By Philip Rucker and Robert Costa / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The moment President Donald Trump learned two years ago that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate Russian election interference, he declared in the Oval Office, “This is the end of my presidency.”
Trump nearly made that a self-fulfilling prophecy as he then plotted for months to thwart the probe, spawning a culture of corruption and deception inside the White House.
Trump’s advisers rarely challenged him and often willingly did his bidding, according to the special counsel’s report released Thursday. But in some cases they explicitly refused when Trump pushed them to the brink of committing outright crimes — a pattern of inaction that ended up protecting the president.
Trump ordered Donald McGahn to instigate special counsel Robert Mueller III’s firing, but the White House lawyer decided he would resign rather than follow through.
Trump urged Corey Lewandowski to ask then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to curtail the investigation, but his former campaign manager only delivered the message to an intermediary.
And Trump demanded that Reince Priebus procure Sessions’ resignation, but the White House chief of staff did not carry out the directive.
The vivid portrait that emerges from Mueller’s 448-page report is of a presidency plagued by paranoia, insecurity and scheming — and of an inner circle gripped by fear of Trump’s spasms.
Again and again, Trump frantically pressured his aides to lie to the public, deny true news stories and fabricate a false record. But their unwillingness to execute his most drastic wishes were part of what kept Mueller from making a determination about obstruction of justice.
“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report says. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
While many of the episodes catalogued have previously been explored in first-person accounts and news reports, Mueller’s report is singular for its definitive examination of the events — and will not easily be dismissed by Trump and his aides as “fake news.” The main actors are under oath and on the record, and the narrative they laid bare stands as a historical product with the imprimatur of a former FBI director who attained a cult status for his impartiality.
The political impact remains unsettled. Republicans were eager to turn the page Thursday, echoing the defiant refrain of Trump and Attorney General William Barr: “No collusion.” But Democratic leaders insisted that Trump’s conduct amounted to obstruction of justice and necessitated further inquiry, including calling on Mueller to testify before Congress.
Regardless, the Mueller report revealed how a combustible president bred an atmosphere of chaos, dishonesty and malfeasance at the top echelons of government not seen since the Nixon administration.
Trump officials frequently were drawn into the president’s plans to craft false story lines. In one instance, while he was watching Fox News, Trump asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to hold a news conference and claim that Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director based on Rosenstein’s recommendation. Rosenstein declined and told Trump that he would tell the truth — that firing Comey was not his idea — if he were asked about it.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders attempted to buttress Trump’s cover story. She said at a news briefing that countless members of the FBI were seeking Comey’s removal, but later admitted to Mueller’s team that her comment had been completely fabricated, calling it a “slip of the tongue” that was not founded on any evidence.
In yet another example, Trump dictated to communications director Hope Hicks an intentionally misleading statement for the press about Donald Trump Jr.’s 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower.
Trump’s drumbeat to end the investigation was driven by his belief that the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusive determination of Russian interference threatened the legitimacy of his election. It was, as Hicks told Mueller’s investigators, his “Achilles’ heel.”
The report exhaustively documents the fraught relationship between Trump and McGahn. In the weeks following Mueller’s May 2017 appointment, Trump repeatedly considered firing the special counsel. On June 17, Trump was at Camp David and twice called McGahn at home and directed him to call Rosenstein, who supervised the probe, and explain that Mueller had conflicts of interest and could not serve.
“You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod,” Trump said on the first call, according to the account McGahn gave investigators.
McGahn did not act on the request, but Trump called a second time.
“Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the special counsel,” Trump said, according to McGahn. The president told him, “Mueller has to go” and “Call me back when you do it.”
McGahn told investigators that he felt trapped and decided to resign. He drove to the office to pack up his belongings and prepare to submit a resignation letter. He also called Priebus and chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon and told them of his intentions, but they urged him to stay, and McGahn returned to work that Monday.
Trump’s claim that Mueller had “conflicts” — a dispute over membership fees at a Trump golf course in Virginia — was called “ridiculous” by Bannon and “silly” by McGahn. The report is peppered with similar times of aides grousing behind Trump’s back about his tirades and impulsive directives.
Seven months later, after the New York Times reported that Trump had ordered McGahn to have Mueller fired and that McGahn had refused, Trump instructed the White House counsel to deny it — but McGahn said he would not rebut the article.
The president was furious. Staff secretary Rob Porter told investigators that Trump told him the story was “bullshit” and that McGahn was “a lying bastard.” Trump directed Porter to tell McGahn to create a written record falsely stating that the president never directed the White House counsel to fire Mueller.
“If he doesn’t write a letter, then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him,” Porter recalled Trump telling him.
The next day, Trump met with McGahn to discuss the article. The president insisted he never told McGahn to “fire” Mueller, but McGahn said that he had told him, “Mueller has to go.” Trump then harangued McGahn about there being a record of their discussions.
“Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes,” Trump told McGahn, according to McGahn’s account to investigators.
McGahn responded that he was a “real lawyer.”
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes,” Trump replied, referencing a former lawyer and mentor who was disbarred for unethical conduct.
Meantime, as Trump’s unhappiness with Sessions lingered into the summer of 2017, he tried several times to push the attorney general to either step down or limit the scope of the probe.
In between bursts of angry tweets about Sessions that June, he told Lewandowski he had a mission for him.
“Write this down,” Trump instructed his former campaign manager, who is described in the report by Trump officials as a “devotee” who would do almost anything for the president.
Trump told Lewandowski to quietly approach Sessions, far outside of the usual chain of command, and suggest that the president would prefer that the Justice Department investigate only foreign interference in “future elections” — and to stop its probe of the 2016 campaign.
Lewandowski never delivered that message directly, reflecting his own unease with the president’s request. He instead turned to Rick Dearborn, a veteran Sessions aide then working as a deputy White House chief of staff, to take the message to the attorney general. Dearborn, too, declined to do so, later telling investigators that the idea of being a messenger to Sessions made him uncomfortable.
Trump tried other ways to remove Sessions. In early July 2017, he asked Porter whether Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand was “on the team” and instructed him to sound her out about taking over responsibility for the Mueller probe and becoming attorney general. Porter told investigators that he understood Trump to want to find someone to end the investigation and did not contact her because he was uncomfortable with the task.
That same month, after The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts showed Sessions had discussed Trump campaign-related matters with the Russian ambassador, Trump erupted and demanded the attorney general’s resignation.
Trump told Priebus that he needed “a letter of resignation on [his] desk immediately,” according to the account Priebus gave investigators. He said the attorney general had “no choice” and “must immediately resign.”
Trump said Sessions had to resign because of negative publicity, but Priebus told investigators he believed the president was driven because of his hatred over Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation. Priebus consulted McGahn and they discussed the possibility that they would both resign rather than carry out Trump’s order to fire Sessions, according to Mueller’s testimony.
The president followed up: “Did you get it?” he asked Priebus. “Are you working on it?”
Priebus explained that firing Sessions would be a calamity, and Trump agreed to hold off and eventually relented, although he tweeted for the next several days about the attorney general, including calling him “beleaguered.”
Sessions stayed on the job until November 2018, but his experience was reflective of the torment caused by Trump.
The attorney general’s chief of staff told investigators that after the president tried to oust him in July 2017, Sessions carried a resignation letter in his pocket every time he went to the White House.