When President Trump ordered White House press secretary Sarah Sanders “not to bother” with press briefings earlier this year, he argued it was because reporters covered her “rudely and inaccurately.”
But special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report reveals the pressure faced by Sanders and others close to Trump: to seemingly invent explanations for questionable actions he has taken over the past two years. In several instances, Mueller’s 448-page report paints a picture of an unreliable White House — one that often went to great lengths to craft its own inaccurate narrative.
Trump’s reaction to the appointment of Mueller:
One such example came in May 2017, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had just appointed Mueller as special counsel.
According to Mueller’s report — which cites notes from Jody Hunt, Sessions’s chief of staff — Trump reacted by slumping back in his chair, exclaiming: “Oh my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.” Trump further laid into Sessions for his recusal, indicating Sessions had let him down.
“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency,” Trump said, according to Hunt’s notes. “It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.” The next morning, Trump tweeted, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
But as The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey tweeted Thursday, an account of the meeting from then-White House spokesman Sean Spicer paints a much different picture:
Dawsey’s reporting at the time quotes two people inside the room with Trump when he learned Mueller had been appointed. They said the president had a calm, levelheaded reaction to the news, with one person saying his attitude was “extremely measured.”
Trump’s Attempt to fire the special counsel:
On Jan. 25, 2018, the New York Times reported that in June 2017 Trump told White House counsel Donald McGahn he wanted to fire Mueller, claiming the special counsel had several conflicts of interest. However, Trump ultimately backed down from this request when McGahn threatened to quit, according to the Times.
On Jan. 26, 2018, Trump brushed the report off as “fake news. . . . A typical New York Times fake story,” the Times reported.
But the same day, according to the Mueller report, Trump’s personal counsel reached out to McGahn’s attorney, requesting he “put out a statement denying that he had been asked to fire the Special Counsel and that he threatened to quit in protest” — an order McGahn defied.
“McGahn’s attorney informed the President’s personal counsel that the Times story was accurate,” the Mueller report reads. “Accordingly, McGahn’s attorney said, although the article was inaccurate in some other respects, McGahn could not comply with the president’s request to dispute the story.”
Trump’s termination of James B. Comey:
The White House’s official position on why Trump fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey in 2017 shifted numerous times throughout the news cycle. On the day the news broke, the White House said in a statement that Comey was removed on the “recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.”
According to Mueller’s report, however, “the President had decided to fire Comey before hearing from the Department of Justice.”
Moreover, Sanders said in a news conference at the time that the “rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director” — drawing skepticism from a reporter who asserted the opposite: that the “vast majority” of FBI agents actually supported Comey.
“Look, we’ve heard from countless members of the FBI that say very different things,” Sanders responded, according to Mueller’s report.
But, as the report later explains, her claims were completely unfounded.
“Sanders told this Office that her reference to hearing from ‘countless members of the FBI’ was a ‘slip of the tongue,’” the report reads. “She also recalled that her statement in a separate press interview that rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey was a comment she made ‘in the heat of the moment’ that was not founded on anything.”
Trump’s business connections with Russia:
Mueller’s report also discusses a July 2016 news conference during which Trump responded to questions about his possible connections to Moscow by “denying any business involvement in Russia” — “even though the Trump Organization had pursued a business project in Russia as late as June 2016.”
“During the press conference, Trump repeated “I have nothing to do with Russia” five times. He stated that “the closest [he] came to Russia” was that Russians may have purchased a home or condos from him. He said that after he held the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013 he had been interested in working with Russian companies that “wanted to put a lot of money into developments in Russia” but “it never worked out.”
The Mueller Report
But Trump’s assertion during the 2016 event that he had “nothing to do with Russia” is directly disputed in his written responses to the special counsel’s questions. In one response, he admitted to signing a nonbinding letter of intent for a deal in 2015.
“As I recall, neither I nor the Trump Organization had any projects or proposed projects in Russia during the campaign other than the Letter of Intent,” Trump wrote.
The report adds: “The Trump Organization, however, had been pursuing a building project in Moscow — the Trump Tower Moscow project from approximately September 2015 through June 2016, and the candidate was regularly updated on developments, including possible trips by Michael Cohen to Moscow to promote the deal and by Trump himself to finalize it.”
Carter Page’s role in the campaign
The special counsel’s report sheds light on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign.
In 2016, according to the special counsel, a Trump campaign spokesman told Yahoo! News that Carter Page had “no role” in the campaign after he’d traveled to Moscow that summer and met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. This trip drew media attention, prompting the campaign to label Page as an “informal foreign policy adviser” who “did not speak for Mr. Trump or the campaign.”
He was officially removed from the campaign on Sept, 24, 2016, according to the report, but in an email the next day, Hope Hicks, communications director for the Trump campaign, instructed Kellyanne Conway and Stephen K. Bannon to answer inquiries about Page with the following: "[H]e was announced as an informal adviser in March. Since then he has had no role or official contact with the campaign. We have no knowledge of activities past or present and he now officially has been removed from all lists etc.”
But in the months following March, according to the report, Page “continued providing policy-related work product to Campaign officials."
“For example, in April 2016, Page provided feedback on an outline for a foreign policy speech that the candidate gave at the Mayflower Hotel. In May 2016, Page prepared an outline of an energy policy speech for the Campaign and then traveled to Bismarck, North Dakota, to watch the candidate deliver the speech,” the report read. “Chief policy adviser Sam Clovis expressed appreciation for Page’s work and praised his work to other Campaign officials.”
Brent Griffiths contributed to this report.