The United States is managing crises with Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. A trade war in China is escalating with no end in sight. Major market indexes are swinging wildly. But for the duration of Mueller’s 10-minute address, work at the White House seemed to stop, as aides listened to a chief protagonist in what has been a consuming drama—and tried to figure out what his comments would mean for the president they serve.
“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said on the obstruction question—a notion that was made clear in the report, but seemed to pack more power coming from the special counsel himself. Afterward, reporters lined up outside Press Secretary Sarah Sanders’s office for a response. We were told the White House would be saying something and, until then, were asked to clear the hall.
Read: Mueller breaks his silence—without breaking protocol
If White House aides were transfixed by Mueller’s appearance, rest assured, the obsession comes from the top. No one has seemed more mesmerized by the Mueller probe than Trump himself. He has mentioned the special counsel by name in about 180 tweets spanning his presidency, including one he sent mere moments after Mueller finished speaking. That’s twice as much as he’s tweeted about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has sway over many of his other priorities, including whether he builds a border wall or overhauls the country’s immigration laws.
For months, Trump sought to discredit Mueller personally. He claimed that Mueller had a conflict of interest stemming from a dispute over membership fees at his golf club outside Washington, D.C. He accused him of assembling a team of “13 angry Democrats.” One day last month, after the report was released and he was especially incensed, he hit the caps-lock key and redid the math: He was the target of “18 VERY ANGRY Democrats.”
Mueller never hit back through the course of the investigation—and he didn’t this time, either. He dwelled more on Russia’s clear attempts to swing the elections and, as he has in the past, refused to deem Trump guilty of obstruction. And in what the administration official said was a welcome development for the White House, Mueller also made clear he has no burning desire to testify before Congress, suggesting that the report speaks for itself.
After Mueller left the stage at the Justice Department, the first official response came from Trump’s Twitter feed. His message was unusually restrained, though it came with a distinct twist. When Mueller’s report was released, Trump claimed the result was “complete and total exoneration”—an assertion that went beyond Mueller’s actual conclusion. Trump wasn’t so emphatic this time around: “There was insufficient evidence,” the president wrote, “and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent.” Afterward, he spoke privately with senior White House officials from the residence, asking them for their assessment of Mueller’s appearance.