In private, President Trump spent much of the past week brooding, as he often does. He has been anxious about the Russia investigation’s widening fallout, with his former campaign chairman standing trial. And he has fretted that he is failing to accrue enough political credit for what he claims as triumphs.
At rare moments of introspection for the famously self-centered president, Trump has also expressed to confidants lingering unease about how some in his orbit — including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. — are ensnared in the Russia probe, in his assessment simply because of their connection to him.
Yet in public, Trump is a man roaring. The president, more than ever, is channeling his internal frustration and fear into a ravenous maw of grievance and invective. He is churning out false statements with greater frequency and attacking his perceived enemies with intensifying fury. A fresh broadside came on Twitter at 11:37 p.m. Friday, mocking basketball superstar LeBron James and calling CNN’s Don Lemon “the dumbest man on television.”
This is the new, uneasy reality for Trump at an especially precarious moment of his presidency, with the Republican Party struggling to keep control of Congress, where a Democratic takeover brings with it the specter of impeachment, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s grip seeming to tighten on the president and his circle.
Trump, who has decamped to his New Jersey golf estate for an 11-day working vacation, is at a critical juncture in the Russia investigation as he decides in coming days whether to sit for an interview with Mueller or defy investigators and risk being issued a subpoena.
“He’s more definitive than ever: This investigation should end now, and Mueller should put out what he has,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. “He doesn’t think they have anything, and he wants the country to move on.”
This portrait of Trump behind the scenes is based on interviews with 14 administrationofficials, presidential friends and outside advisers to the White House, many of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments.
Trump appeared to stand in conflict with his own government when he blasted the “Russian hoax” just hours after his national security team gathered at the White House on Thursday in a rare show of force to warn that Russia is yet again trying to interfere in U.S. elections. But a White House spokesman said Trump instructed them to hold the news conference and was adamant that they explain what the administration is doing to safeguard the midterm elections.
The frequency of the president’s mistruths has picked up, as well. The Washington Post Fact Checker found last week that Trump has now made 4,229 false or misleading claims so far in his presidency — an average of nearly 7.6 such claims per day, and an increase of 978 in just two months.
The campaign trail — where Trump held three mega-rallies in five days — has allowed him something of a respite, a chance for the reality-TV-star-turned-president to repackage his anger as something more campy, delivered with a showman’s élan.
On Thursday night, the president turned a Pennsylvania rally to support Republican Senate candidate Lou Barletta into a Trumpian grieve-fest, returning repeatedly to his favorite foil — the “fake, fake, disgusting news,” as he bellowed — to portray himself as a victim of chronically unfair coverage from “horrible, horrendous people.”
“The president is rightfully frustrated,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday, going on to argue that “90 percent of the coverage on him is negative.”
Trump’s indignation with the Mueller investigation has long been evident, but it is boiling over with growing ferocity. He has tweeted the phrase “witch hunt” a combined 46 times in June and July, up from 29 times in April and May, and more and more he is calling out Mueller by name.
Trump’s lawyers say it is the president himself who is calling the shots in what is becoming an all-out public relations blitz to discredit Mueller.
“With his great feel for public opinion and how to deal with it, he has a sense about what would work, what to say,” Giuliani said. “He sort of determines the public strategy, and we get his approval and input for the legal strategy.”
Trump has told some associates that Giuliani has convinced him Mueller has nothing incriminating about him. “Rudy’s told him the other player is bluffing with a pair of 2’s,” said one Trump adviser. And Trump has latched onto Giuliani’s talking point that “collusion is not a crime,” believing it is catchy and brilliantly simplistic, according to people with knowledge of internal talks.
Still, Trump has confided to friends and advisers that he is worried the Mueller probe could destroy the lives of what he calls “innocent and decent people” — namely Trump Jr., who is under scrutiny by Mueller for his role organizing a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. As one adviser described the president’s thinking, he does not believe his son purposefully broke the law, but is fearful nonetheless that Trump Jr. inadvertently may have wandered into legal jeopardy.
In a tweet early Sunday, Trump called it “a complete fabrication” that he was worried about his eldest son. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics — and it went nowhere,” the president wrote. “I did not know about it.”
Trump also has seethed privately about the trial of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. As coverage of the trial played on cable television in a blinking loop all around him this past week, he kept hearing another name on the shows: Trump.
The president privately fumed to one friend after another — on Air Force One, in the Oval Office and over the phone — that Manafort “has absolutely nothing to do with me,” according to people close to him. Although Trump tells them he feels bad for Manafort, he also has been complimentary of Judge T.S. Ellis, who has asked sharp questions of Mueller’s prosecutors.
“He is completely outraged by the way Manafort has been treated, with the solitary confinement and all of that,” Giuliani said. “It’s obvious to him that they’re all but torturing Manafort in order to try to get him to flip.”
As Trump sees it, Mueller is aggressively prosecuting Manafort — detailing his alleged tax evasion and bank fraud scheme and flashing snapshots of his extravagant wardrobe for the jury — to deliberately embarrass Trump and undermine his presidency. And, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking, he believes the news media is complicit.