For more than two years, Donald Trump has wanted the investigation into allegations of collusion with Russia to go away. Now that it has, the President isn’t prepared to let go.
Even as the specter of Robert Mueller’s probe has vanished, Trump plans to turn the investigation, Democrats’ constant accusations of wrongdoing and the media’s coverage of it all into a new foil, half a dozen advisers and aides said. He has already signaled he’ll weaponize the results, targeting those who ordered the investigation and Democrats he says waged political warfare.
The counteroffensive has some advisers concerned the President could overstep, diminishing a clear victory by sinking back into old grudges or calling for extreme steps to punish those he views as foes.
The conclusion of Mueller’s investigation without evidence of collusion could present an opportunity to move past a dark period and toward a sunnier, more disciplined presidency — an outcome some advisers have wished for in private.
Maybe for a different President.
Instead, Trump appears poised to relive the first two years of his presidency and the “witch hunt” investigation that clouded it, this time through the lens of personal and political vindication. His public comments since his attorney general summarized the report for Congress on Sunday have all carried the threat of payback — for Democrats who accused him of stealing his office and the media that he says fanned the flames — and offered a preview of his rhetoric on the 2020 campaign trail.
“There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things. Very bad things. I would say treasonous things against our country,” a furious Trump said Monday in the Oval Office, where he was meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We’ve gone through a period of really bad things happening. Those people will certainly be looked at.”
There is no indication so far that Trump is planning to order the counter-investigation he has floated, but as he prepares to wage a tough battle for re-election, the President and his campaign advisers see the report’s conclusions as political gold, even if it means keeping the lingering questions of Russian election interference and legal wrongdoing in the political bloodstream for years to come.
Just as Trump embarked on a victory tour in the months after the 2016 election, reliving the greatest hits and assailing those who said he could never win, his upcoming rallies are likely to resemble a victory lap centered on the Mueller probe — one that could stretch through November 2020.
The result will likely be an amplifying of the President’s biting criticism of Democrats and the media, attack lines that have consistently been effective fodder to rev up his political base.
One Trump adviser who speaks to the President regularly told CNN’s Jim Acosta to expect Trump and his team to “slam and shame the media” over Mueller’s conclusions in the Russia investigation.
Even as the President on Sunday referred to the investigation as an “illegal takedown that failed,” sources close to the President said they expect him to focus less on Mueller and more on the exonerating conclusions of the investigation and on assailing Democrats and the media.
Hitting the trail
The first display of this post-Mueller messaging will come on Thursday, when the President rallies his supporters in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I think it’s gonna look like probably the second-most exciting Trump event, following the election night win in 2016,” said Jason Miller, a top communications adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “This is a cloud that has hung over the presidency in the first two years of it. Now that cloud has been lifted — and not just lifted, but in such complete and convincing terms.”
Those around the President expect him to turn the findings of the Mueller investigation — at least those revealed in Attorney General Bill Barr’s letter — into a political cudgel that he will use to ramp up his rhetoric assailing Democrats and the media to new heights, equating the punditry and speculation about the investigation with reporting about the investigation that did not predict an outcome either way.
The President’s campaign has already begun to blast out a series of fundraising emails centered on the investigation. And on Monday, the campaign’s communications director sent an email to TV news producers suggesting several Democratic lawmakers and a former CIA director should no longer be considered credible guests given their allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
That messaging is unlikely to abate and could ultimately prove as central to Trump’s 2020 messaging as his allegations of wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton were in 2016.
“The fact that the entirety of the Democrat party through the megaphone of the national media spent every waking moment of the last two years screaming about Russian collusion is absolutely going to be an issue,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said of the 2020 campaign. “We’ve been hearing these charges for two solid years. I think you might hear a little bit about the fact that all of it is untrue.”
The rhetoric, though, will not be enough for some of the President’s supporters, who want him to go beyond the rhetoric and move to action — raising the specter of counter-investigations.
“I believe that we need to investigate the investigators,” said David Bossie, the President’s former deputy campaign manager and an informal adviser. “I think that there needs to be an accounting. People need to be held responsible for what they have done to this country for the last two years. I am not ready to move past that. I think that’s a very important element of what we need to do.”
‘How does he mess this up?’
But other allies of the President are already beginning to voice caution. Several privately worry that — despite the report being good news for Trump that could fortify him ahead of the last 22 months of his term — he will find a way to dampen the positive coverage.
One former associate joked Sunday after Barr released Mueller’s key findings, “Now how does he mess this up?”
These supporters of Trump say they hope the President moves on and shifts his focus to his accomplishments in office and the economic growth that could be a central claim to a second term.
“I’m hoping now that we’ve moved beyond this investigation and he is not being personally accused of colluding with a hostile foreign power, which I think clearly there was no collusion, and at some point we need to accept that and move on,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a freshman Republican from Florida, on CNN. “I’m hoping that tone and rhetoric will change.”
Inside the White House, as feelings of elation at Mueller’s findings eased, some advisers expressed a private desire for Trump to attempt a more traditional presidency, one focused on sober policymaking instead of chaotic attempts to change the narrative.
That includes a focus on securing a trade deal with China — an outcome Trump is eager to achieve, believing it could boost the stock market and, by turn, his political prospects. Aides are also eyeing a long-delayed infrastructure push and steps to lower drug prices, both areas seen as ripe for bipartisan cooperation. He’s also expected to embark on several foreign trips this spring.
But Democrats have made clear they plan to pursue their investigations into the Trump administration and there is little to indicate Trump will adopt a more statesmanlike mien. His behavior over the past several weeks has not demonstrated a President intent on restoring order to his agenda.
Last week was dominated by his attacks on the late revered Sen. John McCain, a feud that drew widespread condemnation and distracted from his intended messaging about a resurgence of manufacturing in the heartland.
At the end of the week, the administration’s foreign policy apparatus appeared in disarray when Trump abruptly tweeted he was reversing new sanctions on North Korea. It took hours for officials to clarify what Trump was talking about, which turned out to be still-unannounced measures in the works at the Treasury Department.
Going forward, it’s not clear Trump will stick to any singular messaging strategy, particularly as Democrats continue to agitate for access to the full Mueller report and mount their own investigations in Congress.
Amid his victory lap, Trump is slated to host more than a dozen congressional Republicans at the White House on Tuesday afternoon for a meeting on the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, the pact aides describe as his highest legislative priority heading into the summer.
Although some White House officials say trade deals with China and the country’s North American neighbors will rank among the most important items on Trump’s agenda in the weeks ahead, the President has shown few signs of an impending pivot.
In talking points sent to surrogates on Sunday evening, the White House listed the passage of Trump’s reworked agreement with Canada and Mexico as an immediate area of focus in the wake of Mueller’s report.
“Now that the investigation has been concluded, it is time to move forward, passing USMCA, building new infrastructure, and lowering drug prices,” the White House wrote in the talking points.
But even the relatively calm domain of trade could turn contentious on Capitol Hill.
A White House official said the team is also prepared for the possibility that Democrats will unite against the deal to deny Trump the political “win.” Democratic lawmakers could face even greater pressure not to cooperate with Trump while he’s berating them for supporting the Russia investigation.