and trade. Aides have consistently worked privately to forestall or prevent Trump from taking actions deemed unwise or worse, relying either on diversionary tactics or the belief Trump would eventually forget his commands.
Trump has long disliked the impression he is being managed by aides, and on Thursday, after that truth was inextricably etched into the special counsel’s report, he still insisted it was he who decided not to fire Mueller.
“I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to,” he tweeted.
Still, the report bolsters the impression that Trump’s aides are working around him and is peppered with examples of presidential underlings spurning Trump’s orders or working around him to avoid unsavory outcomes.
In one, then-staff secretary Rob Porter (who resigned after being accused by two ex-wives of physical abuse) declined to contact associate Attorney General Rachel Brand after Trump asked him to reach out to her in order to gauge whether she was “on the team” and might be interested in overseeing the special counsel’s investigation.
“Porter didn’t reach out to her because he was uncomfortable with the task,” the report states.
In an episode from 2017, then-chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon attempted to retrieve a resignation letter Sessions handed to Trump that was ultimately rejected, believing the missive in the President’s possession amounted to a “shock collar.” The pair spent time during Trump’s first trip abroad to the Middle East trying to locate the letter, which Trump initially showed off aboard Air Force One but later claimed was back at the White House.
Elsewhere, Trump and McGahn, then serving as White House counsel, engaged in a bitter dispute over whether Trump ordered Mueller’s firing, one that resulted in Trump castigating McGahn as a “lying bastard” and comparing him unfavorably to his onetime lawyer Roy Cohn, known for his scorched-earth tactics.
“Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes,” Trump said upon learning McGahn had written down his recollections of an earlier meeting. “I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.”
McGahn refused Trump’s request to deny media reports about the firing, and later declined to draft a formal letter “for our records” that would deny the stories. “If he doesn’t write a letter, then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him,” Trump said, according to Porter. McGahn remained in his post for months.
Lewandowski and White House aide Rick Dearborn each declined to deliver a message from the President to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying he should curtail the scope of the special counsel’s investigation. Lewandowski, who took dictation of the message from the President, initially told Trump he would handle the matter himself, and took steps to arrange a meeting with Sessions that would avoid any public record.
But later he passed the note on to Dearborn, who he believed would be a better messenger, without revealing the President had dictated the message himself. Reading the message, Dearborn said it “definitely raised an eyebrow.” He never passed along the note, but told Lewandowski he had “handled the situation,” according to Mueller.
Not ‘founded on anything’
Disingenuous interactions like that color Mueller’s report, contributing to the impression Trump and his aides have little regard for telling the truth either to each other or to the public.
Speaking to Mueller about her comments following the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Sanders conceded she made statements to the media that were not based in fact. Specifically, Sanders said her assertion in response to a question about FBI agents supporting Comey wasn’t “founded on anything,” according to Mueller.
And Mueller provided an extensive recounting of how Trump and his aides handled the fallout of the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and senior campaign officials. The report, citing an interview with Hicks, says Trump directed aides on multiple occasions not to publicly disclose emails setting up the meeting. Later, the report affirms that Trump himself dictated a misleading statement to the press saying the meeting was about adoption.
Hicks recalls being “shocked” by the emails setting up the meeting, concerned they looked “really bad.” Together with senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Kushner, Hicks discussed the emails with President Trump, who told the group “he did not want to know about it,” and refused to hear details of the matter. He said he was confident the emails would never leak.
Ivanka Trump and Kushner are portrayed as essential advisers who Hicks consulted about the emails, and who earlier participated in a campaign conference call ahead of the Trump Tower meeting during which Donald Trump Jr. announced he had a lead on “negative information about the Clinton Foundation.”
Kushner, meanwhile, was involved in efforts during the presidential transition to improve US-Russia ties, including meeting with the Russian ambassador. When Kushner suggested the transition could use the Russian embassy to securely communicate with Russian officials, the ambassador “quickly rejected that idea.”
The account sheds new light on Trump’s relationship with Hicks, who long served as his closest confidant in the White House. She describes intuitively knowing the President’s preferences, deeming his initial reluctance to respond to media reports about the Trump Tower meeting as odd “because he usually considered not responding to the press to be the ultimate sin.”
Later, in a text message to Donald Trump Jr., she describes the President as “boss man” as she relays his concerns about providing too much information in a press statement.
Others in the White House are depicted as less clued in. Then-chief of staff Reince Priebus is described as first learning about the Trump Tower meeting in late June 2017 from Fox News host Sean Hannity (the report does not say how Hannity learned of it).