President Trump offered on Thursday what could be thought of as his closing argument on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Trump's 2016 campaign and Russian interference.
In response to a question from a reporter at an event focused on hospital billing practices, Trump compiled a best-of album reiterating his various, mostly untrue claims about how Mueller and his team were hopelessly conflicted, biased against him — and yet somehow still gave him an unwaveringly clean bill of health.
It’s an odd tension that allows Trump to have it both ways. In general, he falsely claims that it was a thorough report that completely demonstrates that he did nothing wrong. Any negative information presented in the report, though, is a function of Mueller and his team’s hopeless bias against Trump.
The question Trump was asked on Thursday was whether he would allow Mueller to testify before Congress.
"Well, I'm going to leave that up to our very great attorney general," Trump began. Then he was off to the races.
“There was nobody that was in the history of our country more transparent than me,” Trump said, noting that former White House counsel Donald McGahn testified for an estimated 30 hours.
“I could have stopped everything,” Trump added. “I didn’t have to give them a document. I gave them one-point-five million documents. I gave them White House counsel. I gave them other lawyers — anybody you want, you can talk to.”
Well, except Trump himself, who refused to sit for an interview with Mueller’s team and then responded to a series of written questions by mostly asserting that he didn’t remember specifics.
He claimed that Mueller and his team were out to get him.
"Bob Mueller's no friend of mine. I had conflicts with him," Trump said. "We had a business dispute."
That “business dispute” is included in the Mueller report. Mueller had been a member of Trump’s golf club in Virginia but quit because it was too far from his home. He asked for a refund of part of his initial membership fee and was told he’d be put on a waiting list to get that refund. That was the extent of the “dispute.”
“We had somebody that is in love with James Comey,” Trump continued. “They were very good friends, supposedly best friends. Maybe not, but supposedly best friends. You look at the picture file, and you see hundreds of pictures of him and Comey.”
You can also find hundreds of photos of Trump and former president Barack Obama during their transition of power, but one suspects the two aren’t in love with one another.
“With all of that and other things,” Trump went on, “he wanted the FBI job. I don’t know if anybody knows that. But as you know he was considered for the FBI job wanted it, and the day after he didn’t get it he became the special counsel. That’s a conflict.”
Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, though, told investigators that “although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again” — Comey had replaced him in the role — Mueller “did not come in looking for the job.”
Trump also claimed that Mueller's team was similarly conflicted.
"You had other people made big contributions to Hillary Clinton's campaign," he said. "They were angry Democrats in, I think, almost all cases. One of the people worked on the Clinton Foundation as just about the top person at the Clinton Foundation."
One member of Mueller’s team, Jeannie Rhee, represented the Foundation as part of an external legal team as part of a lawsuit over Hillary Clinton’s private email server. She had donated to Clinton, as had several other members of Mueller’s team. Others had donated to Obama or other Democrats. Mueller himself was a Republican who’d donated to Republican candidates in the past.
Mueller's report addresses Trump's claims about conflicts, noting that even the president's own team rejected the idea.
"The President's advisors pushed back on his assertion of conflicts, telling the President they did not count as true conflicts," the report states. It quotes Bannon calling the golf-course conflict claim "ridiculous and petty."
But then Trump noted the odd contradiction at the heart of his disparagement of Mueller: The special counsel, he claimed, had cleared him.
“With all of this, they came back: No collusion,” Trump said.
Earlier, he'd make one unusual concession to reality.
"At the end of the testimony: no collusion and — essentially — no obstruction," Trump said.
What Mueller found, in short, was that there was not sufficient evidence to establish that Trump or members of his campaign had conspired with the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the campaign. Mueller also compiled examples where Trump may have attempted to obstruct the investigation, declaring that he could not exonerate Trump on the question. Normally Trump summarizes this as "no obstruction" but here adds the qualifier "essentially" which, while still misleading at best, is at least slightly more accurate.
A bit later, Trump was asked about a subpoena issued to his son, Donald Trump Jr.
“He’s now testified for 20 hours or something. A massive amount of time,” Trump said of his son. “The Mueller report came out — that’s the Bible! — the Mueller report came out, and they said he did nothing wrong.”
That's not what the report said. On the question of that meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016, for example, Mueller's team decided not to charge him with campaign finance violations because they weren't sure they could prove that he knew it was illegal to accept the information as a campaign contribution from a foreign agent. At several other points, commentary that's apparently about Trump Jr. is redacted as being related to grand jury matters.
"My son is a good person. My son testified for hours and hours. My son was totally exonerated by Mueller," Trump said, "who frankly does not like Donald Trump, me, this Donald Trump."
Mueller didn’t interview Trump Jr. for hours. He didn’t interview Trump Jr. for one minute because, as the report states, he “declined to be voluntarily interviewed.”
There is, of course, a difference between being exonerated and not being proved guilty.
Here’s where Trump’s rhetoric comes back into play. When you’re exonerated, Trump would argue, it’s because of the facts. If a question still lingers? Bias. It’s a simple formula and, he hopes, an effective one.