They had hours of advance notice, but White House aides still seemed stunned by the televised spectacle that was about to unfold. After keeping a disciplined silence for more than two years, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was about to speak about an investigation that posed a mortal threat to Donald Trump’s presidency.
What would he say? No one inside the building seemed to know exactly, though they insisted they had not tried to block him from speaking. They expected he would thank a legal team that Trump has repeatedly scorned. But the real question was how far Mueller would go in this rarest of public appearances. Would he stay within “the four corners” of his 448-page report, as one senior administration official put it? Or would he “editorialize,” as the official said, and reveal his thinking about whether Trump had obstructed justice as the inquiry played out?
When the address began at 11 a.m., the West Wing fell silent, save for Mueller’s low monotone coming from TVs in the press area and from behind thick closed doors. Hallways were empty. The main door to the Oval Office was shut, with a lone agent sitting sentry outside. Trump watched the appearance one floor up, from the White House residence.
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.
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.
Later in the afternoon, after Sanders spoke to Fox News from the cameras set up outside the White House, she took questions from the press in the driveway, in one of the informal gaggles that have essentially taken the place of routine briefings. Sanders was engulfed by reporters who formed nearly a complete circle around her, recorders, cameras, and microphones extended from sweat-soaked arms. Veteran White House journalists said they can’t recall ever seeing a swarm of press that large in the driveway. In the 90-degree heat, a reporter asked whether the White House was holding meetings to prepare for impeachment proceedings in Congress.
“I’m not going to get into internal processes,” Sanders said. “I’m just saying we’re always prepared and we’re going to move forward doing what we think is important and focus on things that actually help people.”
Sanders had another message, too: In a tweet sent shortly before the gaggle, she said that Mueller is “moving on with his life, and everyone else should do the same.”
Trump retweeted the statement. But he’ll likely be the first to ignore that advice.