Donald Trump has flown out of Washington to his resort in Florida, falsely claiming Robert Mueller had totally exonerated him, and with Democrats assessing how best to respond to a report that failed to provide them with a true smoking gun.
Five hours after the special counsel’s lightly redacted report was finally made public, the president waved and grinned as he boarded Air Force One, for a three-day weekend. He did not speak to reporters but earlier said at the White House was having a good day as the report revealed “no collusion, no obstruction”. Later, apparently tweeting while on his way south, Mr Trump urged people to watch Fox News later and said: “It was a really great day for America.”
In truth, Mr Mueller’s report did not the represent total exoneration, the president claimed it did. While the investigation did not find evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, it uncovered “multiple links between Trump campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government”. Likewise, the full report, confirmed what had been conceded by attorney general William Barr, who said Mr Mueller wrote “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”.
The report contained much damaging information about the president’s behaviour, not least his efforts to fire the person who led the investigation. Indeed, after Mr Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to lead the probe after the presidents firing of FBI Director James Comey, he believed his presidency was over and that he was “f***ed”. He tried to have him fired or the investigation halted, something White House lawyers lawyers pushed back on.
Mr Mueller’s report contained 11 instances that he and his team examined as possible breaches either of protocol of legality. He provided evidence to find both for and against such a finding.
For instance, the report noted, in June 2017, Mr Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to tell the then-acting attorney general, Jeff Sessions, that Mr Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed, Reuters noted.
It also said there was “substantial evidence” the president fired Mr Comey as FBI director in 2017 due to his “unwillingness to publicly state that the president was not personally under investigation”.
It also said there was some “some evidence” suggesting Mr Trump knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s controversial calls with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, but evidence was “inconclusive” and could not be used to establish intent to obstruct.
The report said Mr Trump directed former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ask Mr Sessions to reconsider the decision to recuse himself from the probe and say the Russia investigation was “very unfair”.
Indeed, large chunks of Mr Mueller’s report detail the president’s efforts to halt the investigation into Russia’s alleged election interference and possible collusion.
When Mr Sessions told the president about his appointment in the spring of 2017, an appointment made following Mr Trump’s firing of Mr Comey, he was said to have slumped into his chair and declared: “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m ****ed.”
He then turned to the one time Alabama senator who had joined his cabinet as chief law enforcement and legal officer, and blamed him. “How could you let this happen, Jeff,” he said. “You were supposed to protect me.”
He added: “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency. It takes years and years and I won’ t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)April 18, 2019
Such was the president’s determination to halt the process, he telephoned Mr McGahn, who left the White House in October 2018, and asked him to intervene. Mr McGahn told Mr Mueller’s team he was told by the president: “Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be special counsel.
“Mueller has to go” and: “Call me back when you do it.”
The White House and supporters of Trump were quick to claim a victory. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway told reporters: “We’re taking apologies.”
Mr Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, said Republicans should turn the tables and “investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation.”
Meanwhile, Democrats were struggling to find a way forward. They said Mr Barr’s decision to hold preemptive press conference sought to create a false narrative and that the actual report revealed troubling details about Trump’s conduct in the White House.
In a joint statement, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer wrote: “One thing is clear: attorney general Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding.”
House judiciary committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said the report “outlined disturbing evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction of justice and other misconduct.” He sent a letter to the justice department requesting that Mr Mueller himself testify before his panel “no later than May 23” and said he would be issuing a subpoena for the full special counsel report and the underlying materials.
At the same time, Democrats are probably unlikely to pursue Mr Trump’s impeachment, jugging that the country is in little mood for another lengthy probe, and that their efforts are better focussed on trying to beat the president in the 2020 presidential election.
“Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Ms Pelosi’s deputy, Steny Hoyer told CNN. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgement.”