WASHINGTON — To Donald Trump, the start of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation looked alarmingly like the end of his presidency. So he tried to stop it.
His months-long effort pushed the boundaries of presidential powers and the law, revealing a commander in chief consumed by self-interest and intent on having his top lieutenants lie or obfuscate on his behalf. The fact that many refused to do so may have helped save Trump from being charged with obstructing justice.
Those advisers effectively served as the guardrails in a White House that often seems to have none. A White House counsel who told the president he would rather resign than oust Mueller. A senior West Wing aide who quietly ignored a request to pass messages to the attorney general, who had already recused himself from the investigation.
“The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels,” Mueller wrote in his redacted 448-page report.
The episodes detailed by the special counsel paint a damning portrait of a president consumed by the investigation. Even after more than two years of revelations about Trump’s willingness to lie or press others to do so, Mueller’s report put into sharp focus the president’s disregard for governing norms and his willingness to challenge both legal and political limits.
Trump and his advisers can herald the fact that two years of investigation ended without criminal charges for the president, not only on obstruction but also on criminal conspiracy with Russia to help him win the 2016 election. Though numerous people with ties to Trump — including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort — did plead guilty to crimes, no Americans were indicted for colluding with Moscow.
“His greatest rebuttal will be he’s in office, he’s going to remain in office and he’ll get re-elected because the Democrats have nothing,” Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser, said of the president.
Indeed, the Democrats’ next steps are unclear. Some lawmakers will likely continue to press for impeachment proceedings, though party leaders are skeptical of that approach. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler has requested that Mueller testify before his committee within weeks and plans to subpoena for the full report and underlying evidence.
Yet the end of Mueller’s investigation did more than answer questions about whether Trump and his associates committed crimes. The probe underscored just how far Trump has gone in pushing the limits of the presidency and encouraging others to help him do so.
Rep. Adam Schiff, Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee, said that while Trump’s actions may not have been criminal, they were “dishonest, unethical, immoral and unpatriotic.”
Trump’s actions were in line with his behavior as a businessman, when he employed a team of lawyers and fixers to protect him from legal trouble. One of those longtime confidants, lawyer Michael Cohen, was brought down in an investigation stemming from Mueller’s probe, centering on hush money payments he made during the 2016 campaign to women who alleged sexual relationships with Trump.
In other facets of his administration, Trump has also pressed legal bounds. He has repeatedly directed immigration advisers to take actions they deemed illegal, including blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. When it became clear in recent weeks that those advisers would not follow his orders, he ordered an overhaul of the top echelons of the Department of Homeland Security.
There were clear echoes of that behavior throughout Mueller’s report.
The most startling episode came in June 2017, when Trump directed White House Counsel Don McGahn to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the probe, and say that Mueller must be ousted because he had conflicts of interest. McGahn refused — deciding he would rather resign than trigger a potential constitutional crisis.
Two days later, the president tried another avenue to alter the investigation. During a meeting with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, he dictated a message for Lewandowski to relay to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Though Sessions had already recused himself from the investigation, Trump was ordering him to publicly call the probe “very unfair” to the president, declare Trump did nothing wrong and say that Mueller should limit his probe to “investigating election meddling for future elections.”
Lewandowski didn’t want to deliver the message, according to Mueller, so he asked senior White House official Rick Dearborn to do so. Dearborn was uncomfortable with the request, Mueller writes, and did not follow through.
Most of the advisers who blocked Trump’s requests have since left his administration.