Mueller’s Damning Portrait of Trump
The special counsel’s report shows a president who lies, acts rashly, and is routinely ignored by his own staff.
The president lies wantonly and profligately—to the press, to his aides, and above all to the public. He tries to interfere in investigations. He acts as if he has something to hide. He reacts petulantly to being told no, and repeatedly pressures staffers even after being rejected.
Those words are not taken from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, but they might as well be. Over 448 pages, the report sketches a portrait of the president as chronically dishonest and unfit for office. Then it fills the portrait in, with painstaking and meticulously footnoted cross-hatching and shading. Opinions on Donald Trump, both for and against, seem ossified, and it is not as though Trump is underexposed. Yet even so, the Trump who emerges from the pages of the report is surprising.
The actual substance of the report is far more damning than what summaries from Attorney General William Barr, in a four-page letter to Congress in March and in a short press conference Thursday morning, suggested. Although Mueller did indeed conclude that there was no “collusion” between Russia and the Trump campaign, he also noted that “the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away.” (Or as I wrote in June 2017, “If there was no collusion, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”)
On obstruction, meanwhile, Mueller’s conclusion is somewhat different from what Barr suggested. The attorney general noted that Mueller had made no determination as to whether a crime was committed, effectively punting to Barr. But Mueller’s report reads, as my colleague Yoni Appelbaum writes, as an effective referral for impeachment. Mueller writes that it would be unfair to suggest prosecuting Trump, because he cannot be indicted while he holds office, and therefore would not have the chance to defend himself at trial.
“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 notes. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
In other words: The president didn’t not commit a crime. Then, over some 200 pages, Mueller lays out the facts, making strong implications in some cases that Trump’s behavior was obstructive and in others that it wasn’t. But while the question of whether to charge or recommend charges turns on some arcane legal justifications, it doesn’t require a law degree to take in the image of Trump that Mueller captures.
Contra Barr’s insistence that Trump cooperated fully with Mueller, the report shows a president fighting in every way he can to squash or at least stifle the investigation. The report drily notes, “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.”
This is a recurring motif throughout the piece. Trump’s own handpicked aides and close associates, viewing his orders as illegal, counterproductive, dishonest, or just plain stupid, simply don’t carry them out.
For example, a day after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign in February 2017, Trump ate lunch with Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and an informal adviser. The president twice asked Christie to call FBI Director James Comey and tell him he was “part of the team.” Christie told Mueller’s team that he “had no intention of complying” with the request, which he felt was “nonsensical” and would put Comey in an awkward position.
Later that month, Trump directed then–Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to ask Deputy National Security Adviser K. T. McFarland to write an email saying that Trump didn’t tell Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador about sanctions. McFarland told Priebus that she didn’t know whether that was even true. He directed her to the White House counsel’s office, which advised her not to write it. She never did.
In May, Trump fired Comey—citing a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about the handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, but really, he later admitted, because of the Russia investigation. The night of the firing, a White House press official told the Justice Department that it wanted to put out a statement saying it had been Rosenstein’s idea to fire Comey, but Rosenstein said he wouldn’t participate in putting out a “false story.” Trump then called Rosenstein and asked him to go on Fox News to take credit for the firing. Rosenstein rejected the idea saying that “if the press asked him, he would tell the truth that Comey’s firing was not his idea.”
When Trump learned of Mueller’s appointment as special counsel a few days later, he was apoplectic. “Oh my God,” he said, according to an aide to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions who was present. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
Trump began a long series of attempts to curtail the special counsel. He was particularly angry at Sessions, who he expected to act more as a defense counsel than as the nation’s top law-enforcement official. (In Barr, Trump seems to have found someone more willing to behave that way.) Trump was furious that Sessions had recused himself from Russia-related matters.
“This is terrible, Jeff,” Trump said. “It’s all because you recused. AG is supposed to be most important appointment. Kennedy appointed his brother. Obama appointed Holder. I appointed you and you recused yourself. You left me on an island. I can’t do anything."
Trump demanded Sessions’s resignation. When Sessions submitted a letter, the president didn’t accept the resignation, but he also didn’t give it back. This worried aides, who thought—with good reason—that he’d use the letter as leverage over Sessions, and who hoped to recover it. Trump carried the letter with him on a trip overseas, but when Priebus asked about it, Trump lied, claiming it was back at the White House. In fairness, Priebus wasn’t any more honest with Trump. When in July 2017, Trump told Priebus to obtain Sessions’s resignation once more, Priebus told the president he would do so, despite having no intention to act.
As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg has noted, the president often speaks in the manner of a mafia boss, making threats and delivering orders with barely plausible deniability. He used those techniques on Sessions, trying to convince him to reverse his recusal. “I'm not going to get involved,” Trump said. “I'm not going to do anything or direct you to do anything. I just want to be treated fairly.”
Trump also ordered White House Counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed, citing supposed conflicts of interest. “McGahn said he told the president that he would see what he could do,” the report states. “McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request. He and other advisors believed the asserted conflicts were ‘silly’ and ‘not real.’”
Later, Trump again directed McGahn to fire Mueller. McGahn threatened to resign rather than do so and Trump backed down. But when news of the incident leaked to the press, Trump demanded that McGahn deny it—in other words, he instructed the White House’s top lawyer to lie. McGahn refused. When an aide told McGahn that Trump might fire him, he laughed it off: “McGahn dismissed the threat, saying that the optics would be terrible if the President followed through with firing him on that basis. McGahn said he would not write the letter the president had requested.”
Mueller’s report also sheds new light on Trump’s efforts to hide the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between members of the Trump campaign and family and Russians. Mueller says there was no effort to conceal the matter from the special counsel, and therefore no evidence of a crime, but the incident shows Trump attempting to brazenly mislead the public.
Eventually, Trump seemed to ease up on his attempts to foil Mueller by removing him. His new strategy focused on attacking Mueller publicly, in order to delegitimize him, and on trying to pressure would-be witnesses. On the one hand, there was Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer at the Trump Organization, who took part in a joint defense agreement and says he was told that if he stayed “on message” he’d be taken care of.
In an effort to stay “on message,” Cohen lied to Congress about when a project to build a skyscraper in Moscow was abandoned. “The evidence available to us does not establish that the president directed or aided [Michael] Cohen's false testimony” to Congress, Mueller notes, but adds that “there is evidence... that the President knew Cohen provided false testimony.”
Nevertheless, once Cohen began cooperating, Trump began threatening him publicly. “The timing of the statements supports an inference that they were intended at least in part to discourage Cohen from further cooperation,” Mueller writes.
On the other hand, there is Paul Manafort, the former campaign chair, who was far less cooperative with investigators. Privately, Trump was disdainful: “As the proceedings against Manafort progressed in court, the President told [Staff Secretary Rob] Porter that he never liked Manafort and that Manafort did not know what he was doing on the campaign.” Publicly, however, he lavished praise on the operative. “Evidence concerning the president's conduct towards Manafort indicates that the president intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government,” Mueller writes.
In broad strokes, none of this should come as a surprise. The president’s penchant for lying, his unscrupulous behavior toward his aides, the way his aides treat him like a child, and his mafia-style methods—all of this has been revealed repeatedly. And I have argued that Americans don’t need the Mueller report to make a judgment on Trump’s fitness for office.
Mueller’s report, though, is an important contribution to the task. First, it adds a great deal of detail about how Trump operates. And second, it comes not from the much-maligned press, and not from Democrats in Congress, but instead from an independent Justice Department investigation—one that even Trump himself has taken to endorsing this week. (One senses Trump’s posture might change once he realizes how unflattering the report is for him.)
The effects of the report on public opinion are unpredictable, though thus far Trump’s numbers have seemed largely set in stone—nothing seems capable of dislodging him from a narrow band in which a majority of voters disapprove of him and slightly more than a third approve.
That doesn’t mean the information in the report isn’t damning, though. As Mueller’s decision about charging on obstruction of justice implies, Trump’s fate must be decided by politics, not courts. The behavior detailed in Mueller’s report ought to make it easier for both politicians and the public to render their verdict.