President Trump seethed Friday over the special counsel’s portrayal of his protracted campaign to thwart the Russia investigation and directed much of his ire at former White House counsel Donald McGahn, whose ubiquity in the report’s footnotes laid bare his extensive cooperation in chronicling the president’s actions.
Some of the report’s most derogatory scenes were attributed not only to the recollections of McGahn and other witnesses but also to the contemporaneous notes kept by several senior administration officials — the kind of paper trail that Trump has long sought to avoid leaving.
Many White House aides use pen and paper both as a defensive mechanism — such as when then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly documented Trump’s move to grant security clearances to his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — and as a means of creating the first draft of a page-turning presidency.
But the fact that some of those notes became primary source material for Mueller to paint a vivid portrait of Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation angered the president, who was stewing over the media coverage as he decamped to Florida for the holiday weekend, according to people familiar with his thinking.
“Statements are made about me by certain people in the Crazy Mueller Report, in itself written by 18 Angry Democrat Trump Haters, which are fabricated & totally untrue,” the president tweeted Friday morning from his Mar-a-Lago Club. “Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed.”
Trump went on to claim that some of the statements made about him in the Mueller report were “total bullshit & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad).”
Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said that since obstruction-of-justice charges were not brought against Trump, Mueller should not have so thoroughly detailed the acts that were under examination, such as the president’s attempts to remove the special counsel and curtail the probe.
“The narrative is written as if it’s all true and somebody proved it. Nobody proved it,” Giuliani said in an interview Friday. “I’m frustrated by the report because in some ways I’d love to have a trial and prove that it’s not true.”
Giuliani singled out McGahn, noting that Trump waived executive privilege to allow him to describe episodes to Mueller.
“If McGahn thought any of those things were crimes, why did he stay there?” Giuliani asked. “They’re trying to make it out as if there’s something illegal about what happened with McGahn. The guy is a very good lawyer. If he believed that there was something illegal, he wouldn’t have stayed in his job.”
William A. Burck, counsel to McGahn, issued a statement late Friday in response to Giuliani.
“It’s a mystery why Rudy Giuliani feels the need to re-litigate incidents the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General have concluded were not obstruction,” Burck wrote. “But they are accurately described in the report. Don, nonetheless, appreciates that the President gave him the opportunity to serve as White House Counsel and assist him with his signature accomplishments.”
According to the account McGahn provided investigators, Trump directed him to call Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who supervised the Russia probe, and tell him to remove Mueller as special counsel. McGahn refused and prepared to resign but was persuaded by colleagues to remain as White House counsel.
One of McGahn’s friends, who was not authorized to comment publicly about the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said McGahn was focused on his work at the Jones Day law firm and was trying to lie low, hopeful of avoiding a dispute with Trump.
Trump had a tempestuous working relationship with McGahn, who departed the White House last fall, but a White House official who is friendly with McGahn said the president’s fury was driven in part by news coverage and therefore unlikely to last long. Several Trump advisers said they believed McGahn was being unfairly targeted inside the West Wing because of past tensions with Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
“If anything, Don saved this presidency from the president,” one adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “If Don had actually gone through with what the president wanted, you would have had a constitutional crisis. The president’s ego is hurt, but he’s still here.”
Despite Trump’s angry tweets Friday morning about the Mueller report, the president was in a good mood as he dined on the Mar-a-Lago patio after landing in Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday night. On Friday, he played golf with conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who defended the president on the air Thursday.
“My friends, I’m telling you, this report is made to order for the Democrat Party to ignore what is the only important thing about this: No collusion, no obstruction, period,” Limbaugh told his listeners.
After huddling with his attorneys, including White House lawyer Emmet Flood, Trump complained that the second volume of the Mueller report, which focuses on obstruction of justice, is a political document intended to make him look bad, according to a senior White House official.
Former Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller argued that the report’s revelations “are not necessarily vote-determinative issues.”
“Any of this type of West Wing inside-baseball drama, or somewhat contrived stories, nobody in the real world actually votes on that,” he said. “Nobody in the real world is reading all 450 pages of that.”
More than a dozen aides provided notes to the special counsel, with “notes” mentioned in the Mueller report at least 160 times. As evidence for the obstruction-of-justice inquiry, Mueller relied heavily on notes recorded by McGahn’s chief of staff, Annie Donaldson, as well as those taken by then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s chief of staff, Jody Hunt, according to the report’s citations.
The report also cited interviews with McGahn, Porter, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and former communications director Hope Hicks, among others.
Once Trump and his attorneys decided to cooperate with the special-counsel investigation, many administration officials voluntarily sat for interviews with Mueller’s team and shared their emails, notes and other records. Several witnesses said Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer who handled the Russia probe during its first year, instructed them to cooperate with Mueller, and they would have told Trump or his attorneys what they were prepared to say or what notes they were going to provide if asked.
Now, some of them said they are worried Trump may try to retaliate against them, as the president has in the past when he believed aides cooperated with some book authors.
Before becoming president, Trump left the impression with his employees that he did not want them to take too many notes, for fear of a paper trail that could haunt them down the road. Sam Nunberg, one of Trump’s former political advisers, recalled him saying, “I can’t believe what people put in emails.”
In the White House, many aides take notes — sometimes to memorialize strange moments or orders Trump gives that make them uncomfortable, and sometimes simply to remember one’s marching orders or what is agreed to during a meeting.
Trump sometimes warily views note-taking in the Oval Office. He rarely takes copious notes himself, aides said, but occasionally scribbles on the side of papers. During a briefing on cybersecurity hacks, for instance, Trump bragged to officials that he never used email and said companies would be better off without using technology that harbors such records.
Trump’s nervousness over there being a record of his private comments is evident in the requirement that guests at his fundraisers must put their phones in their bags — because, as he put it at a recent Texas fundraiser, he sometimes makes problematic comments.
Trump is quoted in the Mueller report admonishing McGahn for taking notes; he replied that he kept a record of conversations because he was a “real lawyer.”
Yet Trump understands the power of a written record.
In another scene from Mueller’s report, Trump instructs former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to “write this down” when he asked Lewandowski to help secure the resignation of Sessions as attorney general.
Mueller also revealed that Trump asked deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland to draft an internal letter stating that he had not directed national security adviser Michael Flynn to discuss sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. McFarland declined, according to Mueller’s report, because she did not know whether that was true.
Anne Gearan in Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.