To President Trump, the Russia matter is not a legitimate federal investigation into a foreign government’s interference with American democracy. That, he says, is a “charade” manufactured by Democrats to account for their loss in the 2016 election.
Nor does Trump seem to regard Russia as an issue that could result in his impeachment, or even one that could expose him to legal trouble of any kind. Over and over, the president has insisted that he has had “nothing to do with Russia.”
Rather, Trump sees Russia as a political “cloud” that hangs over him, as he repeatedly referred to the Russia probe in his private conversations with the man who had been overseeing it, FBI Director James B. Comey, according to the statement Comey is preparing to deliver Thursday under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In their March 30 phone call, Trump “described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country,” Comey wrote in his prepared remarks. “He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ ”
Trump talked about the “cloud” again in an April 11 phone call with Comey, one month before the president fired him. Comey recalled Trump telling him “that ‘the cloud’ was getting in the way of his ability to do his job,” according to his prepared testimony.
As Trump sees it, the Russia investigation has been an act of personal betrayal with political, though not legal, consequences, insofar as it has impeded his agenda and sullied the start of his presidency.
What’s more, friends and advisers have said, Trump views the Russia scandal as a threat to the legitimacy of his election. Trump feels immense pride that he ran as a political outsider and defied the polls and pundits to handily win an electoral college majority, despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He has handed out as mementos to visitors to the Oval Office, including this Washington Post reporter, color maps charting his county-by-county win — the United States nearly awash in red.
To Trump, the Russia matter challenges the validity of that win. And for that, he exhibits a feeling of victimization.
When he talks about Russia’s meddling in the election, the president often speaks in deeply personal tones. He uses words like “witch hunt,” and he professes his innocence against an ill-intentioned intelligence community spurred on by “obstructionist” Democrats and the “MSM,” or mainstream media.
“It is the same Fake News Media that said there is ‘no path to victory for Trump’ that is now pushing the phony Russia story,” Trump tweeted on April 1. “A total scam!”
In February, after Trump said he fired national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to Vice President Pence about his communications with Russian officials, Trump scolded reporters for focusing on the Russia matter.
“You can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a fake news, fabricated deal to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats, and the press plays right into it,” Trump said at a Feb. 16 news conference.
“The whole Russian thing,” he added, “that’s a ruse. That’s a ruse.”
Even before being sworn in as president, Trump was impatient to get out from under his Russia cloud. “I think we ought to get on with our lives,” he told reporters in December, as he was planning his transition.
Trump’s family casts the president as a victim, too.
“They try to obstruct a great man,” son Eric Trump told Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity this week. “They try and obstruct his family. They come after us viciously, and it’s truly, truly horrible. And honestly, I blame most of those [Democratic] politicians, and I blame the media.”
The Russia controversy has unquestionably slowed or halted progress on Trump’s agenda. His fellow Republicans control both chambers of Congress, yet have delivered no signature legislation to the president. His plan to replace President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act only narrowly passed the House and is stalled in the Senate, while his tax cuts proposal has gone nowhere in either chamber.
In a briefing Monday designed to convince reporters that Trump’s agenda remains on track, Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, conceded that the Comey firing and investigation into Russian interference were distracting lawmakers.
“There’s no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda, detracts from what we’re trying to deliver for the American people,” Short said.
Trump and his aides are not the only people who see the Russia matter as a cloud hanging over the president.
“This cloud is impacting everything else,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said last month on CNN.
Even James R. Clapper Jr., the Obama-appointed director of national intelligence whose credibility Trump repeatedly has sought to undermine publicly, has used the same meteorological description as Trump.
“I think what needs to happen here is to clear this cloud, the cloud that’s hanging over the administration, over the president, over the White House,” Clapper said on MSNBC last month.
One of the last times Comey testified on Capitol Hill was March 20, when he answered questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Trump ally who served on the executive committee of his presidential transition, concluded the hearing by discussing — yes — the “cloud.”
“There is a big gray cloud that you have put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country,” Nunes said. “And so the faster you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans.”
“I understand,” Comey replied. “Thank you.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.