Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump wanted a victory lap after the apparent flop of the Russia collusion probe, but on Thursday, 11 days later, the president instead found himself being chased in circles.
Over and over the president has crowed that special counsel Robert Mueller's massive investigation into the Trump team's links to Moscow resulted in total "exoneration."
But that claim is based on the conclusions of Trump's handpicked attorney general William Barr who released a four-page summary of the still secret report. The actual report, running hundreds of pages, has yet to be released publicly.
And US media reports have now quoted sources from the previously almost totally leak-proof Mueller team saying that Barr's characterization glossed over potentially damaging findings.
"Members of Mueller's team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant," The Washington Post said late Wednesday.
The New York Times -- another mainstay of insider US political reporting -- quoted its unnamed sources saying that Barr "failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated."
The Justice Department was forced Thursday to defend Barr's summary, saying "every page" of Mueller's report was flagged as potentially containing confidential material and insisting it would be released in full once "appropriate redactions" had been made.
And in a furious tweet, Trump said the Times "had no legitimate sources, which would be totally illegal, concerning the Mueller Report. In fact, they probably had no sources at all! They are a Fake News paper who have already been forced to apologize for their incorrect and very bad reporting on me!"
- Vindication -
This is not the way it was meant to be for the Republican as he launches his 2020 reelection fight.
For two years Trump loudly, repeatedly excoriated Mueller's "witch hunt" and dismissed as nonsense the idea he might have colluded with attempts by Russia to tilt public opinion in his favor during the 2016 election.
The Barr summary looked like a stunning vindication.
According to Barr, Mueller found that no one in the Trump team had "conspired or coordinated with Russia."
On the question of whether Trump had tried to obstruct justice and prevent Mueller from freely investigating the Russia angle, Barr said the special prosecutor did not reach a definitive conclusion.
"While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him," Barr quoted Mueller as saying.
That sounded perilously ambiguous for the president, but with Barr himself making the judgment that there was in fact no obstruction offense, Trump could call it a win.
In streams of tweets, comments to journalists and a celebratory campaign rally, Trump said he had been proven right. He even accused the law enforcement officials and Democratic Party politicians who supported Mueller's probe of treason.
- 'Sneaky,' 'rabid' -
But questioning by Democrats about why the report has not been fully released and now the reported leaks from the Mueller team are turning that victory sour.
In a statement on Thursday, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec defended Barr's handling of the report.
"Given the extraordinary public interest in the matter, the Attorney General decided to release the report's bottom-line findings and his conclusions immediately -- without attempting to summarize the report -- with the understanding that the report itself would be released after the redaction process," she said.
Barr "does not believe the report should be released in 'serial or piecemeal fashion,'" she added.
In the meantime, it was back to business as usual for Trump on Twitter, with attacks on opponents that could have been written months ago.
"According to polling, few people seem to care about the Russian Collusion Hoax, but some Democrats are fighting hard to keep the Witch Hunt alive," he tweeted Thursday.
"They should focus on legislation or, even better, an investigation of how the ridiculous Collusion Delusion got started - so illegal!"
Trump's lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was also refighting the supposedly finished battle.
On Fox News Wednesday night, he called the Mueller team "a bunch of sneaky, unethical leakers. And they are rabid Democrats who hate the president of United States."
As for Trump's actions regarding the murky Russian involvement in the election?
"We think we can prove beyond any doubt that there is nothing to collusion," Giuliani said.