The Memo: Mueller's depictions will fuel Trump angst

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE painted a damning picture of the Trump administration, even as he handed the president a victory on the central issue of collusion with Russia.

The Trump White House, as portrayed by Mueller, revolves around an impulsive and angry president who issues orders that underlings often defy, ignore or seek to delay.

The depiction will enrage a president who fixates on the concept of strength and is hypersensitive about any suggestion that he is not in absolute control of his administration.

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“He will be livid to see this spelled out — and it is not clear that he is always aware when his advisers are doing this,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “For someone who is already a little bit paranoid about institutional opponents, it will create even more of a sense of distrust within the White House.”

But people who have served in the Trump White House told The Hill that they heard the ring of familiarity — and felt no surprise — at the depictions offered in the special counsel’s report.

“I’ve personally been on the receiving end of a Trump broadside for trying to get him not to do something nuts,” one former White House official recalled ruefully.

A GOP strategist with ties to the White House, asked about the willingness of advisers to frustrate the president’s desires, laughed and said, “I think it was a good thing.”

The strategist asserted that Trump could be “very impulsive and choose to pop off” — a trait that created an imperative among people around him to save him from himself.

“Many of his staff who have experience — legal or political — understood the great perils that he would put himself in,” the strategist said. 

Referring to those details becoming public, this source added, “I think it will annoy him. It will make him angrier. But at the same time, it may be a private lesson that he is learning that his staff were loyal by protecting him.”

It is far from clear that Trump sees it that way.

The president tweeted on Friday that statements within the Mueller report “are fabricated & totally untrue.”

Trump added, “Watch out for people that take so-called ‘notes,’ when the notes never existed until needed.”

The remark could be seen as a reference to former White House counsel Donald McGahnDonald (Don) F. McGahnCongress hits rock bottom in losing to the president in subpoena ruling Rudy Giuliani's reputation will never recover from the impeachment hearings In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book MORE

According to Mueller, McGahn resisted Trump’s urging to bring about the special counsel’s firing in 2017 — and then stood up to pressure from Trump again the following year, when the president allegedly wanted McGahn to deny the first episode had ever happened.

During the foiled 2018 attempt to have McGahn refute the story, Trump is said to have asked the then-White House counsel, “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don't take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.”

McGahn, according to Mueller, “responded that he keeps notes because he is a ‘real lawyer’ and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing.”

McGahn was far from the only figure close to Trump who is portrayed as defying him, however. 

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie believed that a Trump request that he should reach out to then-FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDemocrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate Book: FBI sex crimes investigator helped trigger October 2016 public probe of Clinton emails Trump jabs at FBI director over testimony on Russia, antifa MORE was “nonsensical” and had no intention of ever doing so, according to Mueller.  

Then-deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland declined to draft a memo Trump wanted her to write because she was not sure his version of events — pertaining to contacts between then-national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak — was true.

And even some ultra-loyalists showed, at the very least, skepticism about bowing to the president’s whims. 

Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiHow Trump can win reelection: Focus on Democrats, not himself Trump Jr. distances from Bannon group, says he attended 'single' event Bannon, three others charged with defrauding donors of 'We Build The Wall' campaign MORE, his first campaign manager, appears to have let an effort to slash the scope of Mueller’s probe peter out. Stephen Bannon, then-chief strategist in the White House, warned Trump against firing Comey and later told the president that his claims that Mueller should be ousted because of conflicts of interest were “ridiculous.”

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Separately, Bannon and then-White House chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusLeaked audio shows Trump touted low Black voter turnout in 2016: report Meadows joins White House facing reelection challenges Trump names Mark Meadows as new chief of staff MORE worked in May 2017 to wrestle from Trump’s possession a letter of resignation from then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez call for convention to decide Puerto Rico status MORE

The president had pushed for, but then declined, Sessions's resignation — but had held onto the letter. Priebus, in Mueller’s account, was worried that the letter itself would “function as a kind of ‘shock collar’ that the President could use any time he wanted.” Trump eventually gave the letter back.

The former White House official who spoke to The Hill said that Trump ought to get over his annoyance at such details emerging.

“Trump may hate being managed and the appearance of being managed, but a lot of people have risked greatly to keep him from following through on his worst instincts,” the official said, “Instead of being pissed at them, he should be thanking them — he’d be on his way to impeachment if he’d had his way.”

Other Trump allies, however, vigorously dispute that interpretation. 

They contend that the president was harmed during the first phase of his tenure by staff who did not believe in his agenda. By this, they do not mean loyalists such as Bannon and Lewandowski but figures identified with the GOP establishment.

“The portrayal of the White House in the report may be negative, but it is also quite dated,” said longtime Trump friend Michael Caputo. “The president today has a White House staff far more dedicated to his agenda.”

Still, the president doesn’t sound ready to let bygones be bygones.

Some of the statements about him in Mueller’s report “are total bullshit & only given to make the other person look good (or me to look bad),” he tweeted on Friday morning.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE’s presidency.