President Trump and his allies signaled Monday that they intend to use the broad conclusions of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation — which found no criminal conspiracy with Russia to influence the 2016 election — to forcefully attack perceived opponents they say unfairly accused the president of wrongdoing.
Trump himself, speaking in the Oval Office, offered a broad and harsh denunciation, saying there were “a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things.”
“I would say treasonous things against our country,” the president added.
The strategy — currently loose and informal — is still in its infancy. But all signs indicate a Trump operation seeking vengeance and accountability from critics it says maligned the president over the investigation into whether his campaign or associates conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. An adviser who talked to the president said Trump has an appetite to see his critics investigated. The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
“What he says is, he wants this investigated,” said Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. “I don’t think he’s thought it out like Lindsey has. But he wants these things investigated.”
While Trump and his allies have portrayed Attorney General William P. Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings as a complete vindication of the president, Barr made it clear that the special counsel was not exonerating the president on the question of obstruction of justice. And details of the report, if made public, could prove troublesome for Trump. Mueller’s work led to criminal charges against 34 people, including six former Trump associates and advisers, and showed that Russia sought to influence the election and help Trump.
Still, the president’s aides and allies have shown little desire to turn the page, preferring to write a new book detailing what they say is a rush to judgment from a Washington establishment unwilling to ever give Trump an unbiased assessment.
“This is not something to put behind us and move on,” said David Bossie, Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign manager. He said the White House and the Trump reelection campaign need to make sure “we are beating the drum” on how what he sees as a D.C. echo chamber bungled its handling of the Mueller investigation.
“The members of Congress, who made these ridiculous claims, how can they be on television again? How can they be called by reporters again?” Bossie asked. “How can reporters who have perpetrated this fraud gleefully on a number of networks, and at major newspapers across the country, how can they be trusted again?”
A campaign adviser said that there was a plan to target Schiff repeatedly, and that Republican National Committee and campaign officials had extensively reviewed television and other footage for some of Schiff’s and other Democrats’ most “egregious” comments.
Raj Shah, a former White House spokesman who is now advising the campaign, described the findings by Mueller as “a complete and total kill shot.”
“It speaks volumes to the credibility the president is going to have when making the case on the economy, on crushing ISIS, on any number of topics,” Shah said, using an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group. “The way to do this is, ‘They weren’t telling you the truth about this thing, they aren’t telling you the truth about ISIS, they aren’t telling you the truth about the economy.’ ”
Another White House and campaign strategy, an official with knowledge of the discussions said, is to remind the public of the most incendiary statements from the president’s critics — even if they were made on weekend afternoon television, with low viewership, or in other obscure places.
Conway said in an interview that Democratic lawmakers may face the strongest blowback. “Elected officials especially bear the brunt of any public recrimination since they have sworn an oath to the Constitution to uphold the law, not invent it as they go along, politicize it or pretend it doesn’t protect the innocent or uncharged,” she said. “This was less a legal exercise than a political hit job.”
In addition to Graham, other Trump allies have begun to call for investigations into some of the president’s rivals, including former president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “Time to investigate the Obama officials who concocted and spread the Russian conspiracy hoax,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted Monday.
Several advisers said they hoped the Mueller report could give Trump — who has often trafficked in falsehoods — more credibility with voters.
But some cautioned that the report and the targeting of critics may not have a big impact on Trump’s reelection prospects even if the campaign continues to make it an issue.
“I just am cautious. The election is a long way away,” Guiliani said. “This is a big, big plus. A lot of things are going to happen between now and the election. There’s a long way between now and then, and the issues are going to change.”
On Sunday, a four-page summary of Mueller’s report written by Barr said that the special counsel did not find any evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that Mueller declined to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment as to whether Trump had obstructed justice. “The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,’ ” Barr wrote.
The attorney general added that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein then examined the issue and determined the president’s conduct did not rise to the level of criminal behavior.
The president and his lawyers have not seen the full report, and a number of House Democratic investigations — including into whether Trump meddled in the security clearance process and his personal interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where he reportedly urged a translator to destroy notes — could still pose threats to the president.
But Trump’s allies seized on Barr’s summary as a complete victory, with Trump celebrating with his lawyers at the White House on Sunday night, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.
One former White House official said no one expected the outcome — at least what is publicly known so far — to be so positive for the president. Many Trump advisers were merely hoping for an inconclusive report, one that said there was no direct linkage between Trump and Russia but that left unanswered questions about specific episodes. “Similar to the obstruction part,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
The mood of relief quickly turned to defiance and glee as the president and his allies realized they could wield Barr’s summary as a political cudgel, not just to inoculate themselves against other ongoing and future investigations, but to target Trump’s perceived critics — ranging from the media to Democrats to the FBI.
“I think that many in the media and most on the left will continue to be a foil for the president in his reelection campaign as we move toward 2020, and quite frankly those who participated in this mess deserve it,” said Jason Miller, a former 2016 Trump campaign adviser. “If you were a Democrat who ran and campaigned on impeaching Trump in your 2018 election, what are you telling your constituents now that Mueller has informed us that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”
The Republican National Committee has already calculated how many hours or how much coverage particular television networks and newspapers devoted to the Mueller investigation when compared with Trump’s trade agenda or his efforts to defeat the Islamic State. The White House also organized a call with supporters Sunday night and sent them a lengthy memo urging them to attack Democrats and the news media.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director, penned a memo to television hosts and producers warning of the “credibility of certain guests.” He said in an interview that “a little righteous indignation is warranted.”
“It all comes down to credibility,” Murtaugh said. “These are people who were willing to go on TV for two years and make serious charges that have no basis in evidence whatsoever.”
Murtaugh’s memo took aim at a number of Democratic lawmakers — including Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Schiff and another California congressman, Eric Swalwell — as well as Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and former CIA director John Brennan.
Some of those targeted pushed back against the memo.
“The only person who has been caught lying about Russia is Donald Trump,” Swalwell tweeted Monday. “If he thinks I’ve made a false statement, he can sue me. And I’ll beat him in court.”
Amid all the finger-pointing, there was at least one person toward whom the president seemed to have changed his tone. After months of berating Mueller on Twitter and elsewhere for overseeing a “witch hunt” staffed by “angry Democrats,” the president took a more measured stance toward the special counsel Monday.
Asked by a reporter whether he believed Mueller had behaved “honorably,” Trump responded, simply, “Yes, he did.”