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White House braces for Mueller report as obstruction questions linger

Only a ‘bombshell’ would dramatically change public opinion, expert says

President Donald Trump talks with journalists before departing the White House on March 20. He is expected to depart the White House via Marine One on Thursday just hours after a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report is released — and possibly take reporters’ questions about it. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump talks with journalists before departing the White House on March 20. He is expected to depart the White House via Marine One on Thursday just hours after a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report is released — and possibly take reporters’ questions about it. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

The White House is bracing for the public’s first glimpse at some of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, but it likely would take a bombshell to alter President Donald Trump’s approach to campaigning for a second term.

Attorney General William Barr is set to release on Thursday morning a version of the former FBI director’s report — though a substantial portion is expected to be blacked out, redacted that is, for legal and security reasons. White House aides have long echoed Trump’s contention that his 2016 campaign did not conspire with Russians to influence the race, besides mirroring his denials about obstructing justice since taking office.

Democratic lawmakers have criticized Barr for issuing a four-page summary of Mueller’s report on March 24 rather than waiting and letting the redacted version be the public’s first look at the special counsel’s work.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the attorney general last week of “going off the rails.” That remark came after Barr told a Senate panel he believed there was “spying” by U.S. intelligence authorities on Trump’s 2016 campaign — a charge he later tried to walk back.

“He is the attorney general of the United States, not the attorney general of Donald Trump,” Pelosi said April 11.

ICYMI: Barr on Mueller memo — ‘The letter speaks for itself’

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According to Barr, Trump and his top aides have latched on to Mueller’s inability to establish a criminal conspiracy involving Trump’s campaign and any Russians. They’ve also claimed “complete and total exoneration,” but that assertion is the opposite of what Mueller wrote in his report, according to Barr’s summary.

“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” regarding obstruction of justice, Mueller wrote.

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But less than 48 hours before one of the most anticipated Washington reports in decades becomes public, the White House has yet to go into crisis mode. As of Tuesday afternoon, Trump aides said there were no plans for a “war room” or some other rapid-reaction team. 

One White House official said they hadn’t yet planned for how the staff would pore over the report’s 400 (redacted) pages and then prepare responses to revelations or anecdotes that could prove damaging to Trump, current and former White House staffers, and the president’s business and political associates.

“We haven’t seen it. So it’s hard to say how we’ll handle it,” the White House official said, even as congressional offices plan food and alcohol stockpiles to fuel all-hands-on-deck efforts to digest its contents as quickly as possible.

First response

That means the White House response Thursday could come down to Trump himself: first on Twitter, and then as he departs Washington, as expected, for an extended Easter weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida. The president typically engages reporters on his way to an idling Marine One helicopter on the White House’s South Lawn.

In fact, he has had 60 such question-and-answer sessions while heading to the chopper since taking office, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential scholar who specializes in White House interactions with the press and presidential transitions. So a Thursday afternoon mini-press conference with reporters and Trump shouting over the executive helicopter could provide the administration’s first substantive response to potentially damaging Mueller findings.

“It will surely be worse news for the president than the summary letter from the attorney general,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. “But just how much worse is anyone’s guess.”

But with the country so divided, political experts doubt the special counsel’s findings will change many minds about Trump, and by extension how his base of supporters view his re-election bid.

“In the absence of a bombshell piece of news showing up in the redacted report, the political science would suggest more of what we have seen so far: Democrats will continue to perceive all sorts of malfeasance [and] Republicans will continue to avoid seeing it that way,” Hetherington said. “The reason for this is because Republicans and Democrats in the electorate hate the other side so much.”

One Democratic strategist agreed, calling the White House-Barr “rollout” of the report via the attorney general’s four-page summary “brilliant.”

“The downside of that strategy was they’ll have to live by what’s in the actual document,” the strategist said. “[But] the mainstream narrative of the Mueller report has already congealed. With abject complicity from the press corps, the administration succeeded in establishing the perception of the Mueller report — which is possibly even more important than the reality of what is in the document.”

Will it matter?

To that end, a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College survey asked respondents if, based on what they know already about Mueller’s findings, they thought his report will “clear President Trump of any wrongdoing or do questions still exist?” Seventy-four percent of Republicans said it clears Trump of “any wrongdoing,” while just 8 percent of Democrats responded that way. For Democrats, 86 percent said questions remain; only 19 percent of Republicans said the same.

Experts say men who self-identify as political independents will be key in the 2020 race. Of that group, the NPR survey found a split: 45 percent said Trump is cleared; 47 percent said questions still exist; and 8 percent didn’t know.

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“My sense is that the report itself will likely contain a fair amount of bad news for the president. … His approval ratings ought to sag a bit in the short term,” Hetherington said. “Unless there is something new and shocking in there, however, I wouldn’t expect a fundamental change to the dynamics of public opinion.”

The same goes for a 140-page response report the White House and Trump’s personal lawyers are trying to trim to about 50 pages, experts said.

Trump and his team seem aware that the absence of a prosecution recommendation from Mueller does not necessarily imply an absence of obstruction entirely. Trump has tweeted eight times since the attorney general’s summary went public that the report shows “no obstruction,” and he has repeated that assertion at nine public events since the March 24 summary.

“The ‘no obstruction’ … was not so clear. There were close calls at play,” Laura Coates, who worked in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Justice Departments, told CNN on Monday, referring to Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report. “And those are the areas the American people most want to know about.

“What was it that caused Mueller, the person who had the mandate to actually reach a conclusion [on obstruction] to say, ‘I can’t do it at this point in time,’ and Barr … saying, ‘You cannot possibly find obstruction of justice.’ Why was there such a disconnect? … I think the president is nervous about that and trying to explain it away.”

But Trump’s congressional GOP allies are already offering a collective pre-release defense of their party’s leader.

“We should be able to take this as a complete report. I don’t think it is going to change much,” Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner told Fox News on Monday. “We already have the language where the Barr excerpts from the Mueller report states they could not establish any tacit or explicit coordination or collusion. … Obviously, there was not.”