Victor or Victim? Trump Shifts Response to Mueller Report

WASHINGTON — The day after the special counsel delivered his report to the Justice Department, President Trump was ecstatic. He claimed vindication. When he walked into the dining room of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, according to someone there, guests rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

A month later, the president’s view of the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has grown darker. While Mr. Trump once welcomed it as “total exoneration,” he has spent the last few days assailing it as a “total ‘hit job’” produced by “true Trump Haters, including highly conflicted Bob Mueller himself.”

“Now we’re finished with it, and I thought after two years we’d be finished with it,” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Wednesday after a morning of tweeting about Mr. Mueller’s report. Declaring that “it’s enough,” he vowed again to resist all subpoenas by House Democrats seeking to investigate further.

In Mr. Trump’s world, there is a fine line between victor and victim. The president often veers back and forth, eager to be seen by others as the former even as he sees himself as the latter. To Mr. Trump, winning is always the goal, whether it be in business, politics, policy or even investigations, but even when he is on top, he lapses into anger and resentment, convinced that he has been unfairly treated and wanting to strike back.

As a result, Mr. Trump’s message to his supporters and other Americans about Mr. Mueller’s findings has turned increasingly incongruous: When the report says investigators established no conspiracy between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia in 2016 and makes no allegation of obstruction of justice by the president, it is right on the money. When it offers unflattering descriptions of the president’s actions and refuses to exonerate him on obstruction, the report is dead wrong.

“He accepts the ultimate conclusion, in which there is no evidence of criminality or evidence sufficient to draw a conclusion,” Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, said in an interview.

“However, we don’t accept — he doesn’t, I don’t, Jay doesn’t — a lot of the factual statements made, inferences, questionable material that’s put out there,” he added, referring to Jay Sekulow, another lawyer for Mr. Trump. “We don’t accept that’s by any means all true and we certainly don’t accept that it’s correctly interpreted. That’s what he’s objecting to.”

To be sure, the president’s Democratic critics have likewise chosen to interpret the report to suit their interests, focusing on its portrayal of a president willing to profit politically off Russian assistance during the election and determined to thwart the investigation that followed. Even though Mr. Mueller made no allegations of criminality, some Democrats found enough damning detail in the report to advocate the opening of impeachment hearings.

That has clearly unsettled Mr. Trump, who while saying he is not the least bit concerned about impeachment has been aggressively pushing back against the possibility on Twitter in recent days. To the extent that he anticipated that Mr. Mueller’s report would clear the decks, he has expressed frustration that it is still being used as ammunition against him.

Friends said Mr. Trump and his team had not recognized how Democrats would still use Mr. Mueller’s report to go after the president despite the overall conclusions.

“When that report came out, a lot of people felt relieved,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a friend of Mr. Trump’s who saw him in Florida last weekend. “But I don’t think anybody was prepared. I was shocked by the coverage, especially on MSNBC, through the weekend. It was just impeachment, nonstop.

“I am sure the president is seeing the same kind of coverage I’m seeing,” he added. “If you go through this, you cooperate, you’re cleared, and in this country they still say you committed some sort of crime.”

Through a long history in public life even before his late entry into politics, Mr. Trump has toggled between self-portrayals of greatness and grievance. He claims to have won even when he has not, and when he loses, he says he was ripped off in some way, even if imagined.

After winning the presidency through the Electoral College, he regularly exaggerated the scope of his victory, claiming it was one of the greatest ever, when it was not. And he explained away his loss in the popular vote by asserting falsely that he actually won that, too, but for millions of people who supposedly voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.

“He can be a victor when that’s convenient and he can be a victim when that’s convenient. And if things don’t work out, then he’s covered,” said Gwenda Blair, a biographer of Mr. Trump and his family. “He’s always going to come out on top, but sometimes you come out on top by saying you won and sometimes you come out on top because you were cheated.”

Mr. Trump’s initial reaction to Mr. Mueller’s report was colored by the selective summary offered by his own attorney general, William P. Barr, who after receiving it reported to Congress only the special counsel’s bottom-line conclusions, then took nearly four weeks to review the 448-page document before releasing a redacted version last week.

When the report finally came out, much of the focus was not on the conclusions, which were by then four weeks old, but on the voluminous details that were made public for the first time. While Mr. Mueller found no criminal conspiracy with Russia, his report made clear that Mr. Trump and his team shared the interests of Moscow’s agents in trying to bring down Mrs. Clinton. And Mr. Mueller outlined nearly a dozen episodes that he said could be considered obstruction of justice even though he chose not to make a judgment himself one way or the other.

Mr. Trump was left unsure how to take the report. In the space of just a half-hour on Monday, he offered two strikingly different perspectives, one embracing the special counsel report’s conclusion on conspiracy and the next attacking its authors.

“‘A very exculpatory section of the Mueller Report: NO CONSPIRACY, COORDINATION or COLLUSION with the Trump Campaign and the Russians. You can’t be more clear than that!’” he wrote on Twitter, quoting Gregg Jarrett, a Fox News analyst and the author of the book “The Russia Hoax.”

Then 27 minutes later, Mr. Trump wrote: “Isn’t it amazing that the people who were closest to me, by far, and knew the Campaign better than anyone, were never even called to testify before Mueller. The reason is that the 18 Angry Democrats knew they would all say ‘NO COLLUSION’ and only very good things!”

By Wednesday morning, he was trying to marry those two thoughts into a single message — both embracing the report and trashing it at the same time. “The Mueller Report, despite being written by Angry Democrats and Trump Haters, and with unlimited money behind it ($35,000,000), didn’t lay a glove on me,” he wrote. “I DID NOTHING WRONG.”

In subsequent tweets, he tried again to claim victory amid his victimhood, casting the investigation as a contest in which he prevailed. In terms rarely used regarding a criminal investigation, he asserted that “We waited for Mueller and WON” and denounced “the Witch Hunt, which I have already won.”

Mr. Trump has also switched lines about Mr. Mueller himself. After Mr. Barr’s letter came out, when the president felt buoyant about the investigation’s conclusions, he said the special counsel had acted honorably. By this week, he was retweeting a year-old post by a Republican congressman saying that Mr. Mueller’s “disreputable, twisted history speaks to the character of the man placed in a position to attempt to legalize a coup against a lawfully-elected President.”

Nothing Mr. Mueller has done changed between the time he was described as acting honorably and the time he was assailed for a disreputable, twisted history. What changed was other people’s assessments of the special counsel’s findings, which became more threatening to the president.

And so friends said Mr. Trump was responding to that shifting conversation. “They’re really hitting him hard on the shows,” Mr. Ruddy said. “I would see his comments as a reaction. He likes to respond. He doesn’t like to take anything sitting down.”

Follow Peter Baker on Twitter: @peterbakernyt.

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