Forget collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. The most concrete takeaway from the 448-page Mueller report is its damning portrait of the Trump White House as a place of chaos, intrigue and deception, where aides routinely disregard the wishes of a president with little regard for the traditional boundaries of his office.
It’s a theme familiar from more than two years of stunning headlines and tell-all books. But this time, the narrative is starker because it can’t be dismissed as “fake news,” the product of anonymous sources or literary license on the part of authors looking to sell books or land a television contract.
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Instead it was assembled from hundreds of hours of interviews conducted by seasoned investigators, backed up by the threat of perjury charges, with top White House officials and Cabinet members —almost all of whom are named.
You could say the Mueller report reads like “Fire and Fury” under oath. Like that bestselling account of Trump’s White House by the journalist Michael Wolff, Mueller’s report casts White House staffers as full-time minders of the president, who earn his ire during calls to their homes in off-hours, or who are urged by other staffers to midlead the press and public on behalf of the commander-in-chief.
“[T]here was no real up-and-down structure in the administration — merely a figure at the top and everyone else scrambling for his attention,” Wolff wrote, in words validated by the chaos captured in Mueller’s report. “It wasn’t task-based so much as response-oriented — whatever captured the boss’s attention focused everybody’s attention.”
Trump trashed that tome on Twitter as “a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author,” and has used similar language to attack other accounts of disorder in his administration.
But while Mueller’s report covers much narrower ground than accounts by Wolff, Bob Woodward and others, it also mirrors their basic portraits of his administration.
“It’s amazing how many people around the president chose not to do what the president asked them to do,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian and former head of the Nixon Presidential Library. “In a sense, there was some institutional memory of Watergate or maybe Iran-Contra in that people realized, ‘Oh right, maybe I should not do this.’”
Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, downplayed the idea that Trump’s White House is defined by conflict between an impulsive president and officials so worried about his extreme demands that, as Mueller documents, some created contemporaneous accounts of their experiences, either for the historical record, or to protect themselves, or both.
“Things like that happen in every large organization where you have bosses and underlings and there are disputes,” Giuliani told POLITICO on Thursday.
“When he wants to get something done, he does,” Giuliani added. “When he wants to get rid of Comey, he got rid of him.”
Trump may also encounter less resistance to his most aggressive ideas today than he did in the early months of his presidency. Over time, Trump has pushed out several officials like White House counsel Don McGahn, who defied the president’s efforts to fire Mueller, and now Trump is surrounded by family members, more pliant staffers, and just a sparser West Wing overall.
What still seems to be a constant at the White House is the fascinating gamesmanship among Trump’s aides, who, the report shows, sometimes passed his orders around in hot-potato fashion. It documents how Trump asked his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ask then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly call the Justice Department’s Russia probe “unfair” – and to have Sessions’ limit the breadth of the special investigation to election interference. An unwilling Lewandowski asked White House staffer and Sessions’ former chief of staff Rick Dearborn to deliver the message. Dearborn likewise never took action.
And it paints picture of a president obsessed with media coverage, his own image, and the legitimacy of his presidency. Following the election, the White House’s former communications director Sean Spicer told investigators that Trump believed the Russia story was concocted to undermine “the legitimacy of his election,” according to the report.
Story after story like this permeates the latter half of the Mueller report, making for fascinating reading for Trump obsessives – especially since the White House denied so many news reports of these instances in real time.
Trump, for instance, once asked McGahn to refute press reports in January 2018 that he had asked him to fire the special counsel in June 2017 – a move McGahn refused to do, instead offering to resign. At the time those accounts emerged, White House officials denied that story.
Similarly, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Mueller’s team that she knew the explanation she gave to reporters for the president’s firing of Comey was false. At the time, she told the press Comey had to go because he had lost the confidence of the rank-and-file in the department. In fact, Trump sacked him over the Russia probe.
The report also gives Democrats more fodder to question the way Trump approaches the highest office in the land.
“President Trump has, from his very first weekend in office when he declared war on the free press in our country, worked to undermine the people’s faith in our institutions,” including the Justice Department, said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. “By undermining those institutions, he’s diminishing the office of the president,” he added.
None of that has stopped the president and his team from declaring a major victory. Counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway told reporters at the White House on Thursday it was “really the best day since he got elected.”
Andrew Desiderio and Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.