AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In May of 2017 when President Trump found out that Robert Mueller had been appointed special counsel, he reportedly slumped in his chair and said, oh, my God, this is the end of my presidency. That's according to Mueller's report, which was released in redacted form yesterday.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In a moment, we'll explore what the report says about the internal workings of the Trump White House but first a quick reminder of the dramatic events of May 2017 which contributed to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. The catalyst was Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on May 9.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: President Trump has just fired the director of the FBI, James Comey. It is an unusual move that hasn't happened...
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: ...From the president. He actually found out by watching - looking up and seeing it on the television. He was apparently talking to agents...
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: They did not see this coming at the FBI. They had no idea this was happening. But according...
CORNISH: The firing came days after Comey had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The FBI director refused to say publicly whether Trump himself was a target of the Russia investigation.
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JAMES COMEY: I don't want to answer that. That seems to me unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence. We'll try and find as much as we can, and we'll follow the evidence wherever it leads.
CHANG: The stated reason behind Comey's firing, detailed in a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, was that he had mishandled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. But less than a week later, the president gave NBC's Lester Holt a different reason for the firing.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election.
CORNISH: Fast-forward six days, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the same man who wrote the memo justifying Comey's firing, announces the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation and, quote, "related matters."
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WOLF BLITZER: We have major breaking news right now. The U.S. Justice Department has just named a special counsel in the Russia investigation.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: ...Former FBI Director Robert Mueller being chosen to head this probe.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: He is the former FBI director who served 12 years in that job. He was actually...
CORNISH: So the events of May 2017 were part of the genesis of Robert Mueller being appointed special counsel. New Yorker writer Susan Glasser writes that Mueller's report portrays a, quote, "culture of lying and impunity, distrust and double dealing. Trump is its architect, its chief practitioner and greatest beneficiary." Susan Glasser joins me now. Welcome to the program.
SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much.
CORNISH: So we kind of pulled the most intense quote from your article. But to start, what for you is the most revealing thing you learned about how this president and how this White House functions?
GLASSER: Well, this is radio, so you left out the expletive part, but (laughter) look; I think there's two things that we're going to remember from this no matter how the Trump story ends. One is we are certainly going to remember this as a unique document in recent American history.
It is a devastating portrait of the functioning and the dysfunctioning of a White House, any White House and the Trump White House. It's not a bestseller based on anonymous sources. It's footnoted. It's got records, contemporaneous phone records and sworn testimony that shows the president both orchestrating a campaign of lies and cover-up and ordering his aides to do so and participating in it himself.
He appears to be saved at times only by the defiance of his own advisers, who, according to their sworn testimony in some cases, refused to carry out orders from the president they believed to be improper or even illegal, such as...
CORNISH: Can I jump in there - because...
CORNISH: ...That is something many people have noted. And many of those people who refused those actions listed does - in evidence of the Mueller report by the president - Don McGahn, Reince Priebus. So when you look at this White House now, do you see so-called guardrails for this president?
GLASSER: (Laughter) That's a good question. You know, things have changed. Many of the most dramatic events recounted in the report, at least on the obstruction of justice questions, happened in the first year of his presidency and a completely different White House team. The principals have mostly gone, people like Reince Priebus, his first chief of staff, gone - even his second chief of staff, John Kelly, gone. We're now on the third chief of staff, and he's only acting - Mick Mulvaney.
So, you know, Trump has actually made it more of a White House where he can do what he wants. And I think that's why you see a certain concern about people about where the policies are going to go. Is he left only with enablers and the kind of people who were there arguably protecting him by using to carry out the order to fire Bob Mueller, for example? They're gone. So what we have now? We don't really know yet, but it hasn't been tested.
CORNISH: You compared this to Trump winning the Electoral College but not the popular vote in that it's a chapter with an asterisk next to it. In what way?
GLASSER: Well, you know, I was struck by the fact that, you know, Trump's great insecurity on the election - right? - is that people question his legitimacy. The report, in fact, suggests that's a main motivation for his panic over the Russia allegations - was that it would continue to question and to cast into doubt the certainty and legitimacy of his victory. I think the uncertain outcome of this investigation similarly will leave these questions hanging over the president and his presidency.
If you read the first part of the report, which is primarily documents and goes over all the Russia contacts between the campaign and between Trump and different Russian government officials, you know, it's unclear. I still feel like those are data points without a connecting line.
CORNISH: Going forward, what do you see as it's playing out?
GLASSER: Well, you already see, you know, pressure on Democrats on Capitol Hill to revive the question of an impeachment proceeding in the House around the obstruction allegations. But the truth is that the political math hasn't really changed. And with the Republicans in control of the Senate, I don't see that changing really, frankly.
CORNISH: That's Susan Glasser of The New Yorker. Thank you for speaking with us.
GLASSER: Thank you.
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