The Redacted Mueller Report Is Out But It Does Not Exonerate Trump Of Obstruction
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The long-awaited report on Russian election interference is now mostly out. The investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller produced 37 indictments and nearly 450 pages of findings. Attorney General Bill Barr previewed one of the special counsel's conclusions at a news conference earlier this morning.
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WILLIAM BARR: Thanks to the special counsel's thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign or the knowing assistance of any other American for that matter.
CORNISH: There's a lot more in this report. And here to talk about the details is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Welcome to the studio.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: Let's start with the topic of obstruction. The special counsel did not make a call, one way or another, about prosecuting the president for obstruction. What more do we know from the report about their thinking?
JOHNSON: There is really some pretty tough language in this report when it comes to obstruction. One of the sentences that stood out for me, investigators write - if we had confidence after our thorough investigation that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we'd say that, but we can't.
This report does not exonerate the president, but it does point out there's some difficult legal issues in play here. The president does have inherent power to fire people like the FBI director. And Justice guidelines say a sitting president can't be charged with a crime while he or she is still in office. But these investigators said they wanted to look - to get witnesses while memories were fresh and when documents were easier to find. And it's clearly a matter that Congress could advance or follow up on for the purposes of impeachment.
Under the law, the Mueller team - the special counsel team says a president can be charged with obstruction later on, perhaps after he or she leaves the White House. And remember here; when it comes that the president's intent and obstruction, Trump never sat down with - for an interview with investigators. And the special counsel said it would take too long to subpoena the president because they thought he'd fight in court for years.
CORNISH: We all remember the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey - all the eyebrows that raised. What about any new evidence of obstruction?
JOHNSON: There is new evidence of obstruction in this report. Importantly, the report talks about two phases, one when there was just an investigation of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn and then phase two, after President Trump realized he was under investigation himself for obstruction after the firing of FBI Director Comey. Investigators say that represents a shift in Trump's motives and maybe a stronger case for intent. The report is at its most strong when it describes the president's efforts to get rid of people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his bid, believe it or not, to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller himself.
There are also a lot of examples in this report of Trump or his personal lawyers using carrots or sticks to try to get people to hold firm and not cooperate with the investigation or basically to stay in the tent, things like Paul Manafort is a good man; Michael Cohen's a rat for talking.
The report also describes many cases when Donald Trump leaned on aides inside his White House to do dirty work for him. But many of those efforts fell flat only because the aides refused to do what Trump said, perhaps saving themselves from criminal trouble.
CORNISH: Now, the conclusion seemed a little more clear when it comes to what the president calls collusion. But this is about the conspiracy with Russians. Now, why no charges against Americans there?
JOHNSON: This much is clear; the Russians interfered again and again in 2016 and beyond. But even though investigators say the Russians wanted to help Trump and the Trump campaign wanted help, the investigation didn't establish members of the Trump campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government. There were plenty of links, plenty of meetings and conversations - not enough to support criminal charges.
We do know Donald Trump was briefed on the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations and efforts in 2016. And the report says, for the first time, some investigators - some witnesses told investigators that Donald Trump took an active interest in the emails that WikiLeaks was dumping in 2016. Now, as for campaign meetings with the Russian ambassador in 2016 and that platform train change at the Republican National Convention that would have benefited Russia - we've been talking about that for years now - the investigators said they came up dry. There was actually nothing there.
But there does seem to be a little bit more to say about an August 2016 meeting that the president's then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort had with a Russian business associate, where Manafort was sharing polling data. Unfortunately, the report doesn't say too much more about that.
CORNISH: Carrie, there are a lot of vivid details in this report that just give us a sense of the tone and what was going on in the White House behind the scenes. What jumped out at you?
JOHNSON: Audie, I was reading this report, and I audibly gasped when the attorney general - then Jeff Sessions - tells the president a special counsel has been appointed. The president slumps down in his chair and says - oh, my God - this is terrible; this is the end of my presidency. And then he says a bad word we can't say on the radio.
The report also describes multiple episodes of mistreatment - the president yelling at Attorney General Sessions so much so that Sessions wound up walking around the White House - for an entire year, every time he went to the White House, he carried a resignation letter in his pocket. The president also berated repeatedly his former White House counsel, Don McGahn, who refused to fire Sessions or fire Mueller or do other dirty work projects.
CORNISH: Nearly two years out, many of the special counsel team investigators actually have moved on. And I understand there are some hints at the investigations, though, are far from over. What do you know?
JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, Roger Stone, the president's longtime political adviser, needs to go to trial later this year on false statements charges and other charges; so does former Obama White House lawyer Greg Craig, who's been charged over his work for the government in Ukraine. But in an appendix to this big report that came out today, prosecutors described 14 cases they've referred to other parts of the government, other parts of the Justice Department. Twelve of those investigations are blacked out, which means - I think - there could be a lot more to come.
CORNISH: We've heard a lot from the Mueller report but not from Mueller. When might that happen?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I asked the attorney general about that today at the news conference. He says he has no objection to Bob Mueller testifying in his personal capacity. Mueller, of course, is still a Justice Department employee for now. And the House Judiciary and House Intelligence committees have already asked to hear from Bob Mueller next month, in May.
CORNISH: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks for digging into it.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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