Trump's 'total and complete exoneration' turns out to be fake news

President Trump at a White House event on Thursday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Donald Trump’s description of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential campaign and the White House’s efforts to keep it secret returned to form Friday.

Just weeks after he claimed it had offered him “total and complete exoneration,” the president returned to attacking the document he and his attorney general had so confidently assured the country had cleared him.

On vacation at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Florida, Trump abruptly halted his reversal of his reversal in midsentence, so we don’t know what further imprecations he was intending to heap on the special counsel. Yet his use of capitalization in an attempt to brand his assertions — “Crazy Mueller Report,” “18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters,” “Illegally Started Hoax” — in the minds of his supporters made clear that his victory lap strategy was over.

The problem for Trump is that even the redacted version of the special counsel’s report (no quotation marks or capitalization required) made clear that although the president was not charged with crimes, his actions could not be easily dismissed as innocent.

Attorney General William Barr, of course, tried to do just that. “There is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency,” he explained at Thursday’s news conference, as if Trump’s level of personal irritation might justify his ordering underlings to commit illegal acts.

“The attorney general seemed almost to be acting as the counselor for the defense, or the counselor for the president,” “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace noted of Barr, and that was before the release of the redacted report, which you can read here.

In a Thursday interview with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery,” an actual former Trump lawyer, Ty Cobb, reiterated Barr’s explanation for the behavior described in the Mueller report.

“The president was assaulted every day by virtually every newspaper of liberal persuasion and most of the mainstream media and fighting for his political life throughout this and frustrated by his inability to govern,” Cobb said. “The fact that he defended himself is not obstruction.”

Cobb’s mention of Trump’s frustration over “his inability to govern” seems at odds with Trump’s own assessment of his presidency, which he claimed just last month “has accomplished more in its first two years than any other Administration.”

Frustration and anger are nothing new for Trump. His White House tenure has been defined by those emotions, as his own Twitter feed shows. But it’s worth revisiting Trump’s brief pause in his attacks on Mueller in the days following the release of Barr’s four-page summary of Mueller’s findings to Congress on March 24.

It’s not known if Trump has read the Mueller report yet, or strayed from the Fox News bubble that is doing its best to assure him that “total and complete exoneration” is still the order of the day. Insider accounts of the Trump White House generally agree that the president prefers to get his information from television or single-page bullet-pointed memos, not 400-page reports. Those who do read it will confront several uncomfortable passages that contradict the statements and tweets made by Trump, White House press secretary Sarah SandersIvanka Trump and others.

When Trump does return to finish his thought on Twitter, it will most likely be to continue his attacks on the people who have spent the last two years investigating him, and whose report overturns many of Trump’s well-worn assertions. Among them is Trump’s claim that the investigation into his campaign started with the Steele dossier that was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In fact, as Mueller’s team laid out on the first page, the origins of the case that would lead to the appointment of a special counsel began elsewhere.

“In late July 2016, soon after WikiLeaks’s first release of stolen documents, a foreign government contacted the FBI about a May 2016 encounter with the Trump Campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulous. Papadopoulos had suggested to a a representative of that foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” the report states. “The information prompted the FBI on July 31, 2016, to open an investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump Campaign were coordinating with the Russian government in its interference activities.”

While the media reported this detail back in 2017, because Trump has convinced his supporters that every negative news item about him is fake, its confirmation by Mueller seems to have prompted him to return to his efforts to discredit the same special counsel who has supposedly vindicated him.

Nine hours after the president left the nation hanging as to how he would conclude his sentence on the “Illegally Started Hoax,” he returned to Twitter and called, once again, for an investigation of the people who had investigated him.


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