But it is Trump who is trying to have the last word.
Seven months after Mueller’s marathon testimony brought finality to the Russia investigation, Trump is actively seeking to rewrite the narrative that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, both for immediate political gain and for history.
Turbocharged by his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial and confident that he has acquired the fealty of nearly every Republican in Congress, Trump is claiming vindication and exoneration not only over his conduct with Ukraine — for which the House voted to impeach him — but also from the other investigations that have dogged his presidency.
This includes lawsuits filed against Trump by the state of New York over his finances as well as alleged misuse of charity funds by his nonprofit foundation. Trump sought last week to turn the page on these probes, declaring on Twitter ahead of a White House meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) that “New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment.”
Still, Russia is foremost on Trump’s mind. Since even before he was sworn in as president, Trump has viewed the FBI’s Russia investigation as a dark cloud over his administration that threatened to delegitimize his claim on the office. And more than three years in, Trump remains haunted by all things Russia, according to advisers and allies, and continues to nurse a profound and unabated sense of persecution.
As his reelection campaign intensifies, Trump is using the powers of his office to manipulate the facts and settle the score. Advisers say the president is determined to protect his associates ensnared in the expansive Russia investigation, punish the prosecutors and investigators he believes betrayed him, and convince the public that the probe was exactly as he sees it: an illegal witch hunt.
“The whole Mueller investigation was a shakedown and a disgrace. It probably should be expunged,” Trump said in an interview last week with radio commentator Geraldo Rivera, a longtime friend.
Referring to Mueller, Trump added: “I don’t call him special counsel because special counsel is not an accurate term. It’s a special prosecutor, because what he and his 13 angry Democrats — all horrible, just horrible people — what they did to destroy the lives of people that you know, but to destroy the lives of many, Geraldo, should never be forgiven, should never be forgotten, and something has to be done about it.”
Central to this pursuit were Trump’s efforts this past week to lessen the government’s sentencing recommendation for longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone. Attorney General William P. Barr’s extraordinary intervention on the Stone case, as well as Trump’s own declaration of his right to meddle in criminal cases whenever he chooses, tested the nation’s rule of law and sent chills throughout the Justice Department, which has long shielded its independence from political influences.
The criminal justice system could soon be tested further. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson — whom Trump targeted and disparaged last week — is set to decide Stone’s sentence on Thursday. The president has indicated he may commute Stone’s sentence. Asked last week whether he was open to issuing a pardon, Trump told reporters: “I don’t want to say that yet.”
Last week alone, Trump called the Russia investigation “tainted,” “dirty,” “rotten,” “illegal,” “phony,” a “disgrace,” a “shakedown,” a “scam,” “a fixed hoax” and “the biggest political crime in American History, by far.”
He argued that the probe into Russian election interference was based on false pretenses, despite a recent report from the Justice Department’s inspector general stating the opposite even as it criticized the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. And he claimed, again without evidence, that Mueller, a former FBI director regarded for his precision with facts, lied to Congress — which happens to be one of the charges Stone was convicted of by a jury last November.
Absent from the president’s many public comments about the Russia investigation, however, was a warning to Russia not to interfere in the next election, or even an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to do so.
“As Bob Mueller said — and the entire intelligence community confirmed — Russia is still coming at us,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and former counsel to Mueller at the FBI. “Not only is the president offering a false narrative to the American people about that threat, but there is no leadership from him on this incredibly important issue. We are still being attacked. It is as if the Russians invaded Alaska and the president either said they are not actually there or that they are there but it does not really matter because we have 49 other marvelous states.”
Frank Figliuzzi, a former senior FBI official who also worked for Mueller, said Trump’s efforts to spin a new history of the Russia investigation are cause for alarm.
“What Trump is doing is canceling what we all have proven, what the courts have proven, as in Roger Stone, as in Manafort, as in Flynn, in a form of jury nullification at a presidential level,” Figliuzzi said, referring to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“The president is doing it on steroids because of the power of his office,” Figliuzzi said. “People have to see the danger in that.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and a scholar of authoritarianism, said she sees darker motives in Trump’s actions.
“It’s all about manipulating information and recasting the narrative to be what you need it to be,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Even more than censoring, which is old-school, rulers like Trump — and Putin is the master at this — manipulate opinion by manipulating information.”
Trump’s defenders said the president is wise to try to seize control of the public narrative of the Russia investigation at the start of a campaign year, and they argued that his retelling will find a sympathetic audience.
“Winners write the history books. President Trump is aware of this and realizes that unless he defines the previous three years of witch hunts, then it will in fact be the people who unsuccessfully launched these witch hunts who will define the legacy,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign adviser who co-hosts “War Room,” a pro-Trump radio show and podcast, with former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
“Who he’s trying to speak to are the people who supported him in 2016, who think it’s ridiculous what partisan Democrats and unelected administrative-state bureaucrats have tried to do to him over these past three years, and to put things into proper context as we head into this fall,” Miller added.
In private discussions with advisers and friends, Trump has long groused angrily and obsessively about the Russia investigation. The president believes he and his campaign were unfairly targeted by what he bemoans as a “deep state” conspiracy — and he faults former FBI director James B. Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe, among others.
Trump regularly complains that Comey and McCabe have avoided jail time for what he is convinced is wrongdoing, while Stone, Manafort, Flynn and other Trump associates have been prosecuted.
“They put a man in jail and destroy his life, his family, his wife, his children — nine years in jail. It’s a disgrace,” Trump told reporters last week about Stone, referring to the seven- to nine-year prison sentence initially recommended by federal prosecutors. “In the meantime, Comey walks around making book deals. The people that launched this scam investigation — and what they did is a disgrace. And, hopefully, it’ll be treated fairly.”
Trump’s grievances spill beyond the Russia matter to include his conviction that former vice president Joe Biden has not faced sufficient scrutiny for his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.
“The president is obsessed with his view of fairness,” said one Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe the president’s state of mind. “Most of these items have arisen because the president doesn’t think things are fair. His reaction to Joe Biden’s son is mostly not a reaction of trying to harm a political opponent, but it’s a reaction of not believing that the treatment of the Bidens is in any way similar to how he’s been treated. His reaction to McCabe, Comey, various other enemies of the president is a reaction to what he believes is an unfair result happening to his allies.”
This adviser added: “Not only is it about fairness, but it’s about making sure that when the books are written and the films are being made, that he and his allies come out in the best possible light. All of this relates to perception.”
Ben-Ghiat, the New York University professor, credited Trump with his foresight and skill.
“While Trump is impulsive and there’s always the question of, is he a chessmaster or is he just moving blindly out of emotion, this strategy of manipulating information and creating a false narrative are the actions of someone who thinks long-term, who thinks about legacy,” Ben-Ghiat said. “He’s a builder. He thinks about the future. And this is a story about someone building an alternate history for the future.”
Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.