RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The special counsel's investigation into Russian election interference is over, but President Trump isn't letting it go. And he says the whole thing was a political hit job.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We just went through the Mueller witch hunt, where you had really 18 angry Democrats that hate President Trump. They hate him with a passion. They were contributors in many cases to Hillary Clinton. Hate him with a passion.
MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Johnson looked into the history of accusations of political bias in investigations. She did so with a lawyer who has handled sensitive political inquiries for nearly 45 years.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Reid Weingarten moved to Washington in the late 1970s. He made his reputation prosecuting dirty politicians and corrupt judges in the years after Watergate. Then he turned to defending people in trouble with the law. He's the kind of guy presidents call for advice, whether they're Democrats or Republicans.
REID WEINGARTEN: I am very proud to say that I have dealt with directly every president since Jimmy Carter, and that includes the present president.
JOHNSON: Weingarten won't talk about what happened in the Oval Office when he met with President Trump there a couple of years ago. But he drops this hint.
WEINGARTEN: You know, I truly wish that the president wouldn't do the things he does. And you know, perhaps I had the opportunity at some point (laughter) to say that. But we won't go either way on that one.
JOHNSON: Weingarten's laughing now. But he says some of the rhetoric coming from the White House about special counsel Robert Mueller's work is rotten for the justice system. He's so emphatic he starts pounding the table.
WEINGARTEN: Perhaps on Mueller's team there were prosecutors who believe Donald Trump was unfit to be president. And when they went home and took a shower, that's what they thought. The issue is - the only issue is did those feelings infect the investigation? And in my experience, the very idea that a red-blooded federal prosecutor would come to his office and issue subpoenas, make investigative decisions and prosecute decisions based upon politics sounds to me absurd.
JOHNSON: Weingarten says FBI agents and paralegals would have blown the whistle if politics really infused the work of the special counsel team. What's more, he says the argument doesn't make any sense. When the president and Republican lawmakers say the Mueller report means the case is closed...
WEINGARTEN: Which one of the 19 angry Democrats wrote it, you know? How do you get from point A to point B?
JOHNSON: As for what should happen next, Weingarten's clear. Congress needs to gather more evidence and call key witnesses to testify, people like former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
WEINGARTEN: If I was a Congressperson, and I was one day going to be called upon to make a judgment as to what should happen to the president of the United States, I would want a full record. And I would want every opportunity to work with my colleagues. This is consequential stuff.
JOHNSON: Early on, Weingarten helped figure out whether the standard for appointing an independent counsel to investigate the White House had been met. He prosecuted a key figure in the Iran-Contra investigation, that arms-for-hostages scandal on the team of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Later, he defended two of Bill Clinton's Cabinet secretaries in investigations launched by independent counsels.
Then, public opinion shifted. There was a consensus - too many of those independent counsels had overreached, spent too much money, took too much time. In 1999, Congress let the law lapse and brought the authority to investigate people close to the White House back inside the Justice Department. Now Weingarten says it may be time to reconsider. I ask him whether any Justice Department should investigate a sitting president.
WEINGARTEN: I generally believe that it is healthy, when there is an allegation against the president of the United States, for there to be an investigation conducted by honorable, competent people independent of the administration.
JOHNSON: Weingarten says it's crazy that the president could have fired special counsel Mueller or ordered someone at Justice to do it.
Bob Mueller was never fired. The president says all the time, I could have fired him. I didn't do it.
WEINGARTEN: Just the could have (laughter) fired him and didn't do it here is the problem.
JOHNSON: And the stress to the system that that caused?
WEINGARTEN: Oh, for sure. For sure.
JOHNSON: Weingarten's been around long enough to have seen some stresses. But he also thinks the country will get through this one.
WEINGARTEN: I think our systems are strong. I think our courts are strong. I think our institutions are strong. I remain reasonably optimistic all things are going to end up just fine.
JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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