the white house

Trump Aides Fear He Is Overselling His ‘Exoneration’

Spinning. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last Sunday, minutes before the rest of America found out about Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, Donald Trump received a briefing in his private residence at Mar-a-Lago that would kick off one of the most emotionally intense weeks of his presidency. In interviews with New York, White House officials and people familiar with internal events have described mood swings rippling through the administration: First came relief, in the form of smiles and tears and bottles of Champagne; then, the catharsis of “righteous anger,” with fuck yous to the press, Democrats in Congress, and members of the intelligence community; as the excitement waned, “cooler heads” emerged in the White House with brand-new anxieties about a president inclined to inflict self-harm by taking things too far. “There will be plenty of unfavorable things about the president in the full report, which we think will eventually come out, so let’s not go overboard saying there’s no wrongdoing. Let’s move on,” one senior White House official told me.

In the hours before the news arrived, Trump played golf at Mar-a-Lago with Lindsey Graham, Mick Mulvaney, and Trey Gowdy. He was told of the contents of Barr’s letter later in the day in the residence, accompanied by lawyers, a small number of staffers, and Melania. “This is great. This is incredible. This is what I’ve been saying all along. There’s no collusion. I never talked to any Russians,” Trump said, according to a White House official who was there.

“In that frenzy, everybody was trying to understand what it meant. You didn’t get to stop to take a breath and be indignant,” another witness told me. “He was in a great mood. He was very happy. But I don’t know if it was relief — it was more of a, ‘Shit, guys, this is what I’ve been telling you for two years.’”

Barr’s letter wasn’t an exoneration (explicitly, he quoted the special counsel’s report as stating, “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”), but the central findings — that there was no prosecutable evidence of collusion, and that Mueller chose not to pursue charges of obstruction of justice, leaving the decision in the hands of the attorney general or Congress — were close enough that it felt that way, and close enough that “a total and complete exoneration” would quickly become the Official White House Spin on the matter. “The Special Counsel did not find any collusion and did not find any obstruction [note: the second part is not accurate]. Attorney General Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein further determined there was no obstruction. The findings of the Department of Justice are a total and complete exoneration [note: also not accurate] of the President of the United States,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

The First Lady didn’t accompany him back to Washington, staying behind in Florida with their 13-year-old son, Barron, who was out of school for spring break. Trump would join them there again following a rally in Grand Rapids on Thursday evening. “Obviously, she’s happy for him and relieved for him and her family, but she’s been pretty confident and a rock this whole time. But as always, she’s pretty stoic. That’s just who she is,” the second witness said.

On the plane back to Washington, D.C., on Sunday night, hours after getting the news, Trump fielded calls, telling the operator to “patch him through” or “patch her through,” every once in a while as he watched the news in his office. In each compartment of the aircraft, the TVs displayed a different network so the president and his entourage could absorb as much of the coverage as possible.

The White House official said the conversation onboard was a “rehashing” of the letter and everything they were seeing on the screens, but also of the media coverage over the past two years. “We all wanted to see how the other networks were talking about this vindication. And it was kind of stunning that so many people were sad and disappointed that any sitting president of the United States was not caught colluding and involved in a conspiracy with a foreign government. It was, it’s just one of those things you can’t wrap your head around.”

Back at the White House, where a few staffers had been preparing for the news all afternoon, the sense of relief was palpable. Before Barr’s letter, Russia was discussed among the White House staff far less than you’d assume. This was, in part, due to fears that any conversation involving the Mueller investigation would increase one’s own legal visibility. But now, it was all anybody wanted to yammer on about. “People were completely alleviated,” the senior White House official told New York. Before, there was a persistent fear of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time when bad news comes out,” the senior White House official said of planning an interview or an event, only to have an indictment handed down that day, overshadowing it entirely. Suddenly, there was a kind of freedom. “It would not be wrong to say there were bottles of Champagne in certain offices,” the person added.

Maybe that could explain Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders hamming it up for the cameras on the driveway on Monday afternoon, like Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in Chicago after they are let out of prison, performing onstage with glimmering machine guns. “We’re colluding!” they teased, hugging each other.

“Everybody wanted to take down the president,” a second senior White House official told me. I’d asked the official if the president would ever be able to move on from this, or if, instead of providing closure, the end of the investigation was merely the beginning of its never-ending relitigation. The president is, after all, still regularly talking about a Republican primary that started in 2015. “Well, you guys harp on this for two years, and then it happens and it’s like, ‘Oh! Are you gonna be able to let this go?’ I don’t mean you specifically, but the media in general, everybody waited and dug and searched and hoped every day for a new Russia story.”

This person added, “Everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, let’s just move on,’” recalling in particular a Democrat saying something to the effect of, “‘All right, well, we’ll just move to the next day and the next thing they’ve done wrong.’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re making it seem like all these things that you said were actually true, and they’re not true.’”

The president is not, in other words, the only one who might have trouble moving on —something that worries others around Trump not only about him, but about his like-minded staffers.

“We’re letting people have a week to say, ‘Investigate the investigators!’ Take the victory lap, everyone agrees. Spike the football,” the first senior White House official said. “But then we need to put this behind us. Let’s not relive this. Let’s not drag Andrew McCabe in front of a panel or something that goes on forever.” The senior official said this view was widely held inside the White House.

For this to be successful, the president — who is, after all, still reliving the events of the 2016 Republican primary and general election, a tale more than three years old at this point — would need to seal himself off in a cocoon and emerge another man.

But in all likelihood, the subject will resurrect itself over and over again. The “cooler heads” are preparing to go in their own direction as the “witch hunt” and “exoneration” [note: again, no] remain frequent topics of monologue. “The rest of the building and agencies should not follow suit on that if that’s the case,” the senior White House official said.

Trump Aides Fear He Is Overselling His ‘Exoneration’