Who’s Afraid of the Mueller Report?
Trump aides are serenely confident that the special counsel’s fine print won’t hurt the boss.
On Thursday, Robert Mueller’s highly anticipated 400-page report on the Russia investigation is slated to drop. But as far as Donald Trump and his associates are concerned, it will be just another weekday. Even as speculation has built that Team Mueller was unsatisfied with Attorney General Bill Barr’s summary of the report, Trump allies remain confident—serene, even—in their belief that the fuller version will only help their case ahead of 2020.
To them, Mueller’s top-line finding of “no collusion” was the only finding that mattered on March 24, when Barr released his summary, and will be the only finding that matters on Thursday and beyond. According to Barr, Mueller was unable to reach a conclusion on obstruction one way or the other, meaning it’s likely that the full report could bring to bear some unsavory details about Trump’s conduct in office. But even that prospect doesn’t worry those close to the president, who say that when it comes to which party might benefit the most from Mueller’s findings in the next presidential election, they’ve already won.
Memories are short, say Trump allies, who are betting that when the general-election campaign rolls around, the Mueller report may well seem either just another murky tale in a multiyear string of controversies—the travel ban, the government shutdown, the immigration fights—or, better yet, evidence of how Washington “elites,” from Democrats to the media, have tried but failed to take down the president.
“This is going to be in the rearview mirror for most every American. The people who like the president like him warts and all. The ones who don’t like the president? Guess what: The Mueller report is just going to reinforce their disliking the president,” Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director in 2017, told us. “You know how quickly we move in the news cycle now. Six months from now, I don’t see this being anything other than a distant memory.”
White House officials are also at ease. They are now convinced, for perhaps the first time in the past two years, that Mueller’s investigation poses no political or legal threat to their boss’s job security, not to mention their own. “I can’t imagine a situation where something is revealed in the report that significantly affects the two central conclusions that were reached on collusion and obstruction,” one senior Trump-administration official said. “It’s unlikely that this will change a single vote in 2020 either way.”
This isn’t to say that administration officials will ignore the report. White House lawyers and Trump’s outside legal team plan to mine it carefully as soon as it lands, with one group focused on the part dealing with obstruction of justice, another on collusion. They will pay special attention to Mueller’s account of why he couldn’t reach a conclusion on obstruction, the administration official said. That’s one of the most tantalizing questions surrounding Mueller’s report. Should House Democrats try to impeach Trump, they would presumably marshal whatever evidence Mueller gathered on obstruction. If Mueller concluded that the evidence wasn’t sufficiently compelling, that could undercut the impeachment drive.
As Team Trump pores over the report, surprises may be few. One of the witnesses who spent hours talking to prosecutors was Donald McGahn, the former White House counsel. McGahn was a central figure in any number of White House dramas, and he and the president weren’t close. News reports show that McGahn threatened to resign rather than carry out Trump’s directive to fire Mueller.
But a person familiar with the Trump legal team’s thinking said the attorneys have been debriefed on McGahn’s testimony and aren’t particularly worried about what he told Mueller.
Emmet Flood, a White House attorney, will take the lead in giving Trump details of the report, though all the lawyers are on notice that they might be summoned to discuss the details with the president “as needed,” the administration official said. And Trump’s outside lawyers—Jay Sekulow, Rudy Giuliani, and others—will quickly put together a reaction for reporters. Depending on how damaging the report is, they might also release all or parts of a written rebuttal they’ve been preparing since long before Mueller’s team ended its investigation.
“We know that the plane landed safely, with no injuries and no damage to the aircraft,” Sekulow told us. “Now we’ll find out if the landing was really smooth or a little bumpy.”
Yet no matter what the report reveals, even Democrats anticipate the narrative that emerged from Barr’s summary—that Mueller cleared Trump of wrongdoing—will remain largely fixed. (Indeed, polling shows that Barr’s summary may have given Trump a lift. A Gallup survey begun the week after Barr’s report came out showed Trump’s approval rating at 45 percent—up six points since March.) According to one top Democratic operative, the left’s response to the full report is in many ways as predictable as the right’s. “I think it will be heavily redacted … but there will be enough to cast doubt on Barr’s synopsis,” this person said. “So then Democrats will go on to fight to get the full report, and yada yada yada.”
So for all the attention the Mueller report has drawn, its release won’t change the basic calculus: Republicans and Democrats are entrenched in the same positions.
Still, some Democratic strategists believe that their party shouldn’t fight to keep the issue alive. As the Democratic primary kicks into gear, they say candidates shouldn’t focus too heavily on the report at the expense of issues that Americans may feel are more important to their own lives.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, said that Democrats would be smart to follow a two-track approach to the Mueller report. Oversight committees should aggressively chase down an unredacted report that paints the fullest possible picture of Trump’s actions, he said. But Democratic presidential candidates—and others on the ballot—shouldn’t spend their time “litigating the finer points of the Mueller report,” he said. “They’d be better served positioning themselves around an affirmative agenda they’d prioritize if they get to Washington.”
Hundreds of pages long, the report will inevitably offer fresh insights into how Trump operates behind the scenes. Barr hinted that the press hasn’t unearthed all of what he called “obstruction-of-justice concerns” that Mueller examined, and that the report shows other instances of questionable behavior on Trump’s part.
Again, though, Trump allies believe that public impressions of the report have already hardened. If the report shows Trump acting in boorish ways that don’t rise to the level of criminal conduct, voters will be unmoved, they said.
“Will there be some evidence that doesn’t reflect well on the president or members of his staff? I think that’s very likely,” Scaramucci said. “I don’t think you get a 400-page report produced in Washington where every paragraph holds the person being looked at in pristine, high regard.”