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Bitter Trump hopes to flip Mueller's findings into campaign fodder

Still consumed by Robert Mueller's investigation and upset with the aides who cooperated with it, President Donald Trump hopes to use the unflattering findings to jolt Republicans ahead of a heated political season, according to officials and others close to him.

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Kevin Liptak
Jamie Gangel, CNN
CNN — Still consumed by Robert Mueller's investigation and upset with the aides who cooperated with it, President Donald Trump hopes to use the unflattering findings to jolt Republicans ahead of a heated political season, according to officials and others close to him.

It's a loose strategy that has left some advisers dismayed the probe's conclusion isn't being met as a moment to move forward. Instead, Trump is lingering on the findings and hoping his supporters find them just as infuriating as he does.

There was evidence this weekend for his fresh appeal to conservatives.

Trump's golf foursomes are typically kept quiet. So it was something of a surprise Saturday when the White House emailed reporters three pictures, taken by an official photographer, of Trump in his golf gear alongside Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio firebrand whose audience Trump has deemed essential to his political future.

Smiling and flashing a thumbs-up, Trump appeared on the surface undisturbed by the growing impression, fueled by special counsel Robert Mueller's report, that his White House is rife with dishonesty, corruption and questionable demands from a paranoid leader.

But the photo release -- which officials said Trump ordered himself -- was nevertheless a sign of Trump's relentless focus on cultivating his base, an effort aides predict will only ramp up in the wake of Mueller's findings.

Instead of moving on from the "Achilles' heel" of Russian election interference, aides and people close to Trump predict he will continue stewing over the investigation as he works to convince his voters he was unfairly targeted. With his re-election campaign ready to enter a more intensive phase -- and with Democrats increasingly consuming political oxygen -- Trump also appears poised to continue a streak of impulsive policy undertakings and personnel moves as he works to galvanize conservative voters.

That's an outcome not wholly welcomed by some of Trump's advisers, who once hoped the end of the Russia investigation might be a turning point for a President who has spent much of his tenure preoccupied and furious over the examination into his campaign and behavior in office. Pleased the report did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, those advisers had hoped Trump could move forward.

But there is nothing to indicate a culture overhaul is in store for the West Wing after the deeply unflattering portrait of Trump's White House emerged in Mueller's report. Instead of soul searching, the President and his allies are dismissing the report's characterizations as baseless and preparing for continued battle over the two-year Mueller probe, even as the special counsel concludes his work.

Limbaugh, who along with a number of other conservative radio and television hosts comprise an informal Trump Cabinet, dismissed Mueller's report as "488 pages of gossip" on his Monday program.

"All of this is made up," Limbaugh said. "It's a smear job."

Trump also said Monday he'd spoken by phone with Lou Dobbs, the Fox News host whose hardline immigration stance the President has increasingly worked to mimic, particularly as more and more of his White House advisers adopt a "let Trump be Trump" stance toward governing.

Unsteady results

That impulse-driven approach has yielded unsteady results in the first part of this year. Trump's decision to overhaul the Department of Homeland Security was met with resistance from some Republican lawmakers, and one of his controversial choices to sit on the Federal Reserve board -- Herman Cain -- said Monday he was removing himself from the running after it became clear he would not garner enough support on Capitol Hill.

Elsewhere, Trump's policy agenda seems similarly uncertain. His diplomatic engagement with North Korea appears stalled after he walked away from a summit in Hanoi without an agreement. And a decision Monday to deepen the US crackdown on Iranian oil purchases caused the price of oil to spike.

People close to the White House say the recent spate of hasty decisions is a result of advisers -- including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney -- interfering less in Trump's decision-making, allowing him to follow his gut in ways previous aides did not. Indeed, Mueller's report is rich with examples of aides working around Trump to defy his orders, a perception of weakness he loathes.

Trump took umbrage at the report's portrayal of aides routinely ignoring his commands, including his former White House counsel Don McGahn, former campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski, former White House aide Rick Dearborn, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former staff secretary Rob Porter and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Asked Monday about the perception he was being ignored by his staff, Trump was terse.

"Nobody disobeys my orders," Trump said during a walkabout on the South Lawn for the annual Easter egg roll.

'Lying bastard'

In a weekend spent at his Florida club, Trump wavered between moments of cheerfulness spent with his family and some darker interludes, lambasting those former aides whose named interviews helped Mueller compose his portrait of an unscrupulous and warring White House.

People who spoke with Trump over the weekend said he had not yet read the full document but was keenly aware of which aides had spoken to Mueller and what information they had provided. He was particularly incensed at McGahn, with whom he'd already fallen out after learning his onetime counsel sat for hours of interviews with the special counsel's office.

Mueller's report documents some of that tension, including Trump deeming McGahn a "lying bastard" as he refused to rebut a story about Trump demanding Mueller be fired.

Since the report's release, Trump has contended that McGahn knew little of the inner workings of his campaign and was never a particularly close adviser, according to people who have spoken with him, casting the information he provided Mueller into question.

On Monday, McGahn was served with a subpoena by the House Judiciary Committee to appear before the panel -- one way Democrats plan to use Mueller's findings to map out future oversight pursuits, including public hearings with some of the report's key players.

That will include Attorney General William Barr, who is scheduled to testify next month, and could include Mueller himself, who Democrats are eager to hear from in person.

Trump views such blockbuster congressional hearings cautiously. Even though he publicly dismissed his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen as non-credible, he privately told confidants that Cohen's appearance before Congress in February was damaging.

This time, Trump is again questioning potential witnesses' credibility, insisting on Twitter that the special counsel had not called his closest aides for interviews -- despite speaking with his close confidant Hope Hicks, plus Lewandowski, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, campaign CEO Steve Bannon, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

"Isn't it amazing that the people who were closest to me, by far, and knew the Campaign better than anyone, were never even called to testify before Mueller," he wrote.

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