ANALYSIS — Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation of the Trump White House reveals a presidency calibrated to drive and respond to media coverage of itself. Though unconventional, Donald Trump’s unique approach helped save his presidency.
At several critical points of his turbulent term, Mueller found that Trump — who once cold-called New York reporters claiming to be a public relations agent named “John Barron” to promote his real estate ventures — was mostly focused on responding to negative press reports or trying to generate positive ones. When the president took several questionable actions, the former FBI director concluded, it was because he was focused on a “press strategy” — and misleading or even lying to reporters is not a crime.
This pattern of presidential behavior is part of the web that led Mueller to conclude the evidence before him fell short of proving Trump’s intent in relation to his investigation was to obstruct justice. It is part of the reason his much-anticipated report does not plainly state the president obstructed the probe even though it does not exonerate Trump.
One leading example is Mueller’s conclusions about Team Trump’s efforts to mislead the New York Times about a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised to deliver negative information about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. (Donald Trump Jr. enthusiastically accepted the meeting, acknowledging he was interested in dirt on his father’s general election foe.)
Watch: Barr on Mueller report ahead of release: ‘No collusion’
But what Mueller found was an effort aboard Air Force One following a G-20 summit in Europe to describe the Trump Tower meeting to the newspaper as being about Russian adoption policy. That is not a crime.
“The President then dictated a statement to [then-White House aide Hope] Hicks that said the meeting was about Russian adoption (which the President had twice been told was discussed at the meeting). The statement dictated by the President did not mention the offer of derogatory information about Clinton,” according to Mueller’s report.
“Each of these efforts by the President involved his communications team and was directed at the press,” Mueller’s team wrote. “They would amount to obstructive acts only if the President, by taking these actions, sought to withhold information from or mislead congressional investigators or the Special Counsel.”
To that end, the president’s campaign organization received a request in May 2017 from the Senate Intelligence Committee for emails and documents related to the Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer. But the special counsel did not unearth evidence that Trump tried to prevent the handover of them to the panel, which has been conducting its own investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
“But the evidence does not establish that the President took steps to prevent the emails or other information about the June 9 meeting from being provided to Congress or the Special Counsel. The series of discussions in which the President sought to limit access to the emails and prevent their public release occurred in the context of developing a press strategy,” Mueller concluded.
The media-focused president appears to have only discussed those documents once, with Hicks on June 29, 2017, and he acknowledged that an attorney for son-in-law Jared Kushner — who also attended the Trump Tower meeting — should give the emails to “whomever he needed to give them to,” Mueller wrote, paraphrasing the president.
Getting ‘killed’ by the press
Trump’s decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey also highlights how the president gives orders to his senior West Wing aides based on how the media was covering his personnel and policy decisions.
On the evening of May 9, 2017, the day he terminated Comey, Trump told his communications team he was angry about how the media was covering the matter. He also phoned New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an old friend and sometimes-adviser, to express his frustration, saying he was getting “killed” by the press.
The president was so focused on generating positive coverage about Comey’s ouster that he pressed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to do media interviews and lie. Trump wanted Rosenstein to say it was his idea, rather than Trump’s, to fire Comey. Rosenstein refused. But then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer followed his orders from Trump, according to Mueller.
“In an unplanned press conference late in the evening of May 9, 2017, Spicer told reporters, ‘It was all [Rosenstein]. No one from the White House. It was a DOJ decision,’” as Mueller’s team described the scene that night at the White House.
And in the summer of 2017, Trump became fixated on getting rid of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Though he was angry with the former Alabama senator for recusing himself from the Mueller probe, Trump told then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on Marine One that Sessions had to go because of “negative publicity” he felt the AG was responsible for, which Trump deemed “not tolerable.”
While Trump’s focus on media coverage appears to have provided an unintentional shield on obstruction, his other actions led Mueller to list several times when Trump’s intent appears to have been to obstruct the probe.
On the summer 2017 Sessions firing attempt, Mueller concluded that “the President tried to use Sessions to restrict and redirect the Special Counsel’s investigation when Sessions was recused and could not properly take any action on it.”
The special counsel often found, at times, Trump focused on responding to negative press reports but with an ulterior motive: To influence the Russia probe. One such case happened in early 2018, after the New York Times and Washington Post reported Trump had ordered then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller.
The president repeatedly pressed McGahn to speak with Times reporters and push a narrative that he never told his staff to terminate the special counsel. McGahn remembered their conversations about it differently, and felt uncomfortable telling what he thought would have been a lie.
Though Trump called the first piece published by the Times “fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story,” Mueller found his press focus was merely a mask for his true intentions.
“If the President were focused solely on a press strategy in seeking to have McGahn refute the New York Times article, a nexus to a proceeding or to further investigative interviews would not be shown. But the President’s efforts to have McGahn write a letter ‘for our records’ approximately ten days after the stories had come out — well past the typical time to issue a correction for a news story — indicates the President was not focused solely on a press strategy,” Mueller concluded.
Instead, the report describes an embattled commander in chief who “likely contemplated the ongoing investigation and any proceedings arising from it,” and mostly was interested in trying to “deflect or prevent further scrutiny of the President’s conduct towards the investigation.”
Mueller’s report led some congressional Democrats and legal experts to raise the prospect of impeachment proceedings, given some of the evidence the counsel found about obstruction-like acts. Perhaps that’s a reason the press-focused Trump curiously ignored reporters Thursday afternoon as he left the White House for a long weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.