In the end, President Trump didn’t fire Robert Mueller, defying the predictions of Democrats who were convinced he wouldn’t allow the special counsel to see his probe through to the end.
And Mr. Mueller, left to do his work, delivered a report that Mr. Trump called “total exoneration.”
But that didn’t mean the president was ready to let it go.
“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,” he said. “Before I even got elected, it began. And it began illegally. And hopefully, somebody is going to look at the other side.”
In a follow-up email to campaign supporters, Mr. Trump named names: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the 2020 Democratic field and the “Fake News Media.”
The president asked his loyal followers to send him cash as a show of solidarity, saying the investigation wasn’t just a probe of himself but an attempt to diminish the 2016 election results.
“Their mission was to SILENCE YOU,” he wrote.
The campaign also posted an online video showing clips of top Democrats who said they had seen evidence of collusion with Russia: Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.
The campaign stamped a large red “WRONG” over each claim and asked Americans to text “WITCHHUNT” to show their support for the president.
“Distraught and blindsided by the results of the 2016 elections, Democrats lied to the American people continually, hoping to undo the legitimate election of President Trump,” said Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager. “Despite a roving special counsel and desperate Democrats trailing him every step of the way, President Trump has kept his focus where it belongs: achieving for the American people.”
According to the four-page summary of Mr. Mueller’s work, he found Russian operatives did offer to work with Trump campaign figures, but he found no evidence any of Mr. Trump’s associates accepted the offers or worked with Russians.
Mr. Mueller was less definitive in his conclusions about the president’s behavior after the election, suggesting there were troubling actions that in some contexts may have been seen as obstruction. But Attorney General William P. Barr said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, particularly because there was no evidence of the underlying crime of conspiracy.
Mr. Mueller, in his report, specifically says his work “does not exonerate” the president.
Mr. Trump wasn’t having any of it.
“It’s complete exoneration. No collusion. No obstruction,” he said.
A White House spokesman later said it is not up to prosecutors to exonerate, but rather to bring charges. “They don’t prove a negative. That’s just silly,” spokesman Hogan Gidley said.
Mr. Trump was briefed on the Barr letter in Florida, where he spent the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Mr. Gidley said the president was “happy with how it all turned out.”
“This is very good,” the spokesman quoted Mr. Trump as saying after he was briefed.
The president’s supporters saw in the Justice Department letter not only vindication for Mr. Trump, but also black eyes for media and Mr. Trump’s critics.
“Every media outlet owes President Trump a nonstop apology for their continued claims that there was a conspiracy and that his presidency was illegitimate,” said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government.
Mr. Mueller did prosecute several figures from Mr. Trump’s orbit — including his former campaign chairman, his former national security adviser and his former personal attorney — but none of those cases involved a Russian-connected conspiracy to interfere in the election.
In the court of public opinion, the sheer length of the 2-year-old Mueller investigation could bolster the president’s view that the investigation was a “witch hunt.”
“I think the one thing that has hurt the Mueller investigation in the eyes of the public is how long it’s taken,” said Republican strategist Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department official who worked briefly on the president’s legal team. “You would think we would know by now whether there had been any overt or covert efforts by members of the Trump campaign to engage with the Russian government of Vladimir Putin to fix the election.”
Mr. Trump consistently insisted that was the case.
Less than a month into his presidency, he referred to the persistent accusations of “collusion” as “this Russian connection nonsense.” He soon began calling it a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”
By spring 2017, he had fired FBI Director James B. Comey, enraging his critics who said he was trying to cover up a conspiracy. They alleged that this action itself constituted obstruction of justice.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who wrote the letter that Mr. Trump used to justify firing Mr. Comey, then appointed Mr. Mueller to conduct an independent investigation.
Mr. Trump spent nearly two years offering some cooperation with the investigation privately while trying to undermine its legitimacy publicly.
His attacks on Mr. Mueller personally intensified, and he accused the special counsel of being “conflicted.”
In the days before the report’s release, the president tried another line of attack: that Mr. Rosenstein and Mr. Mueller were not elected to do anything.
“I have a deputy, appoints a man to write a report on me, to make a determination on my presidency,” Mr. Trump told Fox Business Network this week. “People will not stand for it. I had one of the greatest election victories in history.”
Some observers said the president’s view ignores the role of law enforcement.
“There’s nothing illegitimate about the Justice Department conducting investigations under the purview of Article II of the Constitution,” Mr. Corallo said. “The president is the one who appoints the leadership of the federal agencies. They serve at his pleasure.”
Mr. Trump did indeed appoint Mr. Rosenstein, who assumed oversight of the special counsel investigation when Jeff Sessions, as attorney general, recused himself, to the president’s everlasting criticism.
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.