Written by Jack Healy and Alan Blinder
The celebrations began almost immediately. Over the weekend in midtown Manhattan, Lisa Joseph helped organize a “No Collusion Day” rally. In Houston, Anson Klaber took a bottle of Russian vodka and poultry to a dinner party. He wanted his friends to eat crow, but cooked chicken would have to do.
“I get one day where I can gloat about it, and you all get upset,” Klaber, 43, an apartment building manager, said of his largely liberal circle of friends, who were not amused. Instead, they were crestfallen that a special counsel investigation had, according to the Justice Department, found no coordination between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia’s election meddling.
For almost two years, Trump’s fiercest supporters echoed his attacks against the inquiry, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, as a “witch hunt” that should be shut down. “No collusion” became their rallying cry, and they sided with congressional Republicans whose efforts to discredit Mueller had divided Republican lawmakers.
Some conservatives said they decided months or years ago that there could have been no collaboration between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Over the weekend, they rejoiced.
“It’s just sad it had to happen,” said Joseph, 47, a stay-at-home mother who helped organize the Manhattan rally and also helped plan a 2017 “March Against Shariah” in Syracuse. “If the Democrats don’t stop investigating him, they are going to shoot themselves in the foot. If they keep going, they’re going to be defeated.”
Since Mueller was appointed in 2017, conservative Americans have run advertisements against the special counsel. Others signed petitions demanding his firing.
But by the time the initial rush of relief and vindication faded after Attorney General William Barr announced a summary of the special counsel’s findings on Sunday, Mueller was an afterthought to many of Trump’s fans. Instead, they shifted their anger to Democratic politicians, career government officials and the news media they said they blame for trying to drag down the president.
“The problem was not the special counsel,” the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of Trump’s most fervent evangelical supporters, said Tuesday. “The problem was the provision that allowed the special counsel unlimited time and money and power to make an investigation that did not have a solid foundation behind it.”
He said he expected Trump to “talk quite a bit about this.”
“I think, frankly, the Democrats have handed him a weapon for 2020,” Jeffress said. “I think the unfairness of this investigation, the attempt to overturn the 2016 election is going to energize the president’s base like no one can possibly imagine.”
Indeed, many conservatives said Mueller’s report only helped to confirm their disdain for the news media (“fake news,” they said) and for the multiple, ongoing investigations of the president and his businesses, which they have brushed aside as more hoaxes.
Still, it was not like Trump’s faithful suddenly approved of Mueller’s investigation, which has led to a half-dozen indictments or convictions of former Trump aides. In interviews from suburban Atlanta to Houston to Orange County, California, conservative supporters said they were still furious — and felt more besieged than ever.
Last year, Bruce Desautels introduced a resolution during the Nebraska state Republican convention to condemn the Mueller investigation as an “unjust attack” on the Trump administration, and he complained that Mueller had “chosen to obstinately pursue a face-saving charge of ‘obstructing justice’ where no criminality exists.”
On Tuesday, he was still spitting mad.
“If you’re asking whether I exonerate Mueller, whether I think he’s a fine guy, I don’t,” Desautels, 58, said. “This was a witch hunt, and anyone could see it from the beginning.”
To Desautels, Mueller seemed to be just another creature of Washington, an establishment-backing Republican unnerved by Trump’s approach to the capital.
“A decent guy, a real prosecutor who is playing fair, would have looked at this thing and said, ‘I’m not touching this thing, this is obviously politically motivated,’” he said. “This is a black mark on the American judicial system.”
Some Trump supporters drew parallels to the 2016 election, when they said their support for Trump was discounted and derided by Democrats and mainstream media predictions up until the moment he won.
In June 2017, the Great America Alliance, an advocacy group that supports Trump’s agenda, posted a campaign-style web video attacking the Mueller inquiry as a “rigged game” out to get the president. The group’s chairman, Eric Beach, said it is planning new videos, which will draw from the Justice Department’s publicly available summary of the Mueller report.
Dan Dieterle, who runs a barbecue restaurant in suburban Atlanta, faulted Mueller for pursuing an expensive and time-consuming inquiry that, at least according to the attorney general, showed no criminal conduct by Trump.
“What scares the bejesus out of me is that this is the United States of America, and for a group of people to do what they’ve done to this man, who was duly elected, and people in his wake, it scares the heck out of me,” said Dieterle, who used to have a cutout of Trump at another restaurant he ran in north Georgia. “There was absolutely no reason to go after the man. They went after him because they didn’t like him.”
Dieterle said “the whole thing was a farce from the beginning” and that he had not had much faith in Mueller.
“Mueller didn’t exonerate him,” he said. “Trump exonerated himself.”