Inside Trump’s Strategy to Use Mueller on the Campaign Trail

Republican lawmakers and strategists fear that the president would be fixating on the wrong message at the wrong time.


Updated on March 28 at 6:45 p.m. ET

It’s been just four days since the president learned that Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion, but Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s lawyer, is no longer in the mood to celebrate. He’s thrilled about the outcome, of course, as is his client. Trump told the former New York mayor that “he’s happier than he thought he would be.” But Giuliani, sipping a Diet Coke on Wednesday morning at the Trump Hotel, said it’s time to focus on the next mission: Find out who started all this—and why.

“We’re now trying to prove who did it,” Giuliani said. “The premise is, somebody had to have started the ‘He colluded with the Russians’” narrative. (Never mind that Trump’s posture toward the Kremlin has long been strange.) Asked whether the president himself wants an investigation to examine this question, Giuliani said, “Goddamn right he [does]. This is not ‘Oh, gee, it’s over, let’s forget about it.’”

A reliable barometer of Trump’s moods, Giuliani offered a glimpse into the future. Mueller might be done with his investigation, but Trump and company are loath to let it drop. They want to capitalize on the president escaping criminal charges and make Mueller’s findings a core piece of 2020 campaign messaging. In their view, Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary of the report is a gift that vindicates Trump, undercuts Democratic investigations, and repudiates critical news coverage. There’s time enough to talk policy on the campaign trail. Team Trump first wants to showcase the special counsel’s conclusions: According to Barr, Mueller reported no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, and he couldn’t make a judgment on obstruction of justice. Even though the probe has led to 215 criminal charges and five prison sentences, Trump and his allies have framed Mueller’s findings as total exoneration.

Yet many Republican lawmakers and strategists fear that Trump would be fixating on the wrong message at the wrong time. They worry that Trump risks repeating the same strategic blunder he made in the midterm elections, which culminated in Republicans losing control of the House. Rather than spotlight economic gains rung up on his watch, the president might wind up dwelling on collateral issues of scant interest to voters. In the midterms, Trump locked onto migrant caravans making their way north from Mexico, warning of a national-security threat that never materialized, and ultimately made little mention of the bread-and-butter issues that some strategists believe would have bolstered his party’s odds for winning.

Tensions over Trump’s campaign message underscore a split within the Republican Party that’s existed since the day he announced his candidacy for president in 2015. Then and now, he’s trampled long-held convictions about how a presidential candidate should behave, relying on his own instincts and feel for the voters’ mood, to the dismay of mainstream GOP figures. Though the establishment and Trump wings of the GOP have joined forces since the 2016 campaign, the next election will test their alliance anew, with the Mueller report emerging as an early flash point.

Trump allies see Barr’s letter as a kind of Swiss Army knife—a tool useful in all kinds of situations. Not only is it exculpatory, they say, but it also implicitly rebukes the press for its coverage of the Russia investigation, inoculating Trump from any future scandal that reporters might unearth. According to a source familiar with internal discussions at the Republican National Committee and the pro-Trump super PAC America First, both organizations are “geared up for any nonsense to come.”

They’re already prepared to attack reporters. “Any reporter who tries that will be hit with 30-second spots of all their ridiculous claims about collusion,” said the source, who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity to describe private conversations. “Their tweets have all been screencapped. It’s all ready to go.” (“It's the same thing we've been doing the last two years. We're going to hold the media accountable when we see fit,” an RNC official clarified, adding that this would include digital clips shared on social media.)

Earlier this week, Trump’s campaign previewed the in-your-face tactics they have in mind. A campaign official sent a letter to TV producers cautioning them against booking certain guests who had alleged that Trump colluded with Russia, including Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.

“It’s not hard to figure where we’re going to go with this,” a current campaign official told The Atlantic. “We’re still in victory-lap mode, but it will turn into a message that [Democrats] will say or do anything to stop us from making America great again, including making up lies about the president and ruining a lot of people’s lives.”

White House officials suggested that the president has no plans to move on from the report because Democrats aren’t moving on. Instead, “they are doubling and tripling down,” says the White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.

At some level, letting go would be out of character. From the first, Trump has personalized the presidency. He still obsesses over the crowd size at his inauguration, along with perceived betrayals from Senator John McCain of Arizona, who died last summer. The Mueller investigation shadowed Trump for nearly two years. Now that it’s over, he is indulging in a bit of triumphalism.

But the president’s allies on Capitol Hill take a more clinical view. Having lost their House majority in 2018, they’re not persuaded that the Mueller report is the path back to power. “We have to be able to pivot to something,” one House Republican leadership aide told The Atlantic. “You can certainly use the findings to shine a light on any kind of frivolous investigations, but at the same time, we have to start thinking about moving on.”

Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a close Trump ally, suggested that focusing on the press in particular would be unproductive. “Calling on the media to apologize is not something that most people would advocate for, as much as hitting the remote and changing to a different channel,” Meadows said.

No less than the leadership of a pro-Trump political-action committee is ready for a new script. “What we’re gonna try to do is get things back on the economic front—I don’t think we want to stay in the mud slopping for another year,” says Ed Rollins, the lead strategist of the Great America PAC. “I hope he can stay focused on his agenda, keep things positive.”

In any event, fresh developments could keep the Mueller probe alive. Barr’s letter isn’t the last word on the subject. Mueller’s report clocked in at more than 300 pages, The New York Times reported Thursday, raising the possibility that Trump’s handpicked attorney general elided more troubling conduct on the president’s part. Congressional Democrats are demanding to see the full report, raising the prospect of a standoff with the Justice Department. But should more damaging material come out, Trump’s legal team says they have a lengthy rebuttal at the ready.

Trump’s lawyers had drafted a counter-report in preparation for Mueller’s findings. Coming in at nearly 90 pages, it was kept locked in a safe in the Trump attorney Jay Sekulow’s office, ready to be released if the Mueller report found that Trump colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.

Throughout Mueller’s investigation, Trump’s lawyers were far more concerned about the obstruction part of the inquiry than the collusion question. Giuliani summarized parts of their defense in the counter-report to The Atlantic. If Mueller wrote that Trump obstructed justice after allegedly telling then–FBI Director James Comey to “let go” of his inquiry into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump’s lawyers would respond by laying out a timeline that suggests Comey inexplicably sat on the information. Comey said the conversation with Trump took place in February, but he didn’t raise alarm until May, Trump’s lawyers note. “If I’m the director of the FBI, and you call me in, and you are obstructing my investigation, I know it right away,” Giuliani said. “How can he decide … three months later, that this is obstruction?”

Trump’s lawyers could still put out some of the counter-report if, in the coming weeks, the Justice Department turns over more material from Mueller’s findings that suggests malfeasance on Trump’s part. Indeed, Mueller’s indecision on obstruction leaves many questions unanswered, which Trump’s team finds frustrating. “It’s kind of absurd that he couldn’t decide,” Giuliani said. “‘Difficult issues of law and fact’—that’s what you’re there for, pal! It’s like saying, ‘Well, I’m a brain surgeon, but I’m not gonna operate because this is a difficult brain situation.’”

In the coming weeks and months, the president will not only press for answers on how the investigation began, Giuliani said, but he’ll also potentially consider pardoning its casualties: Though “he hasn’t decided” if he wants to take that step, “that doesn’t mean down the road he’s given up the power to do it.

“I mean, are there cases that are worthy of it? Probably. People have been pardoned for far worse,” he continued. “Flynn is a very sympathetic case, and in some ways [the former Trump campaign chairman Paul] Manafort is, because he’s already spent a year in jail.”

Those emotions are what will likely motivate Trump moving forward: a conviction that he and his allies were victims of a devastating miscarriage of justice. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s show on Wednesday evening, the president made clear that the nation should remain riveted to all things Russia, saying that “this was an attempted takeover of our government, of our country.” And his biggest fans affirmed that they have no intention of letting him let go. As Hannity put it, “The deep state’s day of reckoning has now come.”