WASHINGTON — News that special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has put President Donald Trump in his favorite position as he heads into his 2020 re-election campaign: the victim, fighting against an establishment that has tried to take him down.
“It’s a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it’s a shame that your president has had to go through this,” Trump told reporters after a summary of the report was made public over the weekend. “This was an illegal takedown that failed. And hopefully, somebody is going to be looking at the other side.”
It’s unusual for a president to run for re-election against a Washington establishment that he purportedly leads. And it is striking for one to be so willing to keep the focus on a wide-ranging investigation that led to criminal convictions against his former campaign manager, national security adviser and personal lawyer, among others, and that still could turn up more damaging information when additional details are released.
But for Trump and his allies, the report — which they and the public have yet to see — is nonetheless being wielded as a rallying cry for the supporters they need to return to the polls in November 2020 and as a weapon against Democrats and the media, whom they accuse of driving a false narrative in order to delegitimize Trump’s presidency.
Trump is expected to continue to push that theme at his political rallies, starting Thursday when he speaks in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“They’ve made Donald Trump look like the victim here because he has been,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Monday. On Tuesday, she said the investigation was “a witch hunt against the president and his campaign” and “an insult from the beginning” to those who worked for him.
“There were a lot of shenanigans going on because people did not want him to be elected president,” she said, accusing opponents of “deriding the Trump voters as the smelly Walmart shoppers.”
“If you even like the president, you’re a target,” Fox News host Sean Hannity, a close friend of the president, said on his talk radio show on Tuesday.
It’s a familiar playbook for Trump, whose 2016 campaign was a model of grievance politics, with constant claims that he was being “treated unfairly” by the media and the Republican Party. Trump frequently claimed the election was “rigged” against him — until he won. He embraced his Democratic rival’s attempts to paint his supporters as “deplorables,” saying he was fighting for the “forgotten men and women” whom he uniquely understood.
“Clearly, at least for now, the strategy will be to use this as part of this theme that he is a soldier for his base, he is being attacked on both sides, and that allows him to be the underdog and the outsider, even though he’s the president of the United States,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of American political history at Princeton University.
That approach, he said, differs from past presidents, as well as Vice President Al Gore, who tried to avoid talk of Clinton administration scandals in his losing 2000 race.
Past presidents have tried to discredit allegations, Zelizer says, “but then they are desperate to move on. They want to talk about issues, they want to talk about personality — anything but the scandal.”
Trump, for his part, is out for vengeance.
On Monday, he accused those who launched the investigation of having done “evil” deeds and “treasonous things against our country.” On Tuesday, he continued to stoke visions of a vast conspiracy against him.
“I think it went very high up,” he said. “It went very high up, and it started fairly low, but with instructions from the high up.”
Asked whether he thought “it reached the West Wing of the Obama White House,” Trump responded coyly: “I don’t want to say that, but I think you know the answer.”