Trump’s Guardrails Are Gone

The president’s more pliant senior advisers might end up indulging his ultimately self-sabotaging behavior.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty

One Saturday in June 2017, President Donald Trump called Don McGahn twice at home. The president ordered the White House counsel to fire Robert Mueller, who at that point had been leading the Russia probe for one month. “You gotta do this,” Trump told him. “You gotta call Rod.” In his second call, Trump told McGahn, “Call me back when you do it.”

The special counsel’s report—released on Thursday to the public—goes on to reveal that McGahn refused to call then–Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and direct him to fire Mueller. Instead, McGahn called then–Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and then chief strategist Steve Bannon to let them know that he was resigning, and that the president had asked him to “do crazy shit.” But Priebus and Bannon persuaded him to stick around. McGahn relented. The president never brought up the question again—and a potentially criminal act of obstruction of justice was narrowly averted.

Throughout Mueller’s 448-page report are cases of White House aides resisting Trump’s directives, sparing him even more legal and political peril. Aides would stand up to Trump and refuse to carry out certain orders, or they’d simply ignore him, often in the hope that he’d forget the demand. In doing so, they protected Trump from his own worst instincts and potentially a more damning conclusion from Mueller’s team of prosecutors. Mueller himself noted the irony in a passage centering on the obstruction-of-justice investigation: “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” he wrote.

All the aides who defied Trump have long since departed. Gone, too, are some of the guardrails they erected to keep Trump out of trouble. In their absence, Trump has installed more pliant senior advisers, meaning the nation could see more of the ill-considered and ultimately self-sabotaging behavior that Mueller chronicled in his nearly two-year investigation.

Mueller wasn’t about to charge Trump with a crime, it turns out. But what’s clear from the report is that had White House aides not thwarted Trump, the picture would look worse, and impeachment might seem a more viable path.

It’s doubtful he sees it that way. Not one for introspection, Trump values loyalty and appreciates flattery. Unwelcome truths are harder for him to absorb.

One of the odder stories of Trump’s presidency is how his impression of Jeff Sessions darkened. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 campaign, and supplied some of the aides who gave heft to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump rewarded Sessions by naming him attorney general. But he turned on Sessions—humiliating him with a string of Twitter posts—once the attorney general relinquished command of the Russia investigation and delegated the role to Rosenstein.

Trump was furious about the appointment of a special counsel in May 2017. Told about it by Sessions, Trump said, “This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked,” the report shows.

Trump blamed Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation because of a conflict of interest arising from his work on Trump’s campaign.

Trump later called Sessions at home and asked him to “unrecuse” himself. He wanted Sessions back in charge so that he could investigate the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and also resume control of the Russia investigation.

Sessions did not respond, the report shows, but neither did he comply and reverse his recusal.

In an Oval Office meeting in December 2017, Trump again pressed Sessions to reverse himself. “You’d be a hero,” Trump said.

Sessions never relented; he stayed out of the Russia probe to the end. Evaluating Trump’s actions, Mueller wrote in the report that “a reasonable inference … is that the President believed that an unrecused Attorney General would play a protective role and could shield the President from the ongoing Russia investigation.”

Unhappy about Sessions, Trump at one point asked a top aide, Robert Porter, to approach Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand and ask her whether she might take over the Justice Department and head the Russia investigation. Porter didn’t go along; he said he was “uncomfortable with the task,” the report shows. Porter believed Trump was looking to install someone at the department who would fire Mueller or end the Russia probe—the same actions Sessions wouldn’t take. Not wanting to be part of such a “chain of events,” Porter never spoke to Brand. And so whatever Trump had in mind for her never came to pass.

Other moves to dump Sessions also collapsed, because of the staff’s reluctance to follow through.

Aboard Marine One in July 2017, Trump told Priebus that he needed to get Sessions’s resignation “immediately.”

Priebus replied that it was a bad idea and that both Congress and the Justice Department would balk. He privately talked it over with McGahn, and they both said they would quit rather than carry out an order to fire Sessions.

Discussing the attorney general’s fate later in the day, Priebus told the president it would be a “calamity” to lose Sessions because it would trigger a series of high-level resignations at the Justice Department. After a few days, Trump cooled off and agreed to let Sessions remain for the time being.

But Trump wasn’t satisfied. And so Trump has given his top staff a makeover, replacing more independent-minded aides with acolytes. Priebus was ousted in July 2017 after just six months on the job. Porter departed in February 2018 amid a controversy over domestic-abuse allegations. McGahn left last summer.

After Sessions was fired last fall, Trump gave the attorney-general job to William Barr, who has appeared more attentive to Trump’s wishes and political needs. In his news conference Thursday before the report was released, Barr parroted Trump’s talking point that there was “no collusion” with Russia. He also took pains to explain Trump’s behavior, invoking a favorite target: the press.

Barr said, “There was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.”

“Barr comes across more as a loyal foot soldier in Trump’s army than an independent attorney general,” said Richard Hasen, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law.

Not trusting the redactions Barr made, Democrats plan to subpoena the complete Mueller report. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, told reporters Thursday that Mueller’s report amounted to a “road map” to investigate whether Trump obstructed justice. He wants Mueller to testify before his panel.

Trump’s latest chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is a former conservative congressman from South Carolina who has made clear he isn’t about to police the West Wing. “You’re all adults,” he told the White House staff, according to a New York Times report. “You all have relationships with him.”

For secretary of state, Trump last year tapped Mike Pompeo, a loyalist whom the president has welcomed into his inner circle.

Illustrating the relentless demands Trump made on aides to do his bidding, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a December interview in which he seemed to foreshadow Mueller’s findings: “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”