Donald Trump’s ardent defenders had a new line of defense after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s hotly anticipated report came out on Thursday, detailing the president’s repeated attempts to interfere in the probe.
A whole lot of lines, actually.
The report still exonerated the president, they stressed, but it was also laden with errors, if not outright lies—particularly the parts about estranged Trump ex-fixer Michael Cohen. And even if those claims were correct, that wouldn’t matter, since he never actually managed to obstruct anything—and even if he had obstructed something, he would have been well within his rights. Oh, and in the end, it was all Barack Obama’s fault.
Though Mueller ultimately punted on answering that question, his 400-plus-page report detailed 10 episodes in which the president appeared to meddle with the Mueller’s probe. And though the report noted it “did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government,” investigators did establish “multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government.”
But prominent members of Team Trump shrugged that off on Thursday. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called it “the best day since he got elected.” Not too far from the West Wing, Trump’s outside legal team—which set up shop for the big day at the offices of the American Center for Law & Justice—also declared victory and defended Trump’s behavior.
“There are a lot of disputes about recollection, and how [different] people saw things, but so what? It didn’t happen,” said Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, regarding obstruction of justice allegations. “He didn’t do it, [even though] he had every right to fire Mueller—as long as he replaced Mueller with someone else, and as long as he didn’t do it with coercion, or anything like that… If it’s done with an innocent motive, meaning you’re doing your job and getting rid of someone who’s a bad FBI director [like James Comey] or a bad special counsel…you’re allowed to do it.”
Giuliani, reiterating his belief in Trump’s innocence, added, “Nothing was hidden, burned, destroyed, thrown away by the president. So it’s very tough to conclude that someone committed obstruction [and] Mueller couldn’t do it… They couldn’t [even] cobble together a charge.”
This was merely part of the latest Trumpworld attempt to barrel through a crisis that has plagued this president for almost two years. By the end of this week, everyone in Trump’s inner sanctum had a similar refrain: The boss isn’t guilty, but even if he had done it, it wouldn’t be illegal.
Well before the Mueller report was made public, and before Attorney General William Barr delivered his remarks to the press on Thursday, Giuliani knew what was coming. Jay Sekulow, another one of Trump’s personal attorneys, confirmed to The Daily Beast on Thursday morning that he, Giuliani, and Jane and Martin Raskin (all members of the president’s outside legal team) were welcomed into the Department of Justice to view a version of Mueller’s report ahead of its release—on Tuesday late afternoon, and again on Wednesday. Sekulow said the team had “put in a formal request” late last week, which Barr approved.
To Trump’s current and former lawyers, however, Mueller’s report isn’t simply exonerating—it’s also problematic.
“For example, half of what they attribute to [Trump’s former fixer and lawyer Michael] Cohen is lies,” Giuliani alleged, going after one of his recurring enemies. “I don’t know why they even put in a Cohen section. A lot of that report is extremely unfair.”
John Dowd, an attorney who represented Trump for nearly a year in the 21-month-long investigation, took exception to one of his cameos in the report. In late 2017, after the president’s fired national security adviser Michael Flynn withdrew from a joint defense agreement and started cooperating with investigators, “the President’s personal counsel” left a voicemail for Flynn’s lawyers “reminding them of the President’s warm feelings towards Flynn,” according to the report.
On this message, the unnamed counsel—who appears to be Dowd—asked for a “heads up” if Flynn knew any “information that implicates the President,” the report reads. When Flynn’s lawyer responded that Flynn could no longer share that kind of information, “the President's personal counsel was indignant and vocal in his disagreement,” according to the Mueller report. Trump’s “personal counsel said he would make sure that the President knew that Flynn’s actions reflected ‘hostility’ towards the President.”
“There was no hostility on my part,” Dowd said on Thursday. “We understood that they had a strong case and thought that they could talk the [special counsel] out of any charges. We didn’t understand there’d be any charges. And I first learned about the Joint Defense conclusion in the press. I called him and that was it. I did not get upset, nor was I upset. I was supporting Gen. Flynn.”
Regarding the Mueller report’s characterization of his tone and intent, Dowd replied, “That’s not true. That’s false.” Trump’s former attorney also insisted that Mueller’s team “never raised [this subject] with me and I saw [Mueller’s colleague] Jim Quarles every week and Bob Mueller once a month.”
Conway, for her part, trumpeted Mueller’s findings as a pure vindication of the president and those around him, even as she attempted to dismiss findings that could be politically tricky for the president, or give lie to the administration’s previous public statements on the matter.
Asked by reporters about Mueller’s findings that Trump tried, on numerous occasions, to hinder the Special Counsel’s investigation, Conway shot back, “that’s punditry, that’s not sophisticated legal analysis.” She added that she was “using my very expensive law degree today.”
And while many of Trump’s prospective 2020 Democratic opponents have been hesitant to harp on the Russia issue on the campaign trail, Trump’s counselor nevertheless took the opportunity to ding the Democratic presidential field with the special counsel’s findings.
“You have 15, 18 people running for president and not a single message doesn't involve Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump,” Conway said.
“The Democrats have nothing,” she added. “They banked everything on this.”
Heading into the holiday weekend, President Trump jetted off to Mar-a-Lago, his private Florida getaway, to mark Easter and keep celebrating. “‘Donald Trump was being framed, he fought back. That is not Obstruction,’” the president tweeted on the way to his club, live-tweeting a comment made on Fox News by Trump-loving host Jesse Watters. “I had the right to end the whole Witch Hunt if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the RIGHT to use Executive Privilege. I didn’t!”
As Trump closed out his Thursday, he appeared both in a good spirits and focused on cable news. According to one of his personal attorneys, that’s exactly how he began his Thursday, as well.
Giuliani told The Daily Beast that both he and Sekulow spoke by phone to the president twice on Thursday, shortly before and then after the report’s release. Trump was in a “great mood,” per Giuliani, and both lawyers briefed the president on which TV news programs—on CNN, on Fox—they would appear on through Easter Sunday.
“We always tell him what shows we’re going to be doing,” he said.