The end of the special counsel's probe gives Donald Trump one of the biggest wins of his presidency
President Donald Trump had finished a round of Sunday golf and repaired to his private quarters at his Palm Beach, Fla., club when the news arrived. After 22 months, the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation were in.
Moments before, around 3 p.m. on March 24, Trump’s White House lawyer Emmet Flood received a call from Attorney General William Barr’s chief of staff, Brian Rabbitt. The Department of Justice official said that after more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants and a similar number of witness interviews, Mueller had not established that the Trump campaign or its associates conspired with Russia during the 2016 election. In addition, Mueller declined to draw a conclusion about whether Trump had obstructed justice in the aftermath. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein immediately cleared the President.
Aides were elated. “This is very good,” Trump said, according to an official present. Back at the White House, staff crowded into press secretary Sarah Sanders’ office to toast the result with a bottle of sparkling wine. Within hours, Trump’s 2020 campaign was making money off the news, texting supporters that Democrats had “raised millions off a lie.” Greeting reporters on a Florida tarmac, Trump claimed “complete and total exoneration.”
It was one of the biggest victories of the Trump presidency. No collusion, no obstruction–just as Trump had vowed. A special-counsel investigation of this ilk might have proven fatal to Trump’s predecessors, yet the President survived it, stiff-arming Mueller’s demands for an in-person interview and attacking the legitimacy of the special counsel to stir up his supporters. By the time Trump sat down for a chicken piccata lunch with GOP Senators on March 26, he was also savoring the victory. Trump was “exuberant,” recalled Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana. “It’s apparent that it’s a big weight lifted.”
Mueller’s verdict was not nearly as definitive as the President and his allies would claim. He did not clear Trump of obstruction, according to a summary of the report Barr sent to Congress. Mueller laid out evidence on both sides, noted the “difficult issues” involved and declined to render a judgment, instead leaving the decision to DOJ brass. As Barr wrote, “The Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.'” (Indeed, that fact irked Trump when he first heard it, according to a White House official.)
Mueller found that Russia had mounted an unprecedented campaign to influence the 2016 election, spreading disinformation on social media, hacking Democratic computers and engineering the release of damaging emails in an effort to sow discord and help Trump win. The special counsel indicted 34 people and won seven convictions or guilty pleas, including from Trump’s former campaign chairman, his deputy campaign manager, his White House National Security Adviser and his longtime personal lawyer. By any historical measure, the Trump presidency remains extraordinarily scandal-scarred.
Which is why the most important result of the Mueller report may be to politically inoculate Trump against the many probes still looming. America has now seen Trump weather a massive investigation led by a widely respected prosecutor. Somehow, Trump turned what might have been a catastrophe to any other President–a sweeping inquiry into potential collusion with a foreign power to undermine U.S. democracy–into a rebuttal against whatever comes next. “The politics of what’s happened over the last few days just places the President in a much better political position than he probably could have imagined,” says Russell Riley, professor of presidential studies at the University of Virginia.
Mueller’s findings matter in no small part because of what his investigation came to represent. For Democrats and many disenchanted Republicans, the special counsel evolved into a symbol of the rule of law itself. His investigation dominated social media and cable news, and his likeness spawned a cottage industry, with Trump’s opponents snapping up prayer candles, action figures and mugs emblazoned with the words it’s MUELLER TIME.
The former FBI director’s reputation was one reason congressional Democrats were willing to pin so much on the outcome of his investigation. When asked about the Russia investigation, Democrats typically said they would reserve judgment until Mueller completed his work. Now that he has, it’s harder for Democrats to quibble with the conclusions. “You can’t on the one hand defer to Mueller,” says Stanley Brand, former counsel for the House of Representatives under Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill, “and say, Now that we have it, we want to replow that ground.”
Some of the Democrats calling for Trump’s impeachment have long been wary of staking too much on Mueller’s findings. Tom Steyer, the liberal California billionaire who has committed nearly $100 million toward a pro-impeachment campaign, says he never thought the report would actually move the needle. Waiting for the report, Steyer told TIME in February, would be “a very ill-considered and mistaken idea.”
While Democrats were building up the import of the Russia investigation, Trump, after months of cooperation, decided to aggressively criticize Mueller last year. Those rants showed Trump following his instinct to lash out when he feels under attack. “I’m not going to begrudge Donald Trump for defending himself against a witch hunt and a hoax that was proven to be so,” says White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley. “He’s a counterpuncher.”
Once he started, Trump hammered at the investigation’s legitimacy incessantly. (In total, he’s tweeted 181 times that the probe was a “witch hunt.”) Many of the President’s detractors snorted at the broadsides, dismissing them as the ravings of a cornered man. But there was power in the mayhem. The President’s campaign to discredit the decorated former Marine and lifelong Republican as a rogue prosecutor seems to have had a real effect. Over time, Trump was able to convince supporters that a meticulous inquiry was politically motivated, and the public’s views became more and more entrenched along party lines.
Trump’s criticism will continue to pay off as the 2020 election nears, predicts former White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah. “On a wide range of issues–whether it’s the economy, whether it’s national security–you’re going to have critics fairly or unfairly criticizing the President,” Shah says. “And he’s going to be able to say on the biggest, most prominent issue, they were dead wrong, I was dead right, you should believe me. And I think that’s going to sell.”
The fog of the Mueller report transcended pure partisanship. By the end, many Americans had no idea what to make of the sprawling investigation. Some grew convinced that no matter what Mueller found, the outcome wouldn’t matter. In the days before Barr released his summary of Mueller’s conclusions, TIME was given access to a series of focus-group sessions, convened in Des Moines, Iowa, by the Democratic polling firm GBAO on behalf of a group called Protect the Investigation. The researchers sought to study “soft partisans,” people who scored relatively low on an assessment of party loyalty. One panel was made up of college-educated Republicans, one of college-educated independents and one of Democrats without college degrees.
The similarities were striking. The groups shared a sense that the investigation was merited, the matters were serious, and it was important that justice be done. They were troubled by the idea that politicians and the privileged might get away with things regular people wouldn’t. And yet many of the allegations against Trump didn’t strike the participants as a big deal. The prevailing view was that there was a lot of funny business going on around Trump–but that the President had likely found a way to keep his hands clean. “I do think he probably did some stuff, but I’m pretty sure he did a good job insulating himself,” a 35-year-old Republican man said.
Strikingly, none of the focus-group participants expected the Mueller report to be a game changer. “There may be a lot of pistols, but there probably isn’t going to be a smoking gun,” a 69-year-old man in the independents’ group said. Few said the report was likely to alter their opinion of the President.
Which appears to be the case for many Americans: In a national Fox News poll conducted the week before the report’s release, 70% said there was no chance or only a small chance the report would change their views. A poll by Morning Consult and Politico conducted in the two days following the release of Barr’s summary found the President’s support was essentially unchanged from a week earlier.
Hours after Barr revealed Mueller’s findings, Trump and his top aides watched television news coverage in his office on Air Force One. Soon they began to stew. “The mood fluctuated from happiness to righteous anger,” recalls Gidley. “There was a lot of relief, but there were definitely a lot of questions.”
White House officials are hungry to press ahead. They want to use the momentum to push Trump’s policy agenda forward, with legislative initiatives on health care, trade and infrastructure, according to two West Wing aides. Trump’s liaisons to Capitol Hill say they hope to work with House Democrats on key committees willing to work with them, especially on legislation to repair the country’s aging network of highways and bridges.
Yet the White House knows there’s little chance of major bipartisan legislation getting through. “There were Democrats who wanted to work with us and Democrats who didn’t,” says a top White House official, “and I don’t think that’s really changed.”
How lasting Trump’s victory proves will depend on a host of factors, including how much of Mueller’s actual report sees the light of day. Trump campaign officials believe the end of the investigation creates an opening with independent voters. Yet so far Trump has focused more on exacting vengeance against Democrats and the media than on any attempt at reconciliation.
As his attention shifts to the 2020 election, aides say Trump plans to campaign on his Administration’s achievements, from low unemployment rates to prison-reform legislation to confirming conservative judges and gains against the Islamic State. “We will be running on that,” says Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump’s re-election campaign. On the other hand, he adds, “I think a little righteous indignation is warranted.”
Mueller’s conclusions have tamped down talk of impeachment among Democratic leaders, who were already wary of publicly embracing the idea. But House Democrats have no plans to let up on their probes of the President, his Administration, his family members or their business dealings with foreign powers. They are already pushing Barr for the release of the full Mueller report and its underlying documents, as well as to continue investigating other Trump controversies.
At the same time, Democrats have been careful to balance their investigative efforts with a renewed emphasis on legislative priorities. For them, the silver lining in the Mueller outcome may be that they can now zero in on issues like lowering health care costs. Within a day of Barr releasing his summary of the Mueller report, the Trump Administration handed Democrats an apparent political gift, telling the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans that it supports the complete invalidation of the Affordable Care Act. Focusing on kitchen-table issues like health care helped Democrats win the House in 2018, and it is the strategy presidential hopefuls plan to use in 2020. “This campaign can’t be about [Trump],” said South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, in an MSNBC interview. “I think part of how we lost our way in 2016 was it was much too much about him, and it left a lot of people back home saying, ‘O.K., but nobody is talking about me.'”
The outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation was as disappointing for Democrats as it was buoying for Republicans. But in the end, it may have been a boon for U.S. democracy. For nearly two years, the fate of the Trump presidency has been bound up in a rare and opaque legal limbo. Mueller may have punted the question of whether Trump had obstructed justice to the President’s handpicked Attorney General. But in the process, he returned the power to render a verdict on the Trump presidency to American voters. The final report will come at the ballot box, on Nov. 3, 2020.
With reporting by Alana Abramson, Molly Ball and Tessa Berenson/Washington and Charlotte Alter/New York
This appears in the April 08, 2019 issue of TIME.