Washington – The moment President Donald Trump learned two years ago that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate Russian election interference, he declared in the Oval Office, “This is the end of my presidency.”
Trump nearly made that a self-fulfilling prophecy as he then plotted for months to thwart the probe, spawning a culture of corruption and deception inside the White House.
Trump’s advisers rarely challenged him and often willingly did his bidding, according to the special counsel’s report released Thursday. But in some cases they explicitly refused when Trump pushed them to the brink of committing outright crimes — a pattern of inaction that ended up protecting the president.
Trump ordered Donald McGahn to instigate special counsel Robert Mueller’s firing, but the White House lawyer decided he would resign rather than follow through.
Trump urged Corey Lewandowski to ask then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to curtail the investigation, but his former campaign manager only delivered the message to an intermediary.
And Trump demanded that Reince Priebus procure Sessions’ resignation, but the White House chief of staff did not carry out the directive.
The vivid portrait that emerges from Mueller’s 448-page report is of a presidency plagued by paranoia, insecurity and scheming — and of an inner circle gripped by fear of Trump’s spasms.
Again and again, Trump frantically pressured his aides to lie to the public, deny true news stories and fabricate a false record. But their unwillingness to execute his most drastic wishes were part of what kept Mueller from making a determination about obstruction of justice.
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report says. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
While many of the episodes cataloged have previously been explored in first-person accounts and news reports, Mueller’s report is singular for its definitive examination of the events — and will not easily be dismissed by Trump and his aides as “fake news.” The main actors are under oath and on the record, and the narrative they laid bare stands as a historical product with the imprimatur of a former FBI director who attained a cult status for his impartiality.
The political impact remains unsettled. Republicans were eager to turn the page Thursday, echoing the defiant refrain of Trump and Attorney General William Barr: “No collusion.” But Democratic leaders insisted that Trump’s conduct amounted to obstruction of justice and necessitated further inquiry, including calling on Mueller to testify before Congress.
Regardless, the Mueller report revealed how a combustible president bred an atmosphere of chaos, dishonesty and malfeasance at the top echelons of government not seen since the Nixon administration.
Trump officials frequently were drawn into the president’s plans to craft false story lines. In one instance, while he was watching Fox News, Trump asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hold a news conference and claim that Trump fired James Comey as FBI director based on Rosenstein’s recommendation. Rosenstein declined and told Trump that he would tell the truth — that firing Comey was not his idea — if he were asked about it.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders attempted to buttress Trump’s cover story. She said at a news briefing that countless members of the FBI were seeking Comey’s removal, but later admitted to Mueller’s team that her comment had been completely fabricated.
In yet another example, Trump dictated to communications director Hope Hicks an intentionally misleading statement for the press about Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower.
Trump’s drumbeat to end the investigation was driven by his belief that the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusive determination of Russian interference threatened the legitimacy of his election. It was, as Hicks told Mueller’s investigators, his “Achilles’ heel.”
Meantime, as Trump’s unhappiness with Sessions lingered into the summer of 2017, he tried several times to push the attorney general to either step down or limit the scope of the probe.
In between bursts of angry tweets about Sessions that June, he told Lewandowski he had a mission for him.
“Write this down,” Trump instructed his former campaign manager, who is described in the report by Trump officials as a “devotee” who would do almost anything for the president.
Trump told Lewandowski to quietly approach Sessions, far outside of the usual chain of command, and suggest that the president would prefer that the Justice Department investigate only foreign interference in “future elections” — and to stop its probe of the 2016 campaign.
Lewandowski never delivered that message directly, reflecting his own unease with the president’s request. He instead turned to Rick Dearborn, a veteran Sessions aide then working as a deputy White House chief of staff, to take the message to the attorney general. Dearborn, too, declined to do so, later telling investigators that the idea of being a messenger to Sessions made him uncomfortable.
Sessions stayed on the job until November 2018, but his experience was reflective of the torment caused by Trump, who had tried other ways to remove him.
The attorney general’s chief of staff told investigators that after the president tried to oust him in July 2017, Sessions carried a resignation letter in his pocket every time he went to the White House.