President Trump paused Wednesday on the South Lawn of the White House to describe special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election as “illegal,” “phony” and “an attempted coup.”
It was the latest of Trump’s fulsome fulminations against the probe and its still-secret report, which the president had previously declared to be a “complete and total exoneration.”
But when the Justice Department releases Mueller’s redacted report in coming days, the reality is likely to be far more nuanced — including potentially damaging new details of alleged misdeeds by Trump or his campaign, even if they fall short of criminal wrongdoing.
That puts the president and his defenders in a potentially thorny position: Could Trump’s cries of “total exoneration” become his own “Mission Accomplished”?
In 2003, President George W. Bush infamously landed on an aircraft carrier — against the backdrop of a huge banner trumpeting “Mission Accomplished” — to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq. The war would drag on for nearly another decade, and Bush’s overly confident phrase served as shorthand for the administration’s controversial conflict.
Similarly, hours after Attorney General William P. Barr released a summary of the Russia report last month, Trump proclaimed on Twitter: “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION.” Now, many Democrats and other critics of the president hope to use the report’s release to turn Trump’s “total exoneration” into a punchline.
Michael Steele, a Republican strategist, said Trump has reason to feel vindicated: “It’s an obvious win on the fact that there was no case on collusion,” he said. “It’s an obvious win that the special prosecutor did not choose to indict on obstruction.”
Yet the president may ultimately find himself in a more politically vulnerable situation once the full report is released, Steele added. “In terms of the public perception, I have a strong feeling that the president’s victory lap will be followed by a long string of embarrassing revelations as portions of the full report make their way into the public,” he said.
Democrats are eager to pore over the full report in painstaking detail, picking out the most problematic nuggets and using them to try to trap the president — exposing what they expect to be a canyon between Trump’s black-and-white statements and Mueller’s more complicated findings.
Although Barr’s letter said Mueller did not establish that Trump or campaign associates conspired with Russia, he also wrote that Mueller did not reach a conclusion about whether Trump had obstructed justice. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the report reads, according to Barr.
Subsequently, members of Mueller’s team have complained to associates that Barr’s summary did not capture the full scope of the report, which includes evidence of obstruction they view as alarming.
Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary during the “Mission Accomplished” event, said that when he saw Trump’s response to the Barr letter, he thought the president “went too far.”
“It would have been so much wiser if the president said, ‘I was exonerated on collusion and there’s no case to be made on obstruction,’ ” Fleischer said. “He would have had the same good positive result, dismissing it all, without waving a red flag in front of his critics and the media.”
But, Fleischer added: “The president’s style is to raise the red flag in front of the media bull, and he likes to do it.”
Privately, White House aides and Trump allies say they fully expect the report to contain embarrassing specifics for the president. In the days immediately following Barr’s summary, some officials were careful to offer more tempered portraits of vindication in contrast to Trump’s victory dance.
But neither they nor the president are likely to retreat from Trump’s initial claims of exoneration. The president views politics and policy almost entirely through the lens of public relations — incendiary statements, demeaning nicknames, marketing-style proclamations — and he has already taken advantage of the information vacuum between Barr’s brief March 24 summary and the report’s imminent release to prosecute his case in the media.
The administration also hopes to frame the debate on a macro level. It plans to argue that for nearly two years, Democrats and Trump critics promised that Mueller would find proof that Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia, but that Mueller, by Barr’s telling, did not. In its view, that is a total and complete win — or exoneration, to use Trump’s words.
The White House plans to use critics’ own statements against them, and the Republican National Committee has begun gathering video footage of Democrats — including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — predicting that the report would conclude that Trump colluded with the Russians. A video titled “Collusion Hoax!” released by the Trump campaign on the day Barr filed his summary featured similar footage, and urged supporters to text “WITCHHUNT” to a campaign number.
Trump aides and allies are also counting on what they view as continued Democratic overreach to help them push back on the entirety of Mueller’s report.
“There’s only one bottom line and the Democrats didn’t achieve it,” Fleischer said. “Even if he exaggerated his interpretation of the obstruction finding, Trump won. There was no collusion, which has been the heart and soul of the turmoil of the last two years.”
The strategy is classic Trump, taking a maximalist position and then doubling down on it, even as reality shifts beneath him. But the president has also exhibited a willingness to change his stance when it behooves him; he has, for example, moved away from his earlier calls for full transparency to now raising doubts about making the uncensored Mueller report public.
On Wednesday, Trump again railed against the probe on social media. “So, it has now been determined, by 18 people that truly hate President Trump, that there was No Collusion with Russia,” he tweeted. “In fact, it was an illegal investigation that should never have been allowed to start. I fought back hard against this Phony & Treasonous Hoax!”
White House aides and Trump allies long worried about the obstruction part of Mueller’s probe, fearing that the president’s behavior may have opened him up to such charges. But they are cautiously optimistic that the report’s most incriminating data points on that front — from his decision to fire former FBI director James B. Comey to his dictating a misleading statement about his eldest son’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower — have already been litigated in the media and in the court of public opinion, and are unlikely to change any voter minds.
Polling supports their theory. A Washington Post-Schar School poll from late March, after Barr’s summary was released, found that 53 percent approved of Mueller’s investigation — little changed from the 51 percent who approved in February.
Opinions also broke down along partisan lines. Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans said they felt “satisfied” with the investigation’s conclusions, a strikingly positive assessment for a group that broadly disapproved of Mueller’s handling of the investigation just last month. Among Democrats, who long expressed faith in Mueller during the inquiry, 53 percent said they were disappointed with its conclusions.
Trump, for his part, is unlikely to back down regardless of what Mueller’s full report says.
“There is no universe in which he or his supporters view any revelation from the report as requiring contrition on his part,” Steele said.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.