As President Trump met with advisers in the Oval Office in May 2017 to discuss replacements for the F.B.I. director he had just fired, Attorney General Jeff Sessions slipped out of the room to take a call.
When he came back, he gave Mr. Trump bad news: Robert S. Mueller III had just been appointed as a special counsel to take over the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and any actions by the president to impede it.
Mr. Trump slumped in his chair. “Oh, my God,” he said. “This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”
It has not been the end of his presidency, but it has come to consume it. Although the resulting two-year investigation ended without charges against Mr. Trump, Mr. Mueller’s report painted a damning portrait of a White House dominated by a president desperate to thwart the inquiry only to be restrained by aides equally desperate to thwart his orders.
The White House that emerges from more than 400 pages of Mr. Mueller’s report is a hotbed of conflict infused by a culture of dishonesty — defined by a president who lies to the public and his own staff, then tries to get his aides to lie for him. Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened to fire lieutenants who did not carry out his wishes while they repeatedly threatened to resign rather than cross lines of propriety or law.
At one juncture after another, Mr. Trump made his troubles worse, giving in to anger and grievance and lashing out in ways that turned advisers into witnesses against him. He was saved from an accusation of obstruction of justice, the report makes clear, in part because aides saw danger and stopped him from following his own instincts. Based on contemporaneous notes, emails, texts and F.B.I. interviews, the report draws out scene after scene of a White House on the edge.
At one point, Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, said the president’s attacks on his own attorney general meant that he had “D.O.J. by the throat.” At another, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, complained to Mr. Priebus that the president was trying to get him to “do crazy shit.” Mr. Trump was equally unhappy with Mr. McGahn, calling him a “lying bastard.”
‘We’ll Take Care of You’
From its first days, Mr. Trump’s presidency struggled to contain the threat stemming from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and suspicions about his team’s contacts with Moscow.
Just weeks after taking office, Mr. Trump pushed out his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who lied to the F.B.I. about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
But Mr. Trump hugged Mr. Flynn, telling him: “We’ll give you a good recommendation. You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you.”
Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, mistakenly assumed that getting rid of Mr. Flynn would derail the investigation then being led by James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director. During lunch with Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey, Mr. Flynn called and Mr. Kushner spoke with him.
“The president cares about you,” Mr. Kushner told Mr. Flynn. “I’ll get the president to send out a positive tweet about you later.”
Mr. Trump was worried about Mr. Comey, too. During the lunch, he asked Mr. Christie to call his friend Mr. Comey. “Tell him he’s part of the team,” Mr. Trump instructed.
Mr. Christie thought the president’s request was “nonsensical” and never followed through.
Other advisers feared Mr. Trump was not telling the truth to the public. After a news conference at which he denied any business dealings in Russia, Michael D. Cohen, then the president’s personal lawyer who had been trying to arrange a Trump Tower in Moscow, expressed concern.
Mr. Trump said that the project had not yet been finalized. “Why mention it if it is not a deal?” he said.
‘You Left Me on an Island’
With the investigation bearing down on him, Mr. Trump wanted to make sure Mr. Sessions remained in charge at the Justice Department, and he asked Mr. McGahn to tell the attorney general not to recuse himself because of his work on the Trump campaign. Mr. McGahn tried to head off a recusal by calling the attorney general three times, but Mr. Sessions announced his recusal that afternoon.
Mr. Trump was furious. Summoning Mr. McGahn to the Oval Office the next day, he said, “I don’t have a lawyer,” and added that he wished Roy Cohn, the famed bare-knuckled attorney who once worked for him in New York, was still his lawyer. Mr. Trump said that Robert F. Kennedy protected John F. Kennedy, and Eric H. Holder Jr. protected Barack Obama.
“You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations?” he demanded. “Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?”
Mr. Trump screamed at Mr. McGahn about how weak Mr. Sessions was, and Stephen K. Bannon, then the president’s chief strategist, thought he was as mad as he had ever seen him.
The president asked Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, if he could do anything to rebut news stories on the Russia matter. The admiral’s deputy, Richard Ledgett, who was present for the call, considered it the most unusual experience of his 40 years in government and prepared a memo describing the call that he and Admiral Rogers signed and put in a safe.
Mr. Trump groused about the Russia investigation with his intelligence chiefs on multiple other occasions. At one point, Admiral Rogers recalled a private conversation in which the president said something like the “Russia thing has got to go away.” But the intelligence chiefs said they did not feel pressured to take specific actions.
Mr. Trump increasingly focused his ire on Mr. Comey, who during testimony on Capitol Hill on May 3, 2017, refused to answer questions about whether the president himself was under investigation.
Angry, Mr. Trump wheeled on Mr. Sessions. “This is terrible, Jeff,” he said. “It’s all because you recused.” He added: “You left me on an island. I can’t do anything.”
Mr. Sessions said he had no choice, but said that a new start at the F.B.I. would be appropriate and that the president should consider replacing Mr. Comey.
Mr. Trump was fixated on the F.B.I. director. Mr. Bannon recalled that he brought up Mr. Comey at least eight times on May 3 and May 4. “He told me three times I’m not under investigation,” the president said. “He’s a showboater. He’s a grandstander. I don’t know any Russians. There was no collusion.”
Mr. Bannon told Mr. Trump that he could not fire Mr. Comey because “that ship has sailed” and that it would not stop the investigation.
‘The Beginning of the End?’
Mr. Trump ignored the advice and fired Mr. Comey on May 9, justifying it on criticism of his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email the year before. Overruling objections by Mr. McGahn and Mr. Priebus, Mr. Trump insisted that the letter firing the F.B.I. director state that Mr. Comey told him three times the president was not under investigation.
Aides were alarmed. “Is this the beginning of the end?” Annie Donaldson, Mr. McGahn’s chief of staff, wrote in her notes.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the president’s deputy press secretary, told reporters that the White House had talked to “countless members of the F.B.I.” who supported the decision to fire the director — but she later admitted to investigators that it was not true. Her comment, she said, was “a slip of the tongue” made “in the heat of the moment” and not founded on anything.
Mr. Comey’s dismissal led the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to appoint Mr. Mueller, a former F.B.I. director, to take over the investigation. Fearing it would mean the end of his presidency, Mr. Trump lashed out again at Mr. Sessions.
“How could you let this happen, Jeff?” he demanded. He told Mr. Sessions, “You were supposed to protect me,” or words to that effect.
“Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels, it ruins your presidency,” he added. “It takes years and years, and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
Mr. Trump demanded that his attorney general resign. Mr. Sessions said he would, and he returned to the Oval Office the next day with a resignation letter he handed to Mr. Trump.
The president put the letter in his pocket and repeatedly asked Mr. Sessions whether he wanted to continue serving as attorney general. When Mr. Sessions finally said he did, the president said he wanted him to stay. The two shook hands, but Mr. Trump kept the letter.
When they learned about the letter, Mr. Priebus and Mr. Bannon worried that if he kept it, Mr. Trump could use it to improperly influence Mr. Sessions; it would, said Mr. Priebus, serve as a “shock collar” keeping the attorney general on a leash.
The next day, May 19, Mr. Trump left the White House for the Middle East. On Air Force One flying from Saudi Arabia to Israel three days later, the president took the letter from his pocket and showed it off to aides. Later on the trip, when Mr. Priebus asked Mr. Trump for the letter, the president claimed he did not have it and it was actually back at the White House.
Three days after the president returned to Washington, he finally returned the letter to Mr. Sessions with a note: “Not accepted.”
But he did not give up trying to regain control of the investigation, calling Mr. Sessions at home to ask if he would “unrecuse” himself and direct the Justice Department to prosecute Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Sessions refused.
‘Mueller Has to Go’
If the attorney general would not rein in the special counsel, Mr. Trump resolved to find someone who would. On June 17, Mr. Trump called Mr. McGahn from Camp David and told him to have Mr. Rosenstein fire Mr. Mueller because of conflicts of interest.
During a 23-minute conversation, Mr. Trump said something along the lines of: “You got to do this. You got to call Rod.” Mr. McGahn, who along with other advisers believed that the supposed conflicts were “silly” and “not real,” was perturbed by the call.
The president then called again. “Mueller has to go,” he told Mr. McGahn. “Call me back when you do it.”
Mr. McGahn decided he would resign, determined not to repeat the experience of Robert H. Bork, who complied with President Richard M. Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate prosecutor during the Saturday Night Massacre before going on to serve as an appeals court judge.
Mr. McGahn, saying that he wanted to be more like Judge Bork and not “Saturday Night Massacre Bork,” drove to the office to pack his possessions and submit his resignation. When Mr. McGahn told Mr. Priebus and Mr. Bannon, they urged him not to resign and he backed off.
Undeterred, Mr. Trump summoned his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to the White House two days later and dictated a message for him to deliver to Mr. Sessions that would have effectively limited the scope of the investigation to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In the message, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Sessions to give a speech declaring that Mr. Trump was “being treated very unfairly” by the investigation.
“He shouldn’t have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel b/c he hasn’t done anything wrong,” Mr. Sessions was to say. “I was on the campaign w/him for nine months, there were no Russians involved with him. I know it for a fact b/c I was there. He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.”
A scheduling conflict scotched the meeting, but Mr. Trump raised it again a month later, saying that if Mr. Sessions did not meet, Mr. Lewandowski should tell him he was fired. Mr. Lewandowski assured him that the message would be delivered.
Hours later, the president criticized the attorney general in an interview with The New York Times. While the meeting with Mr. Lewandowski was never held, Mr. Sessions understood his tenuous position and carried a letter of resignation in his pocket every time he visited the White House.
‘Boss Man Worried’
In late June, presidential advisers and lawyers learned about a Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the campaign hosted by Donald Trump Jr., along with Mr. Kushner and Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman. But the president said he did not want to hear about it.
A few days later, at the office of Mr. Kushner’s lawyer, Hope Hicks, the president’s communications adviser, saw emails about setting up the meeting and offering “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton on behalf of the Russian government. In a meeting, Mr. Kushner played down the encounter with the Russians, telling the president it was about adoption.
Ms. Hicks suggested getting ahead of the story by having Donald Trump Jr. release the emails as part of an interview with “softball questions.” She warned that the emails were “really bad” and the story would be “massive” when it broke, but the president again said he did not want to hear about it.
On July 7, while the president was at the G-20 summit meeting in Germany, Ms. Hicks learned that The Times was preparing a story about the Trump Tower meeting. Ms. Hicks, on the flight home from Germany, recommended disclosing the entire story, but the president rebuffed her, saying a draft statement said too much.
Instead, Mr. Trump suggested the statement say that his eldest son had attended a meeting about Russian adoptions.
Ms. Hicks then texted Donald Trump Jr. a statement asking if that was all right. The president’s son wanted to insert that they “primarily” discussed Russian adoption because, as he texted to Ms. Hicks, they “started with some Hillary thing which was bs and some other nonsense which we shot down fast.”
Ms. Hicks responded: “I think that’s right too but boss man worried it invites a lot of questions.” The younger Mr. Trump, who urged releasing the emails themselves, finally did once the White House learned that The Times was about to publish them.
‘I’ll Have to Get Rid of Him’
Mr. Trump did not stop pressing Mr. Sessions to take back control of the investigation. On Oct. 16, the president met privately with Mr. Sessions and said he should look again at Mrs. Clinton’s emails. Mr. Sessions made no promises.
Two days later, the president posted the first of several tweets in the coming weeks complaining that the Justice Department was not investigating Mrs. Clinton. One of the tweets concluded: “DO SOMETHING!”
The pressure on the president rose in November when Mr. Flynn’s lawyers told Mr. Trump’s team that he would be accepting a plea deal. One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers left a voice mail message for one of Mr. Flynn’s: “[R]emember what we’ve always said about the president and his feelings toward Flynn and, that still remains.”
On Dec. 6, five days after Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about contacts with the Russian government, Mr. Trump pulled Mr. Sessions aside after a cabinet meeting and again suggested he “unrecuse” himself. “You’d be a hero,” he said, while saying he was not going to “direct you to do anything.”
In January 2018, The Times reported about the president’s June 2017 effort to have Mr. Mueller fired. A livid Mr. Trump pressed Mr. McGahn to publicly rebut the story, but he would not because the article accurately reported the president’s desires.
Mr. Trump insisted that Mr. McGahn deny it. “If he doesn’t write a letter, then maybe I’ll have to get rid of him,” the president said, or something to that effect.
John F. Kelly, who had replaced Mr. Priebus as chief of staff, then arranged a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. McGahn.
“I never said to fire Mueller,” Mr. Trump said. “I never said ‘fire.’ This story doesn’t look good. You need to correct this. You’re the White House counsel.”
“Did I say the word ‘fire’?” he asked.
“What you said is, ‘Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the special counsel,’” Mr. McGahn replied. He refused the president’s request that he “do a correction.”
Mr. Trump then complained about Mr. McGahn writing things down. “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.”
Mr. McGahn maintained he took notes because he was a “real lawyer” and they create a record.
“I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn,” Mr. Trump said. “He did not take notes.”
But Mr. McGahn did. And so did plenty of others.