Whether or not it's true, Donald Trump is surely acting like Bill Barr made the entire 22-month Mueller investigation go away in a matter of weeks, and as far as Trump is concerned, the country has moved on to his immigration war as the baseline fight for his 2020 reelection campaign.
Mr. Barr’s letter effectively emboldened Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s choice of the word “exonerate.” (Privately, they admit, they would prefer he use the word “vindicate.”)
But Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s.
But since Mr. Barr issued his letter, the president has felt liberated and has been testing his bounds. He has poked fun at Joseph R. Biden Jr., 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 Mr. Barr prepares to submit a redacted version of the report, Mr. Trump’s plan of attack, aides said, is to act as if the report itself is extraneous to Mr. 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 on 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, Mr. Trump told reporters: “I don’t care about the Mueller report. I’ve been totally exonerated.”
The framing is simple: Trump beat Mueller, everything else is sour grapes and fake news. The media has already done 90% of the work for Trump with the NO COLLUSION FOUND headlines from three weeks ago. Nobody's going to listen to what they have to say.
Mr. 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 news media. He has revived an idea that his administration rejected — sending immigrant detainees to so-called 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 Mr. Trump. “He will continue to remind the American people he was correct about there being no evidence of collusion with Russia.”
Other outside surrogates have been echoing Mr. Trump’s line — that the narrative has already been established and it is too late for new facts to change that — even though members of the special counsel’s team have expressed concern that Mr. Barr’s letter did not accurately portray the contents of the report.
“The facts are that there was no collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, no obstruction of justice and President Trump has been fully vindicated,” said Boris Epshteyn, a former White House aide who now serves as the chief political commentator for Sinclair Broadcast Group. “No amount of spin by the opponents is going to change that.”
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.”
His base was enough to get him elected. As long as he keeps it, and the Democrats don't expand their own base, Trump wins again. Democrats have to get people to vote for them and not just against Trump. I know voting against Trump should be enough, but it wasn't. And given the massive GOP voter suppression guaranteed in 2020, Dems will have to work extra-hard in order to get the votes they need to win.