ANALYSIS — “No collusion. No collusion,” President Donald Trump said before he had even reached a group of reporters last week on the White House’s South Lawn.
That was Wednesday. A few hours later, scuttlebutt began to circulate around Washington that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III was about to deliver his report on Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible obstruction of justice by the president. Mueller did so two days later, and Attorney General William Barr summarized the former FBI director’s findings two days after that in a letter to lawmakers.
On Russia election meddling, one might borrow a phrase from the president that he’s said and tweeted hundreds of times over the last two years to sum up what Mueller concluded: “No collusion.”
Expect a president in victory lap mode all week, with his meetings Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a political rally Thursday night in Michigan giving him two massive stages to use his bully pulpit to express his vindication and paint himself — and, by extension, his conservative base — as the victim of a Democratic conspiracy born out of their bitterness that he won the 2016 election in the first place.
In fact, he wasted little time on that front.
As he arrived at a South Florida airport to return to Washington after a weekend of golf and meetings, Trump laid into the special counsel’s investigation, calling it “an illegal takedown that failed.”
He described the probe and its premise — that he and his campaign might have conspired with Russians during the 2016 campaign — “the most ridiculous thing ever.”
Then, the former owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals spiked the football: “It was complete and total exoneration.”
Here is how Barr summarized Mueller’s Russia findings: “The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” And here is how Mueller put it, as quoted by Barr in his letter: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
The president and his team quickly latched onto those two sentences, and they likely will continue a message that Trump himself delivered Sunday afternoon.
“There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction. None whatsoever,” he told reporters without taking questions.
The bottom line appears to be, as highlighted by former Trump fixer Michael Cohen’s recent public testimony, Trump’s interest in Russia was mostly about trying to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Businessman Trump long treated his desired property in Russia’s capital as the one trophy he was unable to bag.
The president, his West Wing aides, his outside legal team and his political surrogates often bend facts to fit their political and legal needs. They did so minutes after Barr’s letter was released.
Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, accused Democrats of taking “us on a frantic, chaotic, conspiracy-laden roller coaster for two years, alleging wrongdoing where there was none.”
No matter that it was Trump’s handpicked first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who decided to bring Mueller in as a special counsel after the president himself told NBC’s Lester Holt that the Justice Department’s Russia probe was on his mind when he fired former FBI Director James Comey. Sessions was a longtime conservative Republican senator and one of Trump’s earliest congressional backers — certainly no Democrat.
Don’t expect Trump or Parscale to drop that line. Quite the opposite. For the next 20 months until Election Day.
“So distraught and blindsided by the results of the 2016 elections, Democrats lied to the American people continually, hoping to undo the legitimate election of President Trump,” the campaign manager said. “Their dirty tricks have not ended. Even today Democrats have picked up the disgraceful mantle of investigating, obstructing, and destroying the will of the American people at any cost. They failed once and they will fail again.”
Trump and his top spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, also bent Barr’s letter in another way, claiming, as she did in a statement that Mueller’s report “are a total and complete exoneration of the President of the United States.”
Not exactly: Mueller wrote, according to Barr, “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Mueller left that question to Barr, who along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, concluded Trump did not obstruct justice.
Democrats signaled the fight over the long-anticipated Mueller report will move to Barr’s conclusion on that matter.
“And most obviously, for the president to say he is completely exonerated directly contradicts the words of Mr. Mueller and is not to be taken with any degree of credibility,” the duo said in a statement.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., tweeted that due to what he called “very concerning discrepancies” between the AG and special counsel and because “Mueller did not exonerate the President,” he intends to bring Barr to Capitol Hill soon to explain.
That is a fight Trump and his team likely will welcome. He is a master at firing up his political by describing Democrats as willing to do anything to take him down. Mueller and Barr just handed him a huge bludgeon with which he will now hammer Democrats during what promises to be a bruising and loud 2020 campaign.
“It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president had to go through this,” Trump said Sunday.
While Trump spoke in past tense, the country and the president himself are going to keep going “through this” for two more years — and likely beyond.