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Special Counsel Robert Mueller Makes First Public Comments On Russia Investigation

May 29, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 9:09 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today for the first time since his appointment two years ago, special counsel Robert Mueller publicly described the findings of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was also the first time the nation heard his voice since he began his work.

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ROBERT MUELLER: I have not spoken publicly during our investigation. I am speaking out today because our investigation is complete. The attorney general has made the report on our investigation largely public.

SHAPIRO: To begin the hour, we're going to spend some time listening to what Mueller said this morning with analysis from our correspondents, and we begin with NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who was in that room at the Justice Department this morning and joins us in the studio now. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: OK, so Robert Mueller started his comments by laying out why he was appointed in the first place. Quote, "the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system." Let's listen.

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MUELLER: They stole private information and then released that information through fake online identities and through the organization WikiLeaks. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, what other details did he provide about Russia's efforts to interfere in the election?

JOHNSON: The special counsel reminded us all that the Russians broke into computers and networks owned by the Clinton campaign and that there was a separate but related social media operation by the Russians where they posed as Americans and tried to highlight divisive social issues like race and guns.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a little bit more about what Mueller and his team found.

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MUELLER: The matters we investigated were of paramount importance. It was critical for us to obtain full and accurate information from every person we questioned. When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government's effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.

SHAPIRO: That word obstructs has caused a lot of controversy and conversation today, Carrie. Why was it important that the special counsel spell this out?

JOHNSON: Well, because contrary to the words of Rudy Giuliani and other allies of President Trump, obstruction is a serious crime, not just a process or a paperwork crime. And in some cases, the special counsel's report concluded they couldn't get to the bottom of everything that happened in 2016 because people wouldn't testify, because emails were missing or because there were so many lies told in the course of this investigation.

SHAPIRO: And Mueller also this morning talked about the limits of his authority. He went into why the office, in his words, did not make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.

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MUELLER: Under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited. The special counsel's office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation, it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.

SHAPIRO: So Carrie, tell us more about the Justice Department's policy here.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Mueller is talking about longstanding legal interpretations by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. You cannot charge a sitting president with criminal wrongdoing, and Mueller followed that authority. He didn't go there in this case. But he also said, Ari, that if they had determined after reviewing all the evidence the president was exonerated, that they could clear him, they would have said so, and Mueller said they couldn't and did not say that.

SHAPIRO: Elsewhere in the program, we're going to hear about the White House response to that. Mueller also spoke more about why he did so many interviews with witnesses and collected such an enormous number of documents. Let's listen to that part of his remarks from this morning.

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MUELLER: First the opinion explicitly permits the investigation of a sitting president because it is important to preserve evidence while memories are fresh and documents available. Among other things, that evidence could be used if there were co-conspirators who could be charged now.

SHAPIRO: And that information has not yet been made public. Carrie, what happens to it now?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department has that information, Ari, and in theory, it could be held and used potentially against President Trump if and when he leaves office even though the current attorney general, Bill Barr, says he determined President Trump did not break the law. Congress wants that information now. And in fact, Robert Mueller basically said in other parts of his remarks that he was leaving an open question to Congress here. Here's what he had to say.

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MUELLER: And second, the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing. And beyond department policy, we were guided by principles of fairness. It would be unfair to potentially accuse somebody of a crime when there can be no court resolution of the actual charge.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I want to bring in Kelsey Snell now. She covers Congress for us. She's here in the studio. And Kelsey, how are Democrats responding to what they heard today?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Well, they're responding very much the same way as they responded to the report itself. They are talking about investigations and what this this report gives as a foundation for those investigations. You know, they were prepared before Mueller spoke to say that this is just the beginning and that they really would like to go down a path of seeing whether or not obstruction of justice occurred. They want to keep investigating. And this is how Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler phrased it.

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JERRY NADLER: All options are on the table, and nothing should be ruled out.

SNELL: Short and simple, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was even more to the point.

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NANCY PELOSI: Nothing is off the table.

SNELL: They're talking about nothing being off the table, but they're not specifying what that means and where they'll go from here. And that's going to open up a lot of questions for their rank-and-file Democrats though they're sticking together pretty well right now. Even the progressive leaders are saying, you know, they have to keep investigating and going through the courts and the systems that they've already begun.

CORNISH: On the subject of investigations, there have been calls for Mueller himself to testify. He made it clear that he wasn't going to do that.

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MUELLER: There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself.

CORNISH: Kelsey, they can still call him, right? I mean, are they going to force him to appear?

SNELL: Yeah. In the same press conference where Nadler said everything was on the table, he also was asked about whether or not he was going to subpoena Mueller, and he specifically didn't answer the question. He was asked twice, and he didn't answer the question.

Now, part of that might be because they haven't decided. There are a lot of Democrats who want to hear directly from Mueller about his investigation. And part of that is because a lot of people just simply haven't read this report. They've heard what is said on the news, but they want - Democrats who want to demonstrate the details of this report through the eyes and from the mouth of the person who wrote it, not as it's been filtered through the attorney general or other people in this administration.

CORNISH: This has become a live issue in the Democratic primary race. What are Democrats who are running for president saying about this, and how could it impact the House speaker?

SNELL: Yeah, about a third of Democrats running for president are explicitly talking about impeachment. Now, that is a big pressure valve right now. I mean, that puts a lot of pressure on Pelosi specifically to address it. The more that Democrats who are running to be the standard bearer for the party make this a part of their platform, the harder it is for her to say that it's not part of her plan or her platform. Though at this point, about a third of - what? - more than 20 candidates really doesn't bring you to the full field, and we don't know, you know, who will actually wind up being the nominee. And that really does make a difference.

CORNISH: Let's talk about how the special counsel ended his less-than-10-minute statement today.

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MUELLER: I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments that there were multiple systematic efforts to interfere in our election, and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, what does that mean in practical terms going forward on the eve of another presidential election.

JOHNSON: It means a lot, Ari. Robert Mueller once again appears to have kicked the ball into the (laughter) - into the Congress. There are proposals on Capitol Hill from people including Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and many others on Capitol Hill, some of them bipartisan, about doing more to harden American elections in advance of 2020. They haven't seemed to go very far.

What Robert Mueller also said was, with these words at this news conference, he's ending once again another chapter in his public service and, he hopes, returning to his private and personal life, no longer getting accosted by TV cameras when he goes to church on Sundays or at restaurants in his neighborhood.

But it's not clear to me we've actually heard the last few words from Robert Mueller. He may yet be compelled to testify on Capitol Hill. If he gets a subpoena, this former Marine is probably going to honor it. And the main overarching message I heard from him today is, please read my report.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And there are still ripples from his investigation that continue to expand outward.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and adviser, is set to go to trial in November, Ari. And this Friday, a former aide to Roger Stone is set up to testify before the Mueller grand jury.

CORNISH: And Kelsey, where does this leave Speaker Pelosi?

SNELL: It leaves her continuing to address the impeachment question. She is going to have to decide whether or not this is something she's going to do. And she really doesn't have a long time to decide that because we are rapidly approaching the meat of the 2020 campaign season. Now, she's - is very aware of that, and she's very aware that many people want to know more and want to have the conversation about impeachment. This is how she explained it today.

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PELOSI: Many constituents want to impeach the president, but we want to do what is right and what gets results.

SNELL: Now, what we didn't here is that there was even more clapping for the conversation about getting results, and she is going to have to meet a lot of Democrats who, when she - when they come back from this week-long recess that they're on right now back talking to their constituents - she's going to have to respond to them when they say, I heard from this person at a town hall that impeachment is what they care about. And this will be a major part of what happens the next couple months.

CORNISH: And Carrie Johnson, to you, all this time, we've wanted just to hear Bob Mueller's voice. What was it like for you today to finally see him speak?

JOHNSON: You know, the last time I had seen him was when I interviewed him as he was leaving as the FBI director. And Audie, I've got to say as somebody who hadn't seen him in person since that time, he seemed a little bit shorter to me and older, although I guess you could say the same about me. So I want to be generous here.

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SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson and Kelsey Snell on the day that Robert Mueller made his final statement as special counsel. Thanks to both of you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.