Trump’s Obsession With Self-Preservation Laid Bare by Mueller Report
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump was obsessed with an investigation he believed could ruin him, eager to test the limits of the law to squelch it and willing to mislead the nation to cover his actions.
That was the portrait of the president that emerged from Robert Mueller’s report on Thursday. The special counsel documented attempts to conceal Trump’s behavior and suppress the probe. And he showed that Trump’s actions and words left some top administration officials and White House attorneys deeply alarmed, adding to drama and deception in the West Wing.
The president asked his White House attorney to lie to the public, and applauded his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, after a briefing in which she made false statements about the firing of former FBI director James Comey. He asked former communications director Hope Hicks to keep quiet about potentially damaging emails sent by his son, Donald Trump Jr.
“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,” the special counsel wrote.
Yet for all the deceptions, Mueller couldn’t find enough evidence after a 22-month investigation to conclude that the president committed a crime.
Mueller’s findings will surprise few Americans, by now used to Trump’s fulminations against the probe he’s called a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” as well as his complicated relationship with the truth. But the report’s crushing weight of detail makes it impossible for Trump to deny the account -- particularly as he prepares to face voters who will decide whether he deserves a second term in 2020.
Mueller’s revelations threaten to harden perceptions of Trump as a reckless leader willing to employ deception and obfuscation to protect himself. In addition to evidence that Trump pressured allies to deceive the public on his behalf, Mueller hinted that the investigation spanned previously unknown depths. Further criminal referrals are noted in the report but redacted.
Trump himself recognized the peril Mueller posed to his presidency from the moment the special counsel was appointed, reportedly telling a group of aides in the Oval Office: “I’m f---ed.”
Mueller concluded that “Congress has authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler called impeachment “one possibility” after the report’s release.
But there appeared to be little new momentum for impeachment proceedings in the House, with Democratic leadership suggesting they did not view the effort as worthwhile. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer observed on Thursday that Trump will stand for re-election in about 18 months.
The damaging procedural details of Mueller’s report won’t stop Trump from claiming vindication. After Attorney General William Barr’s news conference in which he defended the president’s behavior -- but before the release of Mueller’s report detailing it -- Trump tweeted an image of himself under the words "Game Over."
‘I’m Having a Good Day’
Senior adviser Kellyanne Conway called Thursday Trump’s “best day since he got elected.” Trump himself told reporters at a Friday morning event that “I’m having a good day. It’s called no collusion, no obstruction.”
Among the more significant revelations in the report was that campaign officials were “in some instances” receptive to Russian offers of assistance. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., took a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, accepted a U.S.-Russian “reconciliation” proposal from a friend, hedge fund manager Rick Gerson, who had developed the plan with a Vladimir Putin deputy.
The report illustrates dozens of contacts between the president’s associates and Russians and other foreign officials during his campaign, as well as a concerted -- and at points, successful -- Kremlin effort to penetrate Trump’s inner circle following his election.
The most damning revelations may be the actions of Trump’s own staff, who in some cases admitted that they refused to execute orders they regarded as improper or illegal.
Comey refused to end an investigation into Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents. White House counsel Don McGahn prepared to resign rather than inform the Justice Department that Trump wanted Mueller fired. White House aide Rick Dearborn declined to transmit a directive to Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Russia probe should be confined only to election meddling. McGahn also refused the president’s request to lie about whether he had been directed to fire Mueller.
Didn’t Recall Key Events
Trump frustrated Mueller’s investigators by repeatedly refusing requests to sit for an interview, then submitting written answers to questions in which he repeatedly said he was unable to remember key events.
That contrasts with his repeated assertions, in other contexts, that his memory is excellent. “I have one of the great memories of all time,” Trump said in a June 2018 news conference.
Mueller wrote that while his team considered the president’s answers “inadequate,” they ultimately decided not to pursue a subpoena because they were wary of a court battle that would draw out the investigation. Mueller’s failure to secure an in-person interview means Trump never had to answer under oath why he took so many steps to confound the investigation, leaving his motives a mystery.
Most Americans have already developed a strong opinion of Trump one way or another. Supporters long ago made peace with his unconventional approach to the presidency and disregard for Washington’s conventions. And none of Trump’s behavior is likely to shock even his opponents, especially after so much of it was documented contemporaneously in news reports.
Barr’s declaration last month that Trump had been legally cleared of obstruction and conspiracy charges had no discernible impact on his public opinion polls. And for the president, who has made clear he will run for a second term on the strength of the economy and by appealing to fears of immigrants, that bottom line is all that matters.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.