Donald Trump’s claims of vindication after the release of Robert Mueller’s report on Thursday were quickly drowned out by furious Democrats, who pointed to a wealth of evidence the president attempted to obstruct justice and demanded fresh hearings into potentially criminal conduct.
Republican hopes of drawing a line under the affair were dashed as the bombshell document threatened to reopen debate over Trump’s impeachment and raised questions over the futures of William Barr, the attorney general, and Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, both accused of misleading the public.
The gravity of the situation was apparent as the president left for his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida on Thursday afternoon. Instead of taking a victory lap, as some had expected, he uncharacteristically ignored questions from reporters as he boarded the Marine One helicopter on the White House south lawn.
Even so, timing of the report was fortunate for Trump, with Congress not in session and Washington winding down for Easter. Initial reaction was perhaps preordained by a four-page summary released by Barr last month and offered a textbook example of Washington’s bitter partisanship and polarisation.
Republicans circled the wagons and reiterated their claims of exoneration. Speaking at the White House, Trump said: “This should never happen to another president again. This hoax – it should never happen to another president again.” He added on Twitter: “GAME OVER” with a photoshopped image from Game of Thrones.
And later, apparently responding to the finding that he tried to remove Mueller, he suggested that he would have been within his legal right to do so. “I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted,” he tweeted. “I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the RIGHT to use Executive Privilege. I didn’t!”
White House staff including lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Kellyanne Conway rallied around. Conway told reporters: “We’re accepting apologies today, too, for anybody who feels the grace in offering them.”
Sign up for the US morning briefing
There was also a preview of how Trump will attempt to use the report in next year’s presidential election, arguing that it was cooked up by Democrats and anti-Trump officials in an attempt to thwart his supporters.
His re-election campaign said in a statement: “Now the tables have turned, and it’s time to investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation into President Trump, motivated by political retribution and based on no evidence whatsoever.”
But if the White House hopes the nation is ready to move on, it is likely to be disappointed. Mueller offered plenty of fodder for Democrats and other critics of the president, including detailing how the Trump campaign was receptive to Russian help, and how the president repeatedly attempted to obstruct justice and had to be saved from himself by those around him.
Congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff, the respective chairmen of the House judiciary and intelligence committees, wrote to Mueller requesting that he testify on Capitol Hill.
Schiff tweeted: “Regardless of whether the obstructive acts described by Mueller was criminal or whether the litany of illicit contacts with Russia rose to the level of conspiracy, they’re dishonest, unethical, and unpatriotic. Mueller’s report is not a vindication of Trump, but a condemnation.”
The Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal said he would support a subpoena for the full, unredacted report. “This report is a detailed, deeply damning portrait of criminal wrongdoing and national scandal. President Trump and his associates sold out our democracy and welcomed help through Russia’s illegal actions during the 2016 campaign,” he added.
There was also sharp criticism of Barr, who held a news conference early on Thursday before the report’s publication and attempted to put a positive spin on it.
Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said in a joint statement that Barr “deliberately distorted significant portions” of the report.
“Special Counsel Mueller’s report paints a disturbing picture of a president who has been weaving a web of deceit, lies and improper behavior and acting as if the law doesn’t apply to him,” they continued.
Schumer and Pelosi joined the calls for Mueller to testify to Congress and said it is “imperative” for the rest of the report and underlying documents to be made available.
With Mueller and Barr now effectively passing the baton on to Congress, some Democrats may even reconsider whether to push for Trump’s impeachment, although Republican control of the Senate could make that a messy and inconclusive process.
Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, noted that the report includes the apparent invitation: “Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office.”
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York agreed: “Mueller’s report is clear in pointing to Congress’ responsibility in investigating obstruction of justice by the president.”
She added that she would be signing on to the congresswoman’s Rashida Tlaib’s impeachment resolution.
But senior Democrats maintained their cautious position on impeachment, which they fear could backfire. The House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, told CNN: “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgement.”
The political fallout could also consume Sanders who, after FBI director James Comey’s firing in May 2017, denied that he commanded widespread support within the agency. Sanders later admitted to Mueller’s team that this was a “slip of the tongue”.
The LGBTQ campaign group GLAAD demanded Sanders’ resignation, stating: “The White House press secretary’s role is to keep the public informed about the most powerful office in the world. The position shouldn’t be held by someone who lies to the press.”