Trump depicted in Mueller report feared being called a fraud

WASHINGTON (AP) — The fear was persistent.

As the Russia investigation heated up and threatened to shadow Donald Trump's presidency, he became increasingly concerned. But the portrait painted by special counsel Robert Mueller is not of a president who believed he or anyone on his campaign colluded with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.

Instead, the Trump of the Mueller report is gripped by fear that Americans would question the very legitimacy of his presidency. Would Trump, the man who put his name on skyscrapers and his imprint on television, be perceived as a cheater and a fraud?

To Trump, his victory over Hillary Clinton was both historic and overwhelming, though he won millions of votes less than did the Democratic candidate.

If people thought he'd won with the help of Russia, that glorious victory might be tainted.

Just a month after Election Day, on Dec. 10, 2016, reports surfaced that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded Russia interfered in the election and tried to boost Trump's presidential bid.

The next day, Trump went on Fox News and called the assessment "ridiculous" and "just another excuse." The intelligence community actually had "no idea if it's Russia or China or somebody," he argued.

"It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place," the Republican president-elect added.

The president's public narrative quickly shifted. He blamed Democrats and accused his political opponents of putting the story out because they "suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics."

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William Barr announces Mueller report release
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William Barr announces Mueller report release
Attorney General William Barr speaks alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O'Callaghan, left, about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Special counsel Robert Mueller's report, with redactions, as released on Thursday, April 18, 2019, is photographed in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
Four pages of special counsel Robert Mueller report on the witness table in the House Intelligence Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2019.. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as released on Thursday, April 18, 2019, is photographed in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
Attorney General William Barr speaks alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, and acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Edward O’Callaghan, left, about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Attorney General William Barr speaks alongside Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right, about the release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report during a news conference, Thursday, April 18, 2019, at the Department of Justice in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
The four page letter from Attorney General William Barr regarding special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report that includes written answers from President Donald Trump as released on Thursday, April 18, 2019, is photographed in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report that includes written answers from President Donald Trump as released on Thursday, April 18, 2019, is photographed in Washington. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)
Photojournalists photograph four pages of report by special counsel Robert Mueller on the witness table in the House Intelligence Committee hearing room on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
UNSPECIFIED - In this screenshot taken from the U.S. Department of Justice website, a page from the Mueller Report is seen on April 18, 2019. (Photo by Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - In this screenshot taken from the U.S. Department of Justice website, a redacted page from the Mueller Report is seen on April 18, 2019. (Photo by Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 18: The gavel of chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., is seen as media films a few pages of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election which was printed out by staff in the House Judiciary Committee's hearing room on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 18: Attorney General William Barr appears on a television in the Capitol subway to Rayburn building while conducting a news conference at the Justice Department on special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18: TV crews work outside of the Senate Judiciary Committee's office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on April 18, 2019. Today the Department of Justice released special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on Russian election interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18: TV crews work outside of the Senate Judiciary Committee's office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on April 18, 2019. Today the Department of Justice released special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on Russian election interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
A photo illustration dated April 18, 2019 in Washington, DC shows an editor looking at a photograph of US Attorney General William Barr (L) speaking about the release of the redacted version of the Mueller report, juxtaposed with US President Donald Trump's latest tweet (R) 'Game Over,' using a 'Game of Thrones' style montage that pictures him standing in dramatic fog. - Trump, backed by his attorney general, declared himself fully vindicated Thursday in the investigation into Russian election meddling and alleged collusion with his campaign -- even before the American people and lawmakers see the full probe report. (Photo by Eva HAMBACH / AFP) (Photo credit should read EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)
William Barr, U.S. attorney general, center, speaks as Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, right, and Ed O'Callaghan, principal deputy assistant Attorney General, listen during a news conference at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. Barr is set to release a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report today, and the document could leave everyone unsatisfied, President Donald Trump, lawmakers and the public. Photographer: Erik Lesser/Pool via Bloomberg
William Barr, U.S. attorney general, left, speaks as Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, listens during a news conference at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. Barr is set to release a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report today, and the document could leave everyone unsatisfied, President Donald Trump, lawmakers and the public. Photographer: Erik Lesser/Pool via Bloomberg
US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (R) listens while Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference about the release of the Mueller Report at the Department of Justice April 18, 2019, in Washington, DC. - US Attorney General Bill Barr said Thursday that the White House fully cooperated with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian election meddling and that President Donald Trump took no action to thwart the probe. 'There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,' Barr said ahead of the release of the Mueller report. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (R) listens while Attorney General William Barr speaks during a press conference about the release of the Mueller Report at the Department of Justice April 18, 2019, in Washington, DC. - US Attorney General Bill Barr said Thursday that the White House fully cooperated with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian election meddling and that President Donald Trump took no action to thwart the probe. 'There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks,' Barr said ahead of the release of the Mueller report. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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But the intelligence community's assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to sow discord among American voters and to help get Trump elected was his "Achilles' heel," one of his closest aides, Hope Hicks, would tell investigators.

In the months that followed, Trump reacted strenuously to investigations into links between the Russians and his campaign and transition teams.

Michael Flynn, who served on the transition team and would go on to be national security adviser, spoke with Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Flynn asked that Russia not retaliate against the United States because of sanctions announced by the Obama administration; the ambassador later told Flynn that Russia would hold back.

In the weeks that followed, Trump paid careful attention to what he saw as negative stories about Flynn. He grew increasingly angry when a story broke pointing out that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak.

By mid-February, Flynn was forced to resign.

A day later, as Trump was set to meet with FBI Director James Comey, the president had lunch with his confidant and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He told Christie he believed the Russia investigation would end because of Flynn's departure.

"Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It's over," Trump said.

That couldn't have been further from the truth.

The fear — and Trump's anger — continued for months as the Russia investigation ensnared some of his closest confidants. Over and over, he would tell advisers that he thought the public narrative about Russian election interference was created to undermine his win. It was a personal attack, he insisted.

On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey. Trump would later admit in an interview that he had considered "this Russia thing" when he decided to fire Comey.

Days later, Trump held an Oval Office meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House lawyer Don McGahn and Sessions' chief of staff Jody Hunt to interview candidates to be the next FBI director.

Sessions walked out of the room to take a call from his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. When he returned, he informed Trump that Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump feared that his presidency, still in its infancy, could be over. And he was furious his aides hadn't protected him.

The president slumped back in his chair.

"Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm f---ed. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me," he said.

For months, as the Russia investigation grew and more people in Trump's inner circle appeared to be under intense scrutiny from federal investigators, Trump became completely preoccupied with press coverage of the probe. The message was persistent: It raises questions about the legitimacy of the election.

At rallies and on Twitter, Trump decried what he said was a politically motivated "witch hunt."

In the end, the redacted version of Mueller's report cleared the Trump campaign of colluding with Russian efforts to influence the election.

Trump crowed that the report found "No Collusion." But he ignored Mueller's finding that Russian meddling was very real and was intended to support Trump's campaign.

Did Russia's efforts lead to Trump's victory? Mueller doesn't venture an opinion, much as he does not decide whether Trump committed obstruction of justice.

But how could Trump have obstructed justice if there was no collusion to hide?

The lack of an underlying crime doesn't really matter, Mueller argued. Trump still had a motivation to obstruct the investigation — the fear that people would question the legitimacy of his election.

EDITOR'S NOTE - Another in a series of stories focusing on events detailed in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, drawing from the document's trove.

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