Donald Trump is set to weaponise the special counsel’s finding of no collusion with Russia in his bid for re-election, turning vindication into vengeance with an assault on Democrats and the media.
Robert Mueller found no evidence Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russia to influence the 2016 election and reached no conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice, according to a four-page summary of his findings by the attorney general, William Barr.
The official reprieve, the denouement of a saga that transfixed Washington, deflated critics who believed the Mueller report could lead to Trump’s impeachment, as the Watergate scandal led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. It left White House aides giddy with relief and prominent allies calling for revenge.
It also played into a narrative that Trump has been building for two years, portraying the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt”, “hoax” and “deep state” conspiracy. He is likely to embrace the role of victim in the build-up to the 2020 election. As a New York Times editorial noted the day after his win in 2016, Trump is expert at “the judo move of turning the weight of a complacent establishment against it”.
Although “I am not a crook” would not normally be a compelling campaign message, nothing is normal now. After the release of Barr’s letter on Sunday, analysts predicted that “No collusion!” will become a rallying cry, appearing on T-shirts at rallies like the “Lock her up!” mantra about 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.
Rich Galen, a Republican strategist, told the Guardian: “Even when Trump thought he was in trouble, he was yelling for Hillary Clinton to be locked up and his supporters cheered and acted like idiots. When he says, ‘No collusion!’ he’ll get great cheers and he’ll put on his Mussolini face.”
On Sunday, Trump led an assault against “an illegal takedown that failed” and suggested a look at “the other side”. He said: “It’s a shame that our country has had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this.”
On Monday, sitting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House, he was asked if he still believed the investigation had been a witch hunt.
He replied, ominously: “There are a lot of people out there that have done some very evil things, very bad things, I would say treasonous things against our country and hopefully people that have done such harm to our country … those people will certainly be looked at.”
He added: “I will tell you, I love this country, I love this country as much as I can love anything: my family, my country, my God. But what they did – it was a false narrative, it was a terrible thing. We can never let this happen to another president again. I can tell you that. I say it very strongly. Very few people I know could have handled it. We can never ever let this happen to another president again.”
Asked if Mueller had acted honourably, Trump said: “Yes, he did.” Asked if he favours the release of the full report, the president said: “Up to the attorney general. Wouldn’t bother me at all.”
Among Trump’s prominent allies, Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and close confidante, took on the role of attack dog.
“Starting Monday we will hold every deep state official who abused power accountable,” he tweeted. “We will hold every fake news media liar member accountable. We will hold every liar in Congress accountable.”
The White House fired off an email with the heading: “The Collusion Delusion.” The Trump campaign released a video entitled “Collusion Hoax!” The Republican National Committee issued “talking points” that set out the cost of the investigation – $50,230 per day for 675 days – and an email headed: “Russiagate may have destroyed the media’s reputation.”
But Mueller could hardly be said to have come up empty handed. Thirty-four people, including six Trump aides and advisers, were charged. Twenty-five are Russians accused of election interference either through hacking Democratic accounts or orchestrating a disinformation campaign.
Barr said Mueller investigated “thoroughly”, issuing more than 2,800 subpoenas, obtaining nearly 500 search warrants and interviewing 500 witnesses. Trump answered some questions in writing but refused to be interviewed in person.
Although Mueller did not find evidence the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government, Barr’s summary notes “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign”.
This presumably includes a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which Donald Trump Jr expected to receive damaging information on Clinton from a Kremlin-connected lawyer. Trump Jr has claimed that the meeting was a waste of time. The Mueller report may yet shed more light on what transpired.
Democrats pointed out that Mueller found evidence for and against obstruction and demanded to see his full report. They insisted the summary by the attorney general did not fully clear the president. Barr is scheduled to testify before a House appropriations subcommittee on 9 April.
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said in a joint statement: “Attorney General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers. Given Mr Barr’s public record of bias against the special counsel’s inquiry, he is not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report.”
Trump’s claim of complete exoneration “directly contradicts the words of Mr Mueller and is not to be taken with any degree of credibility”, they said.
But few doubted the Mueller report has handed Trump a political gift and upended many expectations for 2020. Galen suggested that Democrats should not allow it to become a distraction from bread-and-butter issues.
“If I was advising Beto [O’Rourke] or Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] or any of those people,” he said, “I would say you’re not on the Senate judiciary committee, so you go and talk about what folks in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin care about.”
The president remains in legal peril. Federal prosecutors in New York are investigating hush-money payments to two women during the 2016 campaign who say they had affairs with the president. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, implicated Trump in campaign finance violations when he pleaded guilty last year.
With 588 days to go until the election, some believe the Mueller report will have little impact, noting it apparently played little part in November’s midterms and rarely comes up when Democrats campaign in early primary states.
Rick Tyler, a Republican consultant, said: “Not much has changed except the two sides are more solidified. The people who already dislike him dislike him more intensely than ever, and the people like him now like him more. If the report is released in full, which I think it will be, there will be enough to make Democratic ad makers happy.”
He added: “People are tired of it and want leaders to move forward on issues they care about. I’ve never seen an interview with a single person who was casting their vote based on what came out of the Mueller report.”