Trump aides relieved, elated
— and out for payback
The president’s advisers and lawyers demand apologies
from Trump’s critics and call on Adam Schiff to resign.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
“I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the
American people an apology,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
By GABBY ORR, DANIEL LIPPMAN and CAITLIN OPRYSKO
A day after President Donald Trump was cleared of Russian election collusion, White House officials responded with a mixture of ecstatic relief — and plans for revenge.
While Trump insisted for months that he would be vindicated by special counsel Robert Mueller, some of his aides weren’t so sure. That made a Sunday summary of Mueller’s still-confidential report from Attorney General William Barr a huge exhale moment for many people around Trump.
But beneath the relief — which could be premature, given that the full details of Mueller’s findings remain unknown — is an undercurrent of rage at Trump’s accusers in the media and Democratic Party, whom Trump aides believe amplified wild charges about his links to Russia and his alleged efforts to obstruct justice.
“My phone is being lit up by current and former White House staff who were … elated and feeling vindicated,” a former White House official told POLITICO. Those messages ranged from expressions of gratitude “that this thing is over” to suggestions that “everyone at CNN should be fired.”
Democrats and media figures call such talk unfounded, arguing that while Mueller may not have found clear evidence of criminality by Trump, his formal report likely contains many details of improper conduct. Mueller’s probe also caused several Trump associates to be charged with or convicted of serious crimes and has spawned other major federal investigations still underway.
Amplifying the celebratory mood in the White House, however, was the Monday arrest of Michael Avenatti, the Los Angeles lawyer who until recently represented the porn star Stormy Daniels, who has accused Trump of buying her silence about an affair between them. Federal prosecutors in two states charged Avenatti — who has vituperatively attacked Trump on television and Twitter — with extortion and bank fraud in unrelated matters.
“Avenatti really capped it off,” said a current White House official.
Looking to seize one of the most advantageous moments of Trump’s presidency to date, White House communications aides blanketed the airwaves Monday with surrogates and top aides who crowed over Barr’s letter to Congress reporting that Mueller did not find evidence that Trump engaged in an election-influencing conspiracy with the Russian government, and that there was insufficient evidence to find that he obstructed justice.
The media blitz included morning show appearances by senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Trump’s personal lawyers Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who gives infrequent media interviews, was scheduled to appear on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show Monday night.
Trump himself has shown relative restraint, posting just one tweet Monday morning related to the report: a Fox News clip mocking House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). But in brief remarks to reporters at the White House, Trump argued that a reckoning should come for people responsible the Russia investigation.
“There are a lot of people out there who have done some very, very evil things,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “I would say treasonous things against our country. Hopefully, people that have done such harm to our country — we have gone through a period of really bad things happening — those people will certainly be looked at. I've been looking at them for a long time, and I'm saying, ‘Why haven't they been looked at? They lied to Congress.’ Many of them. You know who they are. They have done so many evil things.”
Meanwhile, White House aides reported to work Monday with a spring in their step. Some who were never fully convinced Trump would escape criminal charges told colleagues they were finally at ease working for this president, according to a person involved in one such conversation. One Trump aide described a “collective sigh of relief” among a small group of officials who regularly questioned the president’s innocence, some of whom had spent the weekend still wondering whether the Mueller report would offer up a measure of vindication.
"People are happier. How could you not? To be vindicated, to be exonerated, to have all these pundits who have breathlessly said for two years 'Oh, you guys are going to jail, you guys are about to be caught for this, that and the other,' — just to be blatantly proven wrong is of course a good feeling," said a second White House official.
At the same time, Trump aides sought to use the special counsel’s conclusions to bludgeon Democrats.
Trump’s political opponents “owe America an apology” for their “haranguing and harassing” of the president and his inner circle, Conway told Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” early Monday morning. Trump aides and allies have pointed fingers at numerous Democratic figures they believe should be held accountable or even investigated for what they call Mueller’s dead-end probe, including Schiff and even President Barack Obama himself.
But one person seems to be off-limits from such criticism: Robert Mueller. Even though Trump has spent many months casting the former FBI director as leading an angry “witch hunt,” aides touting his reported findings are now treating him with new respect.
Conway, for instance, described Mueller’s investigation as a waste of time while taking care not to criticize its leader. And when asked at the White House on Monday whether Mueller conducted himself honorably, Trump told reporters: “Yes, he did.”
With the special counsel probe behind them, White House officials and aides involved in the president’s reelection effort said they expect new voters to warm to Trump — especially as he pursues items on his agenda that were tabled while the Russia probe remained ongoing.
“If we were able to accomplish this much in two years under this phony cloud, then surely there’s optimism that we can accomplish even more in the next two years,” said another current White House official.
One former White House official said that the end of the Russia probe — even amid other serious ongoing investigations related to Trump — is “like seeing the sun if you’re in Alaska at the dead of winter. You almost just celebrate it.”
One party on Capitol Hill has been celebrating Mueller’s bombshell conclusion.
Not only did the special counsel’s report move the prospect of impeachment to the back burner, but it also handed the president and congressional Republicans a huge gift heading into 2020 — an important cycle as they aim to recover from the drubbing that wiped out their House majority last fall.
Republicans, who had been miserable in the minority, are gleeful over the news, firing off gloating tweets, holding news conferences and demanding that Democrats apologize for pursuing and promoting allegations of collusion.
“Should have had a football here, so I can spike it!” Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) quipped at the start of a briefing with reporters on Monday.
Some members of the GOP are even going on offense. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for instance, has called for Schiff to resign or give up his gavel, while Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced that he would investigate whether the Justice Department and FBI influenced the 2016 election to try to stop Trump.
Trump’s campaign has also been hard at work, seeking to capitalize on Mueller’s findings in a way that boosts the president’s reelection effort and underscores some of his messaging.
In a memo sent to TV producers on Monday, Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for Trump’s 2020 operation, highlighted a list of Democrats who he said “made outlandish, false claims,” and suggested that they shouldn’t be booked on TV anymore. The Trump campaign has long decried television coverage of the Russia probe, arguing that most networks blew the investigation out of proportion and treated the president as if he was guilty until proven innocent.
To be sure, Trump is still facing threats on multiple fronts. The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York is investigating Trump’s inaugural committee and potential campaign finance violations. No one has seen the underlying contents of Mueller’s report. And the special counsel did not answer the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, which Democrats have vowed to investigate on their own.
But for Trump and Republicans, the end of the two-year Russia probe was a huge weight off all their shoulders. And for many members of the GOP, it looks like their political gamble — choosing to defend Trump amid an ever-expanding number of investigations — may have paid off.
While Mueller found no collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts to influence the election, Barr wrote that the investigation was less conclusive when it came to the question of whether Trump sought to interfere in the probe. Mueller left the question up to DOJ, where Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove obstruction.
Still, Barr said, “the Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,’” a portion of the letter Democrats have seized on.
Sanders on Monday took issue with the idea that Barr’s letter didn’t completely clear the president of wrongdoing, arguing in an interview on NBC’s “The Today Show” that Barr did so by declining to pursue the obstruction issue after it was left up to him by Mueller.
“It's very hard to obstruct something when there was no crime,” she added.
Sanders also appearing affronted when asked whether Trump should apologize for his past verbal assaults on Mueller.
“Are you kidding?” she replied, saying that pundits and Democrats “have called the president an agent of a foreign government … an accusation equal to treason, which is punishable by death in this country.”
“I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and they owe the American people an apology,” she continued. “They wasted two years and created a massive disruption and distraction from things that people — that impact everyone's day-to-day life.”
Sanders and Giuliani also expressed surprise at a lack of contriteness coming from the president’s critics, rebuking the “breathless” coverage of the Russia investigation over the past two years.
“You would think they would have the decency to say I was wrong. I made a mistake. Even if they want to move on now to this other stuff they are going to look at and just embarrass themselves, at least stop and say I was wrong,” Giuliani argued in an interview on “Fox & Friends.”
Graham, one of Trump’s top allies on Capitol Hill and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged Monday to open an investigation into what was going on behind the scenes in the Justice Department leading up to the 2016 election.
The investigation would look into “whether those who believed that the FBI and the Department of Justice were playing politics, that they wanted Clinton to win and Trump to lose, that somebody can satisfy them,” Graham said in a press conference. “By any reasonable standard, Mr. Mueller thoroughly investigated the Trump campaign. You cannot say that about the other side of the story.”
While Trump reiterated his calls for making Mueller’s entire report public, he and his aides walked back those comments a bit Monday, appearing largely deferential to Barr.
Last week, Trump told reporters that Barr should just “let it come out.” On Monday, he told reporters “it wouldn’t bother me at all” if the entire report was released, but added that “it’s up to the attorney general.”
Sekulow also told “Morning Joe” that Trump would defer to the attorney general on the report’s full release, and though he suggested Barr will move to do so, he noted that Barr will likely seek to redact sensitive grand jury or national security information.
“There's a process and steps that have to go forward, but I suspect he'll make as much of it public as possible, and it will be sooner rather than later,” Sekulow said.
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.