For Trump, Legal Vindication Comes with Personal Ignominy

Report details president's insecurities ... and his rescue by aides who refused to act on his worst impulses.

President Trump near a portrait of George Washington at a Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride event in the East Room of the White House on Thursday
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
April 18, 2019, 6 p.m.

Despite President Trump’s triumphant claims of legal vindication, the redacted version of Robert Mueller’s report on his two-year investigation offers a sordid and ignoble view of life in a White House under assault. Mueller provides multiple examples of top aides being ordered by the president to lie or hide information to mislead investigators, the press, and the American public.

Also chronicled in the report’s 448 pages are the president’s anger, impulsiveness, and basic insecurity, as well as his refusal to respect basic boundaries and norms in a system of government based on checks and balances. Repeatedly, witnesses before Mueller told, under oath, of being ignored by the president when they offered advice against some of his worst impulses to take actions that would surely have plunged his administration into crises.

Among those who tried to keep him out of trouble but whose advice in specific instances was rejected were Reince Priebus, his first White House chief of staff; Hope Hicks, communications director; Donald McGahn, his first White House counsel; Jody Hunt, chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and senior counselor.

Remarkably, the report details more than a dozen instances where senior staffers ignored or refused to carry out direct orders from the president because they knew what he wanted was either illegal or would be politically disastrous for his White House. Notably not in that group were senior advisers Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. They stand alone in Mueller’s telling as encouraging Trump’s worst instincts, eagerly falling in line whenever the president gave them a command. But that is in sharp contrast with most of the senior staff who were grilled by the special counsel’s office.

Among those who risked the president’s ire by either slow-walking or simply refusing direct orders were Rick Dearborn, deputy chief of staff; K.T. McFarland, deputy national security director; Rob Porter, staff secretary; Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey; Dana Boente, acting assistant attorney general for national security; Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general; Dan Coats, director of national intelligence; Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency; and James Comey, former FBI director, as well as Priebus, Sessions and McGahn.

Almost palpable in the pages is the frustration of those around Trump when he pushed them to write letters or make statements at odds with the facts. The president pictured in the report had a difficult time understanding why they would not lie. One example involved Michael Cohen, vice president of the Trump Organization and Trump’s personal lawyer. During the campaign, Cohen was still working on getting approval to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. So he was perplexed when candidate Trump, during a press conference, stated five times that “I have nothing to do with Russia.” The report notes: “Cohen recalled speaking with Trump after the press conference about Trump’s denial of any business dealings in Russia, which Cohen regarded as untrue. Trump told Cohen that Trump Tower Moscow was not a deal yet and said, ‘Why mention it if it is not a deal?’”

Similarly, the report found that Trump tried to get McFarland to lie about then-National Security Director Michael Flynn’s dealings with Russia and documented the president’s untruths about a key meeting with Comey. The greatest pressure to lie, though, was put on McGahn, according to the report, which devoted eight pages to detailing the president’s heavy-handed effort to get his White House counsel to deny a New York Times report that Trump had tried to get McGahn to fire Mueller and had been dissuaded only when McGahn threatened to quit. “After the story broke, the president, through his personal counsel and two aides, sought to have McGahn deny that he had been directed to remove the special counsel,” said the report. “Each time he was approached, McGahn responded that he would not refute the press accounts because they were accurate...” Still determined, Trump then met in the Oval Office and tried to get McGahn to change his story. McGahn refused and further infuriated the president by telling him he had notes of their conversation.

Trump erupted. “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” The report continues: “McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a ‘real lawyer’ and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. The president said, ‘I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes’.”

Trump’s insecurity is an undercurrent running through much of the report, with frequent citations of the president’s wariness of anything he thought could be seen as undermining the legitimacy of his election or his presidency. This was frequently mentioned in testimony to the investigators. “Several advisors recalled that the president-elect viewed stories about his Russian connections, the Russia investigations, and the intelligence community assessment of Russian interference as a threat to the legitimacy of his electoral victory,” said the report, which quoted Hicks as calling the intelligence community’s assessment his “Achilles heel because even if Russia had no impact on the election, people would think Russia helped him win, taking away from what he had accomplished.”

That insecurity also was behind the numerous instances documented of the president yelling at aides, losing his temper and threatening firings—though, oddly, he was reluctant to lower the axe personally and repeatedly tried to get others to request resignations and push the offending official out the door.

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