A battalion of White House aides entered the Oval Office together to present a unified front after the bombshell.
The Justice Department had appointed a special prosecutor to oversee the probe into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential election, White House counsel Don McGahn had just told President Donald Trump. Many of Trump’s top aides gathered with the president Wednesday evening just after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein signed the order and called McGahn — and just before the news exploded publicly in Washington.
Trump handled it better than anyone expected, according to a person in the room. His reaction was “extremely measured,” another said.
He didn’t yell or scream. He told the assembled crowd they had nothing to hide.
But that levelheadedness was quickly replaced Thursday morning by a wounded tweeter in chief lashing out — as some of his staffers had been expecting the news would bring out.
“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel appointed!” Trump tweeted, after an unusually quiet 24 hours online.
He added in a second tweet: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
The change in attitude followed a typical pattern with Trump: accepting a defeat in real time, then later raging against it after talking to friends and watching television. After his first attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare failed, he was calm and conciliatory, then later began blasting the House Freedom Caucus from his online pulpit.
True to form, Thursday’s screed was a stark contrast to the response Wednesday night in the Oval Office, according to aides present, where the mood in the room appeared to be one of resigned acceptance even though they were blindsided. “Everyone knew this wasn’t good news,” this person said.
The announcement marked yet another severe blow to the 45th president just 118 days into his term. It followed eight days of chaos inside the White House after the president suddenly fired FBI Director James Comey, further crippling an administration already struggling with internal discord and mounting crises at home and abroad.
The president Wednesday afternoon had been interviewing candidates for FBI director when the news arrived. His staff had no advance notice that a special prosecutor would be appointed.
The crowd entering Trump’s office was sizable, as is often the case: chief of staff Reince Priebus, McGahn and other lawyers, senior advisers Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner, communications aides Michael Dubke and Hope Hicks and others.
Aides outlined the background of the special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who Trump had met before. Some explained to the president what a special prosecutor can do.
Over the course of about 40 minutes, aides streamed in and out of the Oval Office. The team drafted a statement from the president for Trump’s approval. A gaggle of reporters camped outside press secretary Sean Spicer’s office to wait for it.
It was released Wednesday at about 7:20 p.m., 80 minutes after the Justice Department’s public announcement and two hours after staff first got word of the action.
“As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” Trump said in the statement. “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”
Priebus and Trump together delivered a rally-the-troops message to the team: “This is an opportunity to let them do their work so we can do ours,” Priebus and Trump both reiterated multiple times to the aides gathered.
Outside the White House grounds, the news would soon be interpreted as a potential step that could drain the presidency for months to come.
Trump’s upbeat response surprised some aides, though it brought the team together in the face of a common outside threat, according to a source who was present Wednesday.
No one really thinks having a special prosecutor is good and no one is “happy” about it, a senior administration official said.
But the communications staff agreed on a positive message for the wrenching news: Because of the special prosecutor, the brewing Russia-related controversies would become something “that we just can’t talk about,” one aide said.
In the communications office, which has suffered some of the most brutal criticism internally from Trump, the feeling was the special counsel would be a burden off its shoulders.
In the weeks leading up to the decision to appoint a special counsel, Spicer and deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders both publicly said there was no need for the step Rosenstein finally took Wednesday.
Now, Spicer and other briefers would no longer have to look as if they were stonewalling on Russia questions, and could refer those elsewhere.
Aides are now urging Trump to tweet and speak cautiously. “I think he actually understands what a mess this is,” one person said. “He has lawyers telling him nonstop what the stakes are here.”
On Thursday, Trump was to meet at the White House with the president of Colombia and participate in a joint news conference in the afternoon.
He’ll depart Friday for his first international trip as president: an eight-day, five-country journey from Saudi Arabia to Israel to the Vatican to Brussels to Sicily, where he is attempting to shift the narrative away from his domestic crises.
One of the things Trump is most looking forward to about his upcoming trip, according to a White House aide, is a reprieve from the daily press briefings.
On Wednesday night, a person close to him said, Trump was in the White House residence talking to friends and associates about how it was playing on TV.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.