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2 former DOJ officials on what stood out about Mueller’s testimony

Robert Mueller’s appearance on Capitol Hill marked a historic day in American politics. Former Justice Department officials John Carlin and Mary McCord, both of whom worked under Democratic and Republican administrations, talk to Judy Woodruff about the multiple agendas on display, how Mueller avoided being used by either party and his "memorable" characterization of the president’s credibility.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now at the table with me here in our studio for the hearings and remaining with me now, John Carlin. He ran the Justice Department's National Security Division from 2013 to 2016. Before that, he served as chief of staff to then FBI Director Robert Mueller.

    And Mary McCord, she was acting head of the National Security Division in 2016 and '17. She is mentioned in Mueller's report as part of the team that went to the White House to voice warnings about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. They both have worked at Justice in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

    Hello to both of you. We have been together all day long.

    But let's try to sum it all up.

    John Carlin, what, for you, is the main takeaway? We heard Robert Mueller saying at several points today, it's not normal for a prosecutor to be testifying before Congress.

  • John Carlin:

    That's right.

    And you saw different agendas. I think you saw the Democrats trying to use this moment to make the American people more aware of certain parts of the report and use it as theater in that regard.

    You saw the Republicans, by and large, special in the early morning, try to attack the credibility of Mr. Mueller and his team. And you saw Mr. Mueller with his agenda.

    And his agenda, I think, was, number one, to stick with the Department of Justice guidance in this unusual situation for a prosecutor, and stick to the four corners of the report, number two, to defend his team and come across credibly, and not give either side a sound bite, which I think he did as well.

    And, number three, you saw him try to raise the alarm bell about Russian interference. And those words rare moments where he was moved off-script and beyond the four corners of the report were all around sounding that alarm bell on Russian interference, expressing displeasure and disbelief that the president, along with others, were welcoming foreign interference, and pushing back on attacks on his team.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And definitely pushing back on attacks. We heard some of that in the sound bite that we played earlier.

    Mary McCord, he did try to stick, as John said, within, as we said, the four corners of the report. But there were these interesting exchanges where he raised his voice in saying the president wasn't completely credible in his answers.

  • Mary McCord:

    I think one of the sort of most memorable parts of the day came toward the very end, when Representative Demings asked him a series of questions about the president's written responses to questions.

    And he was very pointed when asked, first of all, did the president always respond? And his answer was, there were many questions he simply didn't answer. He said true to that.

    She asked, there were many answers that contradicted other evidence that you accumulated during your investigation. And he said yes to that.

    And then, pointedly, she asked, isn't it fair to say that the president's written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete, because he often didn't answer, but that, when he did answer, many of his answers were not always truthful?

    And, to that, Mr. Mueller took a second of breath and said, I would say, generally, so agreeing really for the first time publicly that the president's own written responses not only contradicted the facts developed through the extensive investigation, as shown in these 448 pages, but that they weren't always truthful, in his opinion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, John, does that conform, do you think, to what Robert Mueller wanted to do when he came before the members of Congress today?

  • John Carlin:

    I think the — not being used by either side and not creating a sound bite was definitely a goal today, and trying to put people's attention back onto the report that, as he said, was one of the most thorough and consistent reports in history.

    And, in that way, if you read the report, getting people's focus on Russian interference, I think Mary makes a good point, though. I'm not sure it was intentional, that that exchange for me as well was quite memorable, that — because it's not as clear in the report what he said today in the hearing about the president's credibility.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mary, something else that you and I were discussing before we went on the air again tonight has to do with what Robert Mueller's mission was and whether he did or didn't find President Trump guilty of a crime.

  • Mary McCord:

    Or charged with a crime.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right. Right.

  • Mary McCord:

    So, I think one of the unfortunate misimpressions or misdirections from all of the discussion about the Mueller report has been the focus on whether a crime occurred.

    And that's partly because, as a result of the special counsel regulations, he was required to submit a confidential report to the attorney general, which we call in prosecution, DOJ circles, a prosecution memo, which has to recommend either prosecution or declination.

    So that caused him — and he answered this at one point during the testimony — to focus on whether crimes were committed.

    But his actual appointment only had sort of as an afterthought the fact that he could pursue criminal charges, if appropriate. The actual mandate was to see if there were any links or coordination between members of the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

    And, certainly, part one shows all kinds of links . And I think these might — these didn't get to the point of a chargeable offense, but what Americans should be very concerned about is, again — and I think Representative Schiff went through this very nicely in his — in his very first set of questions — Russia made outreach to the campaign.

    The campaign welcomed that outreach.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Mary McCord:

    Trump Jr. said, we delight in it.

    Trump called on the Russians to hack into the e-mails. He called on — he praised WikiLeaks for what WikiLeaks was doing. The campaign planned their press strategy around the hacking and the disclosure of e-mails, and that then, apart from helping Trump win, people in his orbit, in his campaign also had a financial motive, including himself, Manafort, Flynn, Trump, and that, when investigated, they lied about it.

    So that might not equal conspiracy under the law for a prosecution, but it's a whole lot of links. It's a whole lot of unethical and un-American and undemocratic behavior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you for correcting me when I was referring to not finding him guilty, but charging him one way or another…

  • Mary McCord:

    Charging.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … which was within the purview of what he was doing.

    John Carlin, there were also parts of — parts of his testimony that gave us an understanding of how frustrating it was for him that he never was able to sit down with President Trump, that that just didn't happen, despite more than a year of trying to get the White House to agree to this.

  • John Carlin:

    Yes, he really did walk through that in detail in a series of exchanges and, in that exchange, explained that, in some ways, that made the investigation more difficult, to not be able to sit down and ask the president questions.

    And that's what I think led to the exchange as well where the written answers for the questions that were answered, where he said, very remarkably, I think, when referring to the written answers under oath from the president of the United States, he said that they were not consistent with the evidence that they found in the report.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a direct answer to questions about, did you get the answers — how much more did you want to know from the president that you weren't able to get, in essence, was what the members were trying to get.

    So, Mary McCord, John Carlin, thank you both.

  • Mary McCord:

    Thank you.

  • John Carlin:

    Thank you.

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