“No, I’m not going to be watching, probably. Maybe I’ll see a little bit of it.”
— President Trump, remarks to reporters, July 22, 2019
The president’s approach to former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report — and Mueller’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday — reminds us of the line from the opening of “Annie Hall”: Two women are eating at a Catskills resort, and one says, “The food at this place is really terrible.” The other replies, “I know, and such small portions.”
For Trump, Mueller’s report is both an exoneration and a source of bitter complaints. The former FBI director and longtime Republican is derided as a partisan hack — except when he is not. The president has hailed some of the report’s findings — usually by mischaracterizing them — while denouncing its other conclusions.
Trump has spoken or tweeted about Mueller more than 300 times during his presidency, according to Factba.se. As a reader service, here’s a guide to how Trump has waxed and waned on the Mueller report.
Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey earlier in the month. Trump’s first mention of Mueller came two months later, in a July 19 interview with the New York Times.
“Now, he, we went through a lot of things. We were interviewing replacements at the FBI. Did you know Mueller was one of the people that was being interviewed? … So, now what happens is, he leaves the office. . . . The next day, he is appointed special counsel. I said, what the hell is this all about? Talk about conflicts? But he was interviewing for the job.”
The Mueller report documented that Trump’s complaint of conflicts was false. The president’s advisers — including then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, then-White House counsel Donald McGahn and then-aide Stephen K. Bannon — “pushed back on his assertion of conflicts, telling the President they did not count as true conflicts,” the report said. Bannon told investigators that he “recalled telling the President that the purported conflicts were ‘ridiculous’ and that none of them was real or could come close to justifying precluding Mueller from serving as Special Counsel.” The report said that Mueller was not interviewed to be FBI director and did not express interest in the position, as he had already served in the job for 12 years.
But that has not stopped Trump from repeating the false claim.
Initially Trump complained about the investigation, but he was relatively quiet about Mueller personally, even as a growing number of former aides pleaded guilty to criminal charges. In another New York Times interview, on Dec. 28, 2017, Trump said:
“I think that Bob Mueller will be fair, and everybody knows that there was no collusion.”
But that changed once federal prosecutors raided former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office on April 9, 2018, after a referral from Mueller.
“I did nothing wrong. There was no collusion. There was no obstruction. The IG report yesterday went a long way to show that. And I think that the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited,” Trump said at a White House news conference on June 15, 2018.
“Mr. Mueller is highly conflicted. In fact, Comey is like his best friend. I could go into conflict after conflict. But sadly, Mr. Mueller is conflicted. But let him write his report. We did nothing. There’s no collusion,” Trump said Aug. 17, 2018. (Comey and Mueller are not friends, just professional colleagues.)
On Aug. 20, 2018, Trump tweeted angrily that Mueller was “disgraced and discredited” and working with “Angry Democrat Thugs.”
On March 22, 2019, Attorney General William P. Barr received Mueller’s report and then released a summary that tried to cast the report in a flattering light. But when a redacted version of the report was released a few weeks later, it was clear that the overall portrayal by Mueller was negative.
The special counsel concluded that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from people associated with the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks, to sow discord in the United States, hurt Clinton and help Trump.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” the special counsel's report says. Mueller declined to reach a decision on whether to bring charges against Trump for obstructing justice. The special counsel also did not make an explicit recommendation to Congress on impeachment.
But Mueller spent nearly half of the report laying out a sustained effort by Trump to derail the investigation, including an effort by the president to have Mueller removed. “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report says. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Here’s how the president pitched these conclusions, repeatedly, in various formations that were highly misleading:
“Where you look at their finding — I mean, the finding was very, very strong. No collusion, no obstruction, no Russia, no nothing.” (March 27, 2019)
“The Mueller report came out; it was a very good report for us.” (May 13, 2019)
“The Mueller report came out: no obstruction, no collusion. No nothing. It’s a beautiful report.” (May 27, 2019)
At the same time, while claiming exoneration, Trump vigorously disputed a central finding — that he sought to terminate Mueller during the probe and was thwarted by White House counsel McGahn. The report suggested that was potentially obstruction of justice, the opposite of what Trump claimed.
On May 11, 2019, Trump tweeted:
“I was NOT going to fire Bob Mueller, and did not fire Bob Mueller. In fact, he was allowed to finish his Report with unprecedented help from the Trump Administration. Actually, lawyer Don McGahn had a much better chance of being fired than Mueller. Never a big fan!”
(Investigators interviewed eight Trump aides and friends under oath and documented the events that led McGahn to conclude that he needed to resign because Trump had ordered him to fire Mueller. “McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate given the position he held in the White House,” the report concluded. “McGahn spoke with the President twice and understood the directive the same way both times, making it unlikely that he misheard or misinterpreted the President’s request.” Trump declined to be interviewed by the prosecutors. The report adds: “The President’s subsequent denials that he had told McGahn to have the special counsel removed were carefully worded. . . . The President’s assertion in the Oval Office meeting that he had never directed McGahn to have the special counsel removed thus runs counter to the evidence.”)
After Mueller spoke publicly about the report for the first time on May 29, 2019, Trump dismissed it as the “same as the report” — “There’s no obstruction, there’s no collusion, there’s no nothing. It’s nothing but a witch hunt.”
But he also went after Mueller personally, once again falsely claiming that Mueller had wanted to sign up to be FBI director again:
“I think he is a total conflicted person. I think Mueller is a true Never Trumper. He’s somebody that dislikes Donald Trump. He’s somebody that didn’t get a job that he requested that he wanted very badly, and then he was appointed. And despite that — and despite $40 million, 18 Trump haters, including people that worked for Hillary Clinton and some of the worst human beings on Earth — they got nothing.”
Two days before Mueller’s testimony before Congress, Trump tweeted:
“Highly conflicted Robert Mueller should not be given another bite at the apple. In the end it will be bad for him and the phony Democrats in Congress who have done nothing but waste time on this ridiculous Witch Hunt. Result of the Mueller Report, NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION!”
Later that day, speaking to reporters, Trump once again falsely asserted:
“As you know, he wanted the job of the FBI director, he didn’t get it. And we had a business relationship where I said no. And I would say that he wasn’t happy. Then all of a sudden, he gets this position.”
It’s the same line of attack Trump has used from the beginning — even though the report says his aides kept telling him it was not true.
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