Presidential orders given but often ignored. Ample cursing. Aides working behind the scenes to protect Donald Trump from his own anger and impulsiveness. And an effort to prevent the president from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III despite his determination to do so.
Mueller’s long-anticipated report reveals a chaotic West Wing driven by paranoia and frequent outbursts from a green president who wanted to remove the special counsel and demanded that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, be more like predecessors Robert F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr., whom he felt “protected” the respective presidents they served, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.
It also reveals that his current press secretary misled reporters on multiple occasions, and that he circumvented the White House counsel’s office by having a domestic policy adviser, Stephen Miller, research whether he could oust an FBI director without cause. And it shows the president’s penchant for cursing under stress, including when he declared “I’m f---ed” after Mueller was appointed.
Trump and top White House aides and external surrogates have denied that Trump ever demanded Mueller be fired. But the special counsel interviewed former White House Counsel Don McGahn for over 30 hours. And he provided details of what he claims were direct orders to oust Mueller.
“On Saturday, June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed,” according to the report, citing the Mueller team’s interviews with McGahn, who left the White House last fall.
“In interviews with this Office, McGahn recalled that the President called him at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call [Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein] and say that Mueller had conflicts that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel,” Mueller’s team wrote.
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‘Just wanted to get off the phone’
As the report states in numerous sections, McGahn did what he reported doing on many occasions: He ignored a direct order from the president of the United States.
“McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request. He and other advisors believed the asserted conflicts were ‘silly’ and ‘not real,’ and they had previously communicated that view to the President,” the report states. But Trump persisted, calling back and again, issuing a direct order that his chief White House lawyer would also ignore.
“‘Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel,’” McGahn told Mueller’s team, quoting Trump. McGahn admitted that the exchanges left him “worn down” and during the second call he “just wanted to get off the phone.” He said he felt “trapped,” and eventually informed Trump’s chief of staff at the time, Reince Priebus, he planned to step down.
Why? Because he had grown uncomfortable with Trump asking him to do “crazy shit,” according to testimony Priebus gave to Mueller’s team. Ultimately, McGahn was talked out of quitting by Priebus and others.
But, while the anecdotes sometimes raise questions about the president’s conduct, Mueller repeatedly ended his analysis of those instances by concluding, as he wrote in a section about Comey, that each “were not interpreted by the officials who received them as directives to improperly interfere with the investigation.”
And senior White House officials pushed back on questions over whether the report shows the president wanted to take actions that might have constituted obstruction had McGahn and others not ignored his orders or talked him down.
“Intent matters,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters Thursday after the report’s release. “And the president’s intent was not to do those things,” she added, despite the testimony of McGahn and others.
Asked Thursday if Trump would clear Mueller to testify as top Democrats are demanding, Conway replied: “Why would he testify? This is the Mueller investigation and the Mueller report.”
Conway signaled the Trump team no longer plans to issue its own report rebutting Mueller’s findings. “Why does he need a point-by-point rebuttal?” she told reporters. “His greatest rebuttal is to be in office,” she said, also challenging congressional Democrats with this rhetorical question: “When are you going to legislate and not investigate?”
Presidential ‘shock collar’
Meanwhile, Priebus has been criticized by congressional Democrats and other Trump critics for his role in the early days of the 45th president’s administration — and for being unable to tamp down on West Wing chaos and on alleged ideas from Trump that might have been illegal if carried out.
Mueller’s report suggests, at least according to testimony provided by Priebus and others, that Trump’s first top aide frequently worked behind the scenes to protect Trump from Trump.
In 2017, for instance, after Sessions recused himself from the Mueller probe due to his own contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign, Trump demanded his resignation in a private meeting. Sessions handed the president a resignation letter, which Trump would frequently remove from his suit jacket’s inner pocket during meetings with aides.
But Priebus was worried the missive gave his boss a “shock collar” that Trump might use to influence Justice Department investigations, which would shatter a decadesold expectation that presidents let the DOJ conduct its business by the letter of the law and divorced from the political game.
Trump backed down, but soon after, he was again telling his chief of staff to force Sessions to quit. Priebus and McGahn, as Mueller states they often did, disagreed with their boss and worked behind the scenes to avoid what they believed would have been a legal and public relations disaster.
Priebus, a former Republican National Committee chairman, told Trump directly, according to his testimony before Mueller’s team, that firing Sessions would prevent him from getting a replacement confirmed and that DOJ employees would “turn their backs on the President.”
After Trump insisted Sessions be ousted, “Priebus believed that the President's request was a problem,” the report states. He sought McGahn’s advice.
“McGahn told Priebus not to follow the President’s order,” according to Mueller. “McGahn and Priebus discussed the possibility that they would both have to resign rather than carry out the President’s order to fire Sessions.”
Time and again, those two aides — and others — defied Trump before talking the president into another, less risky course of action.
In another example from 2017, Trump surprised Priebus and McGahn with an Oval Office meeting that included Miller, who largely focuses on speech-writing and domestic matters such as immigration.
The president announced he had tasked Miller, not the White House counsel’s office, with making a legal determination on whether he could fire Comey without cause. While he ultimately did so, it was not before McGahn, “in an effort to slow down the decision-making process,” insisted top DOJ leaders be consulted.
‘Slip of the tongue’
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has also been the target of criticism from Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans who contend she utters false and misleading statement to help her boss. Mueller found two instances in which Sanders made false statements, one from the James Brady Briefing Room podium.
“We’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things,” she told a reporter in May 2017, asserting that rank-and-file agents wanted Comey ousted. But she told Mueller’s team the comment had been a “slip of the tongue,” adding that a similar remark in an interview was made “in the heat of the moment.”
Despite the unflattering portrait of the president’s impulsiveness and a West Wing in which his orders were often ignored during his first year, White House officials stuck to the same message Thursday: Their boss had been “completely exonerated.”
Conway called Thursday the best day of Trump’s term, predicting, despite polls showing him trailing several Democrats in head-to-head races, that Mueller’s report ensures Trump’s re-election is “a done deal.”
The president seemed satisfied letting Conway and outside surrogates take the lead on the victory lap. As Trump and first lady Melania Trump headed for Marine One en route to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he did not stop to take questions from a throng of reporters waiting on the South Lawn.