WASHINGTON — When US President Donald Trump first learned that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel to investigate whether his campaign had colluded with Russia, he worried it meant the end of his presidency.
“Oh my God. This is terrible,” Trump said in May 2017 to his attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions. “This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked,” he said.
According to Robert Mueller’s redacted report released Thursday, the president lashed out at Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the Department of Justice’s Russia probe.
“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency,” Trump told Sessions, according to Mueller’s report. “It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
“You were supposed to protect me,” Sessions recalled the president saying. Trump then told Sessions he should resign.
Mueller’s description of the exchange was drawn from interviews with Sessions and his chief of staff at the time, Jody Hunt.
“How could you let this happen, Jeff?” Trump reportedly asked Sessions.
The next day, Sessions handed Trump a resignation letter. Trump put the letter in his pocket, but asked if Sessions wanted to remain attorney general, the report said. When Sessions answered in the affirmative, Trump told him he could stay in his position and shook his hand.
But he held on to the resignation letter, the report said.
Just a few days later, Trump embarked on his first international trip as president, which included stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican.
The Justice Department announced Mueller’s appointment as special counsel on May 17. Trump arrived in Riyadh on May 20 and landed in Israel on May 22 where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and visited the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center.
Trump kept the resignation letter with him throughout the trip as he weighed whether he would ultimately accept the resignation or not, which was a source of concern to several campaign officials, including his chief of staff at the time, Reince Priebus.
“Priebus told Sessions it was not good for the President to have the letter because it would function as a kind of ‘shock collar’ that the President could use any time he wanted,” the report said, adding that Priebus once said that Trump had the Justice Department “by the throat.”
Trump’s trip abroad ended on May 27 in Taormina, Italy. Three days later, on May 30, Trump gave Sessions the letter back with a notation saying that he did not accept his resignation, according to Mueller.
Sessions eventually did resign in November 2018, at the president’s request.
On Thursday, US Attorney General William Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s 448-page investigation, which painted a damning picture of the president but did not conclude that his team conspired with Moscow to influence the 2016 election.
On the issue of whether Trump obstructed justice, Mueller left it to Barr and Rosenstein to determine if criminal charges were warranted. Both decided they weren’t.
The president has taken a victory lap since the report’s publication, tweeting that it was “Game over.”