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How Robert Mueller shielded Trump's budget deal

Illustration of Trump watching TV
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Before President Trump agreed to support a 2-year budget deal that would inflate the national debt and allow $320 billion in new spending, he monitored Fox News for signs of rebellion. But instead of bringing up fiscal responsibility and the national debt, all his favorite hosts were talking about Robert Mueller.

Behind the scenes: Trump liked what he saw (or rather, what he didn't see), according to two administration officials familiar with the president's thinking.

  • His favorite hosts had little to say about the big-spending, Democrat-friendly, deal — a welcome contrast from last March, when they almost convinced him to veto a similarly spendy deal. (Trump vowed at the time he'd never sign another deal like it.)

The big picture: So how, just over a year later, did Trump end up supporting another deal that would massively increase spending and that 132 House Republicans voted against? Three sources close to the president described the factors that influenced his thinking:

  • Trump didn't want another chaotic government shutdown before November 2020.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who led the negotiations with Nancy Pelosi, was determined to stop a potential debt default later this year.
  • The deal boosts defense spending, which Republican leadership loves. Many members up for re-election have jobs in their districts that rely on the Pentagon.

But perhaps most important, some of the key people who would normally try to dissuade Trump from signing a big-spending deal were distracted by the Mueller hearings.

  • Sources familiar told me that Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan tried to talk Trump out of the budget deal but didn't throw as much weight into the effort as they could have because they were preoccupied with preparing for Mueller's congressional testimony.
    • Meadows is not on either of the committees that questioned Mueller, but did sit in the audience during the first hearing, had a behind-the-scenes role in the hearing preparation, and made lots of Fox News appearances about it.
  • Fox hosts, including Sean Hannity and Pete Hegseth, also focused on Mueller and didn't try to rally the Republican base against the deal. Hegseth didn't tweet about it once. 

The bottom line: All this has put Trump at ease about the politics of the budget deal he backs, according a source who has discussed it with senior administration officials.

  • The conservative blowback may still come — just later in the year when Trump has to sign the bills that will actually spend all this money. These bills will, inevitably, be filled with liberal priorities.
  • "In September, it's gonna get bloody," the source added.