When the Mueller report crashes into a Washington feverish with anticipation on Thursday, the White House hopes to show President Donald Trump busy doing his job — and far away from a phone-sized keyboard.
Trump typically spends the first half of his workday in the White House residence in “executive time” — making phone calls, reading news reports, keeping an eye on the TV and talking to top officials.
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That’s exactly when the Department of Justice is expected to release Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report, and when the free-wheeling Twitterer-in-chief is likely to have the least amount of supervision.
So on Thursday, the president’s hands will not be idle: Trump and the first lady will host an event for wounded warriors before he meets with the secretary of state and then departs for a long Easter weekend at Mar-a-Lago, according to his public schedule and a Federal Aviation Administration notice.
The goal for Thursday is to use the bully pulpit of the White House to give the appearance of a president consumed by the demands of his office. Former President Bill Clinton often leaned on the same playbook at key moments during the Starr investigation – a historical example Trump’s lawyers have studied closely.
Meanwhile, a well-greased spin machine will start whirring to life at the two main arms of the president’s re-election effort — the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign, aiming to shape perceptions of Mueller’s findings in his favor.
“The White House’s intent is to brush this off and move on as quickly as possible,” said one Republican close to the White House. “That is the approach the White House counsel will want the president to take — though it is up the president to do it,” the same Republican added. A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Aside from the uncertainty of what’s in the report itself, there’s a second major wild card: Trump.
What could trigger the president is any hint in the Mueller report that one of his current and former aides, many of whom cooperated with the investigation at the direction of then-White House lawyer Ty Cobb, gave evidence or recounted conversations that somehow embarrasses Trump or his family members.
“They went in and told the truth and are now wondering how much will be in the report. How much will it be redacted, and how will that play?” said one former administration official, noting that Attorney General William Barr’s letter summarizing Mueller’s findings could prove more favorable to the White House than the report itself.
“What you got in the four-page memo was top-line conclusions that sounded definitive on collusion, but White House officials think the actual report will be less conclusive,” the former official added.
Mueller’s team talked to a raft of Trump aides including former chief-of-staff Reince Priebus, former senior strategist Steve Bannon, former top attorney Don McGahn, former attorney general Jeff Sessions and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, among others. McGahn alone sat reportedly sat with the special investigators’ team for 30 hours of interviews.
“It is an important thing to the president that these people are not out seen as out there in the report attacking him personally,” said the close White House adviser.
McGahn’s tenure in the White House ended in a deeply broken relationship between the White House counsel and the president. McGahn was frustrated by the frequency of president’s angry outbursts, causing him to nickname the commander-in-chief, “King Kong,” and Trump felt equally frustrated that the White House’s top attorney did not do more to shield him personally, or stop the special investigation.
Since McGahn left in October 2018, Trump has continued to complain about him with some frequency, fuming over the various ways he feels McGahn failed him, according to the close White House adviser.
McGahn and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
No one in the White House has seen the full document yet, nor do they know how it handles the question of whether Trump obstructed justice in firing former FBI Director James Comey — or the nuances surrounding that and many other moments.
Barr’s letter noted only that Mueller had declined to recommend charges on obstruction, quoting the special counsel’s report as saying: “[W]hile this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
But reports soon dribbled out relaying the views of frustrated members of Mueller’s team, rare leaks revealing that some in the special counsel’s office saw Barr’s synopsis of their “principal conclusions” as misleading.
Inside the White House, aides are trying to project calm. Most of this week has felt like a waiting game, especially with Congress on recess and with many administration officials planning a short work-week given this weekend’s Easter and Passover holidays.
There is also a feeling that Barr’s spare summary set the public narrative early on that Trump did not collude with Russia during the 2016 election – and White House officials and the president’s allies hope that perception sticks despite whatever damaging details may be lurking in the full report.
On Thursday, White House officials including lead attorney Emmet Flood are expected to have a limited window of time to read and digest the key parts of report. One of the president’s outside attorneys, Jay Sekulow, told POLITICO that his plan is to have a team of five to six staffers to review the document as the president’s personal counsel, breaking up the report into sections and monitoring the public response to it. Flood and the White House’s top attorney Pat Cipollone are expected to then brief the president on the report’s findings.
Sekulow and the president’s other attorney, Rudy Giuliani, are expected to go on television extensively this weekend to defend the president, Sekulow told POLITICO. Sekulow said the goal was to follow a similar model to how they handled the Sunday Barr letter, where they were able to get out a statement and tee up media interviews within an hour.
Trump’s attorneys will also be wielding a “countereport” pushing back on Mueller’s findings, which Giuliani said earlier this week had been whittled down to “34 or 35 pages.”
The Republican National Committee will play a leading role in pushing back on any potentially damaging tidbits, or Democrats’ statements. The RNC will rely on a war room to monitor the media coverage and political statements including a rapid response team, social media pushback and op-eds and TV appearances from top RNC communications officials.
The Trump campaign is also ready to defend the president and then direct the public’s attention elsewhere.
“We know that President Trump will — once again — be vindicated: no collusion and no obstruction. The tables should turn now, as it is time to investigate the liars who instigated the sham investigation in the first place,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the campaign.
But as always, Trump will act as his own communications director and public relations crisis manager. Already he’s distilled the message down to a simple Twitter statement, before he’s seen the report: “No Collusion – No Obstruction!”
Eliana Johnson and Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.