WASHINGTON – The long-awaited report from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russian investigation did not find conspiracy between President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and Moscow, but it painted a vivid picture of chaos inside the White House as the president scrambled to react to those allegations.
The report brings to light new details about the frantic first months of Trump's presidency, as senior aides were ordered to carry out presidential instructions that made them uncomfortable. Sometimes senior aides simply ignored his orders, or tried desperately to change his mind.
Trump has for two years brushed aside media reports and tell-all books describing West Wing chaos, suggesting those stories were based on disgruntled former aides and anonymous sources. Though most of the anecdotes included in Mueller's report were previously reported, they will now be harder to explain away as politically motivated fictions.
Mueller's report suggests that, in some instances, Trump's aides were attempting to protect the president by not carrying out his requests. The murkiness around their motivations – and his – are a central reason why it was difficult for the special counsel's team to determine whether the president attempted to obstruct justice.
“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.
In some cases, Mueller said, top White House officials consulted their own personal lawyers before deciding whether to carry out an order from the president.
The report pulls back a curtain on a president who was frustrated and angry by developments taking place beyond his control, and searching for a way to get a handle on an investigation that threatened to consume his presidency and stymie his agenda.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions informed the president that Mueller was appointed as special counsel, Sessions recalled Trump slouching in his chair and lamenting his fate. "This is the end of my presidency," Trump said. "I'm f---ed."
McGahn under pressure
One pivotal moment came on a Saturday in June, 2017. Trump was on his first visit to Camp David for what was ostensibly a family retreat but was really a damage-control session after press reports Mueller was investigating obstruction of justice.
Trump called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home twice, asking him to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the Special Counsel,” Trump said, according to McGahn’s statement to Mueller.
McGahn told Trump he didn’t want to be like “Saturday Night Massacre Bork,” referring to Nixon solicitor general Robert Bork who fired a special prosecutor investigating Watergate. Both the attorney general and deputy attorney general refused Nixon’s order and resigned. President Ronald Reagan later nominated Bork to the Supreme Court, though he was not confirmed.
McGahn told colleagues in the White House that he planned to resign, but wouldn’t say why because he didn’t want to involve them. He told then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus only that Trump had asked him to "do crazy sh--.” Priebus convinced McGahn to stay.
When the New York Times reported on the episode months later, Trump called it “a typical New York Times fake story.” Privately, he pressured McGahn to deny the story in writing. He called his White House counsel a “lying bastard” and told Staff Secretary Rob Porter, "If he doesn't write a letter, then maybe I'll have to get rid of him.”
Trump also asked McGahn why he told Mueller that he had threatened to fire the special counsel. "What-about these notes? Why do you take notes?” Trump said. “Lawyers don't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes."
Trump react: Trump thought Mueller would 'end' his presidency
'I called him anyway'
As official Washington flipped through the 400-page document, the culmination of a nearly two-year investigation, they were confronted with the details of a president scrambling to deal with a probe he grasped would be politically damaging, even if he believed he had done nothing wrong during the 2016 presidential election.
Similar anecdotes have for years popped up in books and media coverage, which Trump has almost always dismissed as politically motivated hit jobs. Veteran reporter Bob Woodward chronicled an episode in his book "Fear" last year in which former economic adviser Gary Cohn removed a draft of a document from the president's desk to prevent the administration from ending a trade agreement with ally South Korea.
Cohn resigned last year.
Anecdotes in Mueller's report suggest the president's effort to question the investigation often backfired, and occurred over the advice of close aides.
White House attorneys had advised the president not to call then FBI director James Comey in 2017 for fear it would create a perception he was attempting to interfere in the initial stages of the Russian investigation. But Trump made those calls anyway, and told his senior aides after the fact that Comey informed him the FBI could say publicly that the president was not personally under investigation.
"I know you told me not to, but I called Comey anyway," Trump told his aides in April 2017, according to the report.
Less than a month later, Trump fired Comey.
The Monday after the Camp David visit, Trump met with his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, in the Oval Office. Lewandowski had no formal role in the administration, but Trump asked him to give Sessions a directive.
“Write this down,” Trump said.
Lewandowski wrote it down, and later gave it to Mueller.
Trump directed Sessions to give a speech saying Trump “didn't do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.”
He also wanted Lewandowski to tell Sessions to limit the special counsel to only investigating future Russian election meddling – and not obstruction.
But Lewandowski didn’t want to tell Sessions over the phone, and he didn’t want to visit the Justice Department because that would create a record. So Lewandowski and Sessions never met. Instead, Lewandowski asked Rick Dearborn, then the White House deputy chief of staff, to do it.
But Dearborn said the message made him uncomfortable. He told Lewandowski he would take care of it, but didn’t.
Aides push back
A month later, aboard Marine One, Trump told Priebus that Sessions should resign. "I need a letter of resignation on my desk immediately,” he said.
Priebus and McGahn agreed that they would refuse to carry out the order. Trump bugged Priebus about it later in the day. “"Did you get it? Are you working on it?" Priebus said that if Sessions resigned, his top two deputies would also resign.
Instead, Trump stepped up his public criticism of Sessions. For the rest of the year, Sessions had a letter of resignation prepared and carried it with him in his pocket every time he went to the White House.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mueller report lifts curtain on White House chaos as aides ignore, manage Trump