By the time President Donald Trump had passed through the prime rib buffet at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday to sit for dinner with family and a top aide, the damning picture Robert Mueller’s report painted of his presidency had become clear.
Instead of the “total exoneration” Trump had proclaimed earlier, the report portrayed the President as deceitful and paranoid, encouraging his aides to withhold the truth and cross ethical lines in an attempt to thwart a probe into Russia’s interference in US elections – his “Achilles heel,” according to one forthcoming adviser.
Perhaps more angering to a leader who detests weakness – but doesn’t necessarily mind an amoral reputation – were the number of underlings shown ignoring his commands, privately scoffing at the “crazy sh**” he was requesting and working around him to avoid self-implication.
Now, those close to him say Trump is newly furious at the people – most of whom no longer work for him – whose extensive interviews with the special counsel’s office created the epic depiction of an unscrupulous and chaotic White House. And he’s seeking assurances from those who remain that his orders are being treated like those of a president, and not like suggestions from an intemperate but misguided supervisor.
“Because I never agreed to testify, it was not necessary for me to respond to statements made in the ‘Report’ about me, some of which are total bullshit & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad),” Trump tweeted on Friday morning as he waited out a rainstorm in Florida before proceeding to his golf course for a round with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
Some current and former officials who accurately predicted that details in the Mueller report would be embarrassing for the White House are now questioning the legal strategy to fully cooperate with the Mueller investigation.
One official who sat down with the special counsel noted that they did so at the behest of the former White House legal team, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, who provided a wealth of documents and encouraged senior officials to be interviewed. It was because of these interviews with people closest to the President that Mueller and his team were able to get a cinematic look at the deceit and trickery taking place in the West Wing.
While these people are critical, the full cooperation was a strategy to make it hard for Mueller to push for an interview given all the information he was given. It was a strategy that worked, even if there is some political embarrassment.
The President was aware ahead of its public release what was contained in the Mueller report. Attorney General Bill Barr told reporters Thursday that both the White House counsel and Trump’s personal legal team were given an opportunity to read the redacted version in the previous days.
But Trump grew angry as he watched cable news coverage because, sources familiar with the matter said, a theme was emerging that vexed him: a portrait of a dishonest president who is regularly managed, restrained or ignored by his staff.
It was a sharp turn away from his earlier statements, which welcomed the report’s findings on collusion and falsely claimed total exoneration. Hours before his Mar-a-Lago dinner, Trump insisted to a crowd on the tarmac in Florida the dark days of Mueller’s special counsel investigation had ended.
“Game over, folks,” he said over the sounds of a busy airport. “Now, it’s back to work.”
It’s hard to tell, however, what Trump intends to head back to. Mueller’s probe and Trump’s constant focus on it have been the backdrop for all but a few months of the presidency, often diminishing whatever policy efforts have been orchestrated by officials or Republican lawmakers. The report depicts a President who for two years has been largely consumed by the Russia investigation, intent on short-circuiting it but repeatedly stymied in his efforts by aides.
A senior administration official told CNN’s Jake Tapper that dynamic was “nothing surprising.”
“That the President makes absurd demands of his staff and administration officials – who are alarmed by them and reluctant to follow them – is not only unsurprising but has become the norm,” the official said.
Nevertheless, in the past Trump has resisted the idea that he is being controlled by those around him or that they are responsible for his successes. Sources familiar with how the West Wing operates said attempts to subvert the President’s demands have not ceased now that the Mueller investigation is over. There have been instances in recent weeks where aides have slow walked or ignored Trump’s directives, hoping he will forget he gave them.
What is clear is many of those who avoided carrying out Trump’s demands related to Mueller’s probe – often, it seemed, in a bid to protect themselves from criminal wrongdoing – are no longer employed by the White House. Instead, the aides who now surround the President appear less willing to write him off and more likely to encourage him to follow his gut.
Among those who have moved on: the White House counsel who refused Trump’s demand to fire Mueller, the chief of staff and senior adviser who anxiously tried to retrieve a resignation letter from the attorney general, the staff secretary who declined Trump’s order to gauge the loyalty of a Justice Department official, the attorney general who refused to un-recuse himself and the communications chief who seemed most expert in Trump’s whims.
Even Steve Bannon, once viewed as the ultimate advocate for following Trump’s instincts, is depicted in the report as a constraining force. In one instance, when the President tried to claim Mueller had a conflict of interest because of a membership dispute at a Trump golf club, Bannon wrote it off as “ridiculous and petty.” Trump and Bannon parted ways in the summer of 2017 and have not reconciled since.
Instead, the most prominent aides who do remain are depicted in the report as the most dishonest. Press secretary Sarah Sanders, who was out the office when the report was released, is shown repeatedly misleading the press, a fact she attempted to downplay in morning television interviews on Friday.
“(Trump) has never asked me to break the law,” she said on CBS. “When the President wants to do something and make a decision, he does it. He’s not somebody who sit around and ponders. I think you guys have seen that day in and day out. One minute you’re running stories saying the staff can’t control him and the next minute everyone’s saying thank God the staff could control him. You don’t get to have it both ways.”
Among those who Trump dined with in Florida on Thursday was Mick Mulvaney, the chief of staff who still fills the role in an acting capacity but who, according to officials, has done less than either of his two predecessors to restrain Trump in his hardline instincts.
Indeed, since Mulvaney’s tenure began at the start of the year, Trump has overseen the longest government shutdown in US history, a dramatic shakeup at the Department of Homeland Security, a sharp turn toward harsher policies on the border, a decision to ask a court to scrap the entire Affordable Care Act and a confusing dictate on North Korea sanctions that still has advisers scratching their heads.
People familiar with Mulvaney’s style say those outcomes aren’t necessarily his doing, but rather the result of a President newly empowered to follow his impulses without the restrictions placed on him by previous aides. Sources say the President has also come to rely on his chief of staff less than he did during the reign of Reince Priebus or John Kelly, when he would often call his top aide nearly a dozen times a day. Mulvaney has told colleagues there are days he barely hears from the President.
In his report, Mueller describes both of Mulvaney’s predecessors – Priebus and Kelly – as working in at least some capacity to contain the damage of Trump’s behavior. Priebus is shown making an urgent (and vaguely comic) effort to recover a resignation letter from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Trump had kept, believing it would amount to a “shock collar” on the Justice Department because it was not dated and aides feared Trump could employ it at his leisure.
Kelly told Mueller that when Trump wanted to meet with friends who encouraged his impulses, such as former campaign aide Corey Lewandowski, he tried to push them to the private residence “to create distance from the West Wing.”
Trump soured on Priebus and Kelly long before he summarily terminated each of their tenures. So, too, had Trump grown wary of former White House counsel Don McGahn, who sat for more than 30 hours of testimony with Mueller’s team. Trump grew irate again at his former aide late Thursday and into Friday.
In the report, Trump is described as having several tense encounters with McGahn during his White House tenure, including episodes when McGahn was prepared to resign rather than carry out Trump’s demands.
McGahn described Trump asking him to do “crazy sh**,” according to Priebus. Trump, meanwhile, deemed McGahn a “lying bastard” whose habit of taking contemporaneous notes raised suspicion. In an anecdote relayed in the report, Trump and McGahn went back-and-forth over the note-taking, which Trump insisted good lawyers – such as his onetime counsel Roy Cohn – never did.
Trump hadn’t backed off that view by Friday morning, when he made clear on Twitter his frustrations at the report.
“Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed,” the President wrote.