Mueller report paints portrait of culture of chaos at the White House
WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump met with advisers in the Oval Office in May 2017 to discuss replacements for the FBI director he had just fired, Attorney General Jeff Sessions slipped out of the room to take a call.
When he came back, he gave Trump bad news: Robert Mueller had just been appointed as a special counsel to take over the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and any actions by the president to impede it.
Trump slumped in his chair. “Oh, my God,” he said. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.”
It has not been the end of his presidency, but it has come to consume it. Although the resulting two-year investigation ended without charges against Trump, Mueller’s report painted a damning portrait of a White House dominated by a president desperate to thwart the inquiry only to be restrained by aides equally desperate to thwart his orders.
The White House that emerges from more than 400 pages of Mueller’s report is a hotbed of conflict infused by a culture of dishonesty — defined by a president who lies to the public and his own staff, then tries to get his aides to lie for him. Trump repeatedly threatened to fire lieutenants who did not carry out his wishes while they repeatedly threatened to resign rather than cross lines of propriety or law.
At one juncture after another, Trump made his troubles worse, giving in to anger and grievance and lashing out in ways that turned advisers into witnesses against him. He was saved from an accusation of obstruction of justice, the report makes clear, in part because aides saw danger and stopped him from following his own instincts. Based on contemporaneous notes, emails, texts and FBI interviews, the report draws out scene after scene of a White House on the edge.
At one point, Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, said the president’s attacks on his own attorney general meant that he had “DOJ by the throat.” At another, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, complained to Priebus that the president was trying to get him to “do crazy shit.” Trump was equally unhappy with McGahn, calling him a “lying bastard.”
‘We’ll Take Care of You’
From its first days, Trump’s presidency struggled to contain the threat stemming from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and suspicions about his team’s contacts with Moscow.
Just weeks after taking office, Trump pushed out his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who lied to the FBI about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
But Trump hugged Flynn, telling him: “We’ll give you a good recommendation. You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you.”
Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, mistakenly assumed that getting rid of Flynn would derail the investigation then being led by James Comey, the FBI director. During lunch with Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, Flynn called, and Kushner spoke with him.
“The president cares about you,” Kushner told Flynn. “I’ll get the president to send out a positive tweet about you later.”
Trump was worried about Comey, too. During the lunch, he asked Christie to call Comey, a friend. “Tell him he’s part of the team,” Trump instructed.