- Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker The Washington Post
President Donald Trump has expressed certainty that the special-counsel probe into his campaign's possible collusion with Russia will be finished by the end of the year, complete with an exoneration from Robert Mueller, according to several friends who have spoken with him in recent days.
Trump has dismissed his historically low approval ratings as "fake" and boasted about what he calls the unprecedented achievements of his presidency, even while chatting behind the scenes, saying no president since Harry Truman has accomplished as much at this point.
Trump also has occasionally questioned whether the "Access Hollywood" video of him crowing about assaulting women was doctored or inauthentic, asking confidants whether they think the sexual braggart on tape sounds like him, according to two people who have heard him make the comments.
In all these instances, as well as other setbacks, Trump has sought to paint the rosiest possible picture of his presidency and his character - and has tried to will others to see it his way, like the big-promises salesman he once was.
Sometimes, as with his comments about the "Access Hollywood" tape, which were first reported by the New York Times, Trump simply rejects facts — and his own past admissions — as he spins a new narrative. His critics accuse him of creating an alternative reality, though people close to the president say he is simply a savvy marketer protecting his brand, as any businessman or politician would.
This practice, however, could prove problematic for a president of the United States whose careless tweets or misleading statements can send the globe reeling.
"He creates his own reality and lives in his own reality and tries to bend reality around himself and his own deep narcissistic needs," said Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "But, of course, in the end reality wins out, and trying to disfigure it or reinterpret it doesn't work."
The first year of Trump's presidency has brought tumult and chaos, including the expanding Russia probe, an absence of major legislative achievements and instances of self-sabotage by the president himself. But in recent days, Trump has been in an unusually upbeat mood, according to friends who visited with him.
At Mar-a-Lago, where he spent the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump again and again received congratulations from wealthy club members for the work of his administration, according to several people who spoke with him. They assured him he was doing great things and simply wasn't being appreciated by the media — a view he was glad others shared.
Trump's lifelong tendency to project supreme confidence has served him well, especially in the worlds of real estate and celebrity, where braggadocio and self-assurance are valuable commodities. And in some cases it has left him vindicated, particularly in a presidential bid the establishment mocked as destined for defeat.
"Trump is a survivor. It's one of his great skills," said Tim O'Brien, author of the biography "TrumpNation" and executive editor of Bloomberg View. "When you look back on all the adversity he's overcome - he's survived three marriages, a brush with personal bankruptcy, he's overseen several corporate bankruptcies, he's been through withering press coverage . . . I think he tells fables to himself, about himself, to create the narrative he wants to see."
Trump has taken special comfort in the reassurances of White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who has offered Trump an optimistic view of the Russia probe, saying that he expects Mueller's investigation to wrap up by the end of the year and that the White House has little to fear, said two White House officials with knowledge of the conversations.
After Mueller's indictment of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Trump had a number of conversations with his attorneys and asked other advisers whether he was being served well, according to one of the White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Cobb — who initially said he hoped the probe would have concluded by Thanksgiving — has told Trump and other White House officials that Mueller's investigators will have completed all of their interviews within two weeks and that the special counsel's office is no longer requesting new documents, the White House official said. Then, Trump's legal team has suggested, Mueller's office could write a report clearing the White House.
Hanging out at Mar-a-Lago and at his South Florida golf clubs, Trump told friends, "This investigation's going to be over with pretty soon," adding that his attorneys, whom he praised as "brilliant," had assured him of it, according to two people familiar with the conversations.
Cobb declined to detail his counsel to Trump. "At this stage on the investigation, I don't want to interfere in the process of the special counsel or talk about any specific discussions that I'm having with the president," Cobb said in an interview.
Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, said: "There are plenty of us who believe the Mueller probe is a lot closer to an end than people think. . . . We've got a case where some people did some stupid things, and none of them involved anything as sinister as what the president's been accused of."
Some Trump aides and confidants worry about the president's optimistic assessment of the situation, which he has repeated in conversations in recent weeks, waxing enthusiastically about how he's eager to be out from under the Russia cloud by 2018.
One outside adviser to Trump warned that the president would "blow a gasket" if there was no statement of exoneration by year's end.
Even when presented with irrefutable evidence, Trump finds a way to question unflattering facts.
Trump has occasionally told senior advisers that the "Access Hollywood" tape could be fabricated or may not be real, according to two people who have heard him make the comments. At various moments — including during huddles with his aides at Trump Tower after he won the election and before taking office — Trump has sought to distance himself from the tape.
Trump has asked others whether they think the voice sounds like him, suggesting that it does not, and has wondered aloud whether perhaps the tape was doctored or edited in an unfair way to villainize him.
"He would just assert it, and people would kind of say, 'OK, let's move along,' " said one person who had heard the comments. "There's no point in sitting there and litigating it with him."
A second person who has discussed the tape with Trump recalled, "He says: 'It's really not me. I don't talk like that.' "
After the tape was divulged by The Washington Post in October 2016, Trump acknowledged its authenticity and apologized for his crude comments. Asked Monday about reports of the president's private remarks, in which he seemed to cast doubt on the tape, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president addressed the "Access Hollywood" scandal during the campaign and won.
"This was litigated and certainly answered during the election by the overwhelming support for the president and the fact that he's sitting here in the Oval Office today," Sanders said Monday. "I think if anything that the president questions the media's reporting."
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said Trump's shifting stories about the "Access Hollywood" incident create whiplash.
"You can't one minute have an 'Access Hollywood' tape and apologize for it and then suddenly send smoke signals that it's not you," Brinkley said. "He just makes up his own goal posts and moves them around at will."
On the campaign trail, aides would often give Trump poll numbers showing him losing to or tied with Hillary Clinton, but when he took the stage at rallies he would pepper his speeches with claims of polls showing him winning.
As president, amid tumult such as the repeated failures to pass a health-care bill, Trump will call advisers and friends to boast about his successes and all but ignore setbacks.
On Tuesday, Trump declared on Twitter that no deal could be reached with congressional Democrats, leading Democratic leaders to pull out of a bipartisan meeting at the White House. Even as a government shutdown appeared more likely, Trump put his own spin on the day's events, which also included a trip to Capitol to push the GOP tax bill with Republican senators.
"We had a good day today," Trump told reporters. "We had a phenomenal meeting with the Republican senators. It was very special, that meeting."
The meeting was, the president insisted, "somewhat of a lovefest."