WASHINGTON — The case was closed for President Trump on March 24, the day Attorney General William Barr delivered to Congress his four-page summary of the special counsel’s 300-plus page report.
“No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION,” Trump wrote on Twitter that day. And in the weeks that followed, the president’s message of vindication and revenge on his political antagonists has only intensified, as he has expressed no interest in reading the full report and leveled charges of treason against Democratic lawmakers.
Barr’s letter effectively emboldened Trump, aides said, even as they prepare for new details to emerge from a redacted version of the report — expected this week — that could renew questions about the president’s fitness for office, and even as some of them cringe at Trump’s choice of the word “exonerate.” (Privately, they admit, they would prefer he use the word “vindicate.”)
But Trump’s mood has been lighter since the report was filed, people close to him said, even though neither he nor his White House lawyers have seen the full document, or at this point plan to do so before it is released to Congress and to the public. People close to Trump said they have noticed an increase in his confidence after he spent months feeling weighed down by a loss of control.
“When they began to go after people he knew personally, who had worked for him for years, I think it gnawed at him, and I think he felt helpless,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a confidant of Trump’s.
But since Barr issued his letter, the president has felt liberated and has been testing his bounds. He has poked fun at Joe Biden, the former vice president considering a presidential run, for his handsy approach to politics, despite his own troubled history with women. He has floated the idea of a pardon for Kevin McAleenan, now his acting homeland security secretary, if he encountered any legal problems in shutting the southwestern border. And he has heightened his attacks on the press beyond his normal refrain of “fake news,” falsely claiming that journalists are “knowingly” bending the truth.
Now, as Barr prepares to submit a redacted version of the report, Trump’s plan of attack, aides said, is to act as if the report itself is extraneous to Barr’s brief letter.
“The bottom line: The result is no collusion, no obstruction, and that’s the way it is,” the president told reporters Thursday. He said that Democrats “know it’s all a big scam, a big hoax” and that he believed what they were doing was “actually treason.” Days earlier, en route to Texas, Trump told reporters: “I don’t care about the Mueller report. I’ve been totally exonerated.”
Trump is purposefully escalating his language, people who know him said, expressly to enliven his base of supporters and to enrage his political rivals and the media. He has revived an idea that his administration rejected — sending immigrant detainees to sanctuary cities — in part, people close to him said, to distract from the report.
“The president clearly feels vindicated now that the Mueller report is completed,” said Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host, who recently taped a radio interview with Trump. “He will continue to remind the American people he was correct about there being no evidence of collusion with Russia.”
But critics said the strategy is classic Trump — effective with a narrow audience, but ultimately self-limiting. “He will probably have succeeded in setting the narrative for his core supporters and hardening their attitudes, but at the expense of anyone else believing him when the report comes out and inevitably undermines what he’s been claiming,” said Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman under former President Barack Obama. “The same things that solidify his base just prevent him from expanding beyond it at all.”