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News Brief: Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Probe Concludes

Mar 25, 2019
Originally published on March 25, 2019 6:23 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Since the beginning of his administration, President Trump has been resolute when it comes to one particular phrase - no collusion. It was special counsel Robert Mueller's job in part to find that out.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now the special counsel's investigation is over. Trump and his White House now believe they have finally been exonerated, even though, on the point of obstruction of justice, the report says exactly the opposite. On Sunday, though, the attorney general, William Barr, sent his summary of Mueller's findings to Congress, two days after receiving it himself. And the same day, the president had this to say in Florida before boarding Air Force One.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It was just announced; there was no collusion with Russia - the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. There was no collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, and none whatsoever.

MARTIN: The president there highlighting William Barr, the attorney general's, conclusion that the special counsel found no evidence that the presidential campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the election.

GREENE: But the issue of obstruction of justice is more complicated. In his four-page letter to Congress, the attorney general stated that Mueller did not draw a conclusion one way or the other on whether President Trump or anyone in his White House interfered during the investigation. And Democratic leaders in the House are not satisfied; they want the full Mueller report to be made public. So what does all this mean for the president, for Congress, for the Department of Justice, for the country? A lot of big questions to tackle, and we have a whole team to do it with us - NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson; we have Ayesha Rascoe, who covers the White House for NPR; and we have congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Hello to all of you. What a busy time.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah, hi there.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Carrie, let me start with you. I mean, you spent much of the weekend getting ready for and then looking over this letter from the attorney general. I mean, two years - the slogan from the White House - no collusion; is that essentially what this investigation has found?

JOHNSON: Important to point out, David - we still do not have the full report from the special counsel Robert Mueller.

GREENE: Right.

JOHNSON: Instead we have some very brief written conclusions written by the Attorney General Bill Barr. But Barr does include a partial quote from Mueller; the investigation did not establish members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities. In other words, Russia interfered, but no American tied to the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated with the Russian government, even though Russians had dozens of contacts with people in the Trump orbit in 2016.

GREENE: OK, well, take me then through this obstruction of justice question because it seemed like Mueller left that question open when it comes to President Trump. But then the attorney general is now saying that even though the question was open from the special counsel, he's not going to charge the president. So explain the reasoning here.

JOHNSON: This is the most intriguing part of this story to me; the attorney general says the special counsel didn't make a call one way or another about whether the president should be charged for obstructing justice. The special counsel report does say - and this is a quote - "while this report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." Instead, for reasons I still don't fully understand, the attorney general stepped in and answered this question; he said no to charging the president.

And here's why - the AG says he considered the fact the president was not involved in any underlying crime - the conspiracy over Russian interference - and the attorney general also points out a lot of what President Trump did, like firing the FBI director Jim Comey, a lot of that was done in public, out in the open.

But I've been talking with lawyers all night long - former Justice Department officials, Democrats and Republicans - and they say this looks a little strange. You can still be guilty of obstruction if there was no underlying crime. Doing things out in the open like Trump did doesn't matter for many legal purposes. And they don't understand why Mueller has decided not to answer that question. There's an open issue of whether he wanted Congress to answer that question, and the attorney general and DOJ stepped in anyway.

GREENE: A lot more to dig into, it sounds like.

JOHNSON: Right, absolutely.

MARTIN: So Ayesha, let's bring you into this conversation. Clearly, the White House is celebrating, dare we say crowing a bit. What's the president and his team saying? What are the president and his team saying this morning?

RASCOE: Well, they are saying that this is a complete exoneration for the president. Now, obviously, as Carrie was just mentioning, there are still questions out there, especially when it comes to obstruction. But this is a huge win for the president. It's been a cloud over his presidency. If this probe had went another way, it really would have raised some existential questions about his administration. So this is a big deal. But even though he feels - President Trump feels like he's been exonerated, he's still attacking the validity of the probe. Here's what he said after Barr's report was released.

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TRUMP: This was an illegal takedown that failed.

MARTIN: Wow.

RASCOE: Yes (laughter).

MARTIN: So not just celebrating the fact that the conclusions bend in his favor, now he's suggesting that this was an illegal investigation to begin with?

RASCOE: From the beginning. And he's saying that the, quote, "other side" should be looked at; that will likely mean Democrats and, you know, kind of his opponents. And so this is something where he is taking a victory lap, but he's not exactly, you know, kind of now saying that Mueller is a great guy (laughter).

MARTIN: Right. It was a witch hunt then, and he's come up with a way to continue to criticize it, even though the overarching conclusions say that - you know, what the White House was looking for - that there was no collusion with Russia.

RASCOE: Yeah.

GREENE: Sue Davis, let me bring you in here. The so-called victory lap, the president coming out and saying total exonerations - are Republicans fully behind that message and that strategy with this president going forward, do you think?

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. I think Republicans on Capitol Hill characterize this as a vindication of the president, echoing his no collusion, no obstruction lines. The top Republicans on the House Judiciary - House and Senate Judiciary Committees - Doug Collins of Georgia in the House, Lindsey Graham in the Senate - essentially called on Democrats to rethink their investigations into this administration, to move on to other issues. Graham said in a statement that the cloud has been lifted over this presidency.

Now, I mean, again, to be clear, the letter said that the president was not legally exonerated, but in the political orbit, I think a lot of Republicans see this as a political exoneration and very much rallying behind the president.

GREENE: So what do you do if you're Democrats now? I mean, Democrats, they've just took over the house. They've just started, you know, leading these committees and saying it's time to investigate. It's time to hold this president accountable. Now you have this report come out. You have Republicans saying, like, hey, the cloud's been lifted. Let's move on to more important topics. What kind of position are Democrats in right now?

DAVIS: Well, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a joint statement, made clear again that the principal findings alone are not enough. They want to see the full report. Although, I will say that a lot of Republicans and many in the House have echoed that call. There's not a big pushback from Republicans, especially now that they've seen the principal findings, that they would be happy to see a more full release of the report.

Jerry Nadler, the head of the judiciary committee, still wants Barr to testify. The chairman made clear yesterday they're going to continue these lines of investigation. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff did allude to one of the big fights coming on TV yesterday.

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ADAM SCHIFF: This report is going to have to be made public, and of equal importance, the underlying evidence is going to have to be shared with Congress because that evidence not only goes to the issue of criminality, but it also goes to the issue of compromise.

DAVIS: The fight over the underlying documents. Democrats want to see every piece of evidence that Robert Mueller looked at to draw his conclusions. They're probably not going to get all of that because some of it is not subjected to release. And there's other - going to be other fights. Clearly, they're going to keep going. I do think Democrats have to be very aware of the fact that the president has just been given, you know, a very clear win in a lot of ways, and if they continue to pursue this path, they do run the risk of looking like they are on a political fishing expedition.

GREENE: Well, Carrie Johnson, let me bring you in here. Is - I mean, the whole question of whether the entire report will be released, whether the attorney general might be called to testify before Congress - what is likely to happen?

JOHNSON: Well, the attorney general says he's going to be reviewing - along with special counsel Bob Mueller, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - this underlying report. They need to scrub the report for any grand jury material, any material that would implicate several ongoing investigations and also for classification issues, sources and methods. But AG Bill Barr seems to suggest he's planning to release something longer. It may take awhile, given that process. And the other thing we should point out is that Barr is very likely to have to testify. It's unclear at this point whether the special counsel, who's winding down his responsibilities, will also be called to Capitol Hill as well.

GREENE: Well, there was a lot of mention in this letter to an important question about whether to release this to the public, being whether a lot of what is in Mueller's report has bearing on other legal investigations happening. What else is out there still right now?

JOHNSON: There is a lot, David. The Southern District of New York, federal prosecutors in Manhattan have had this ongoing campaign finance investigation involving the president's former fixer, Michael Cohen, and payments to women who allege they had affairs with Trump and trying to cover that up, allegedly, during the 2016 campaign. There are investigations in Brooklyn, N.Y., in Washington, D.C., in Alexandria, Va., and elsewhere.

And then, David, there are also state officials on the trail of The Trump Organization and some people in Trump's orbit, like his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. State officials in New York in particular are hot and heavy on those investigations; no sign they're going to be ending anytime soon.

MARTIN: I want to close by picking up on something that Sue mentioned; that this may not be a legal exoneration but perhaps a political one for the president, which is important because 2020 is very close. So I guess I would ask Sue and Ayesha, I mean, what are the political ramifications for the election? I mean, first, Ayesha, just what does this mean for the president going forward? What does that mean for his base? How does he parlay this into a re-election?

RASCOE: Trump is going to use this to fuel his base, and he's going to use this as further evidence that the media and the Democrats - you know, this idea that they were all out to get him, that he's being treated unfairly. And when you talk about other investigations, what he's going to do is say that look at what happened with this one. Look at what happened with this investigation; all these other investigations are the same and that they're false. So this is what he's going to kind of hammer on. I think we're going to hear a lot about how he was cleared, and there was no collusion, and he always said that.

MARTIN: Yeah. Sue?

DAVIS: I think that the Democratic field was competitive before the letter. I think it still is. I think Democrats do not run on Russia as much as the president says they do. And there will be changes, but it's still a very competitive presidential election.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Susan Davis. We had Ayesha Rascoe with us as well and NPR's Carrie Johnson. All three of you, thank you so much for your work and for sharing your reporting this morning. We appreciate it.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

JOHNSON: Happy to do it.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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