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Preet Bharara on ‘troublesome language’ in Barr summary of Mueller report

Debate continues over the meaning of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, with Democrats arguing it’s impossible to draw conclusions about President Trump’s culpability without a first-hand examination of the report. Judy Woodruff talks to former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara about the “troublesome language” in Barr’s letter and investigating for truth vs. retaliation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And let's get the perspective now of a former federal prosecutor.

    He's Preet Bharara. He was the U.S. attorney in charge of the Southern District of New York. His new book is "Doing Justice."

    And he joins us now from San Francisco.

    Preet Bharara, thank you very much.

    I should say you were right last week when you told us, I think it was on Wednesday, that you had heard rumors the Mueller report was coming out last week. It turned out it was coming out. We haven't seen it yet, but it was turned over to the Justice Department.

    My first question to you, though, is, you have said that the summary by the attorney general of the Mueller report is, I think you said, a sanitized, streamlined, highly abridged version, as if you don't trust it. Why not?

  • Preet Bharara:

    I'm not saying I don't trust it.

    I think we need to know what the full report describes. With respect to the first part of the summary letter, it seems fair. It seems like he's getting across what the Mueller report was intending to get across, because, obviously, there's a huge discrepancy with what Bill Barr says about it and what the Mueller report says about it.

    And we will know about that in relatively short order, I hope. And, ultimately, that was that Bob Mueller and his team cannot establish a crime in connection with collusion and with interference in the election of 2016.

    With respect to the second part of the Mueller report, on obstruction, I think that's where there's some troublesome language in the letter. It's clear that Bob Mueller found substantial evidence of obstruction. He also found other facts that might mitigate the substantial evidence that he found, such that, almost by definition, there's substantial evidence if you think it's such a close question, you can't make a decision about whether or not the president committed a crime.

    And he took the extraordinary step of almost anticipating that which the president says at every turn when there is any document that touches upon these issues at all. Bob Mueller made it clear to say, this doesn't exonerate the president. So, that raises a lot of questions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what the attorney general wrote in his letter was — and I'm quoting here. He said: "The special counsel's decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusion leaves it to the attorney general to determine whether the conduct constitutes a crime."

  • Preet Bharara:

    Right. That's a very clever sentence, and it's good lawyering, and maybe good damage control by the sitting attorney general, because nowhere does it say that Bob Mueller intended for the decision to be made by the attorney general.

    It's kind of odd that he would be making that decision, sort of stepping in and taking the authority to make that decision, when the whole purpose of having a special counsel in the first place was to have someone of some independence, at some remove from the department, with an arm's-length distance from the president and the issues involved, to make a decision about this, as opposed to the specifically appointed attorney general who serves the president, who, by the way, also has a track record of having prejudged the issue of obstruction by sending an unsolicited memo on the point before he knew all the facts and before he was in the Justice Department.

    He seized the opportunity, because, in the absence of Bob Mueller making a conclusion, I guess he thought there was something of a void. And rather than allowing what it seems I think a reasonable reader would think Bob Mueller intended to do, which was to punt it to Congress, he stepped in and drew his own conclusions during the course of about 48 hours, when it took Bob Mueller almost two years, and still couldn't come to a firm conclusion about what the right result would be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But do you think the public, do you think you and others can be satisfied if some version of the Mueller report is released, maybe not all of it, but some of it is redacted for security reasons, for example?

    Do you think you can come to a conclusion that everybody can — or most of us can agree is something we can have confidence in?

  • Preet Bharara:

    I'm glad you amended to most of us, because I don't know that there is anything in any regard in any of these matters that will please everybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A good point.

  • Preet Bharara:

    But, look, I'm a former federal prosecutor. I understand the interest in preserving classified information and sources and methods and derogatory information that may have — that may be the subject of 6(e) grand jury secrecy material.

    But my view is, make as much available as quickly as possible, and then people can fight about certain redactions. We saw the Mueller team over time put in brief after brief and memo after memo, on short order, redacting some things. We can fight about it later.

    But I think the more that becomes public as quickly as possible, the larger the constituency will be that finds some satisfaction with what's been released.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you make of Republican calls, the president's call — and we just heard it from Congressman Collins — to investigate basically the origins of the Trump investigation, to go back and look at what happened inside the Department of Justice, inside the FBI?

  • Preet Bharara:

    Well, as the ranking member said just before I came on, they have done that for a period of time. And every single person that he mentioned that he thought had engaged in some nefarious conduct, I believe, has testified before Congress.

    So, look, it's fine for Congress to do oversight. I worked in the Senate for four-and-a-half years. I helped to conduct oversight as well, the problem is, if it looks like it's a vindictive, you know, sort of reactive, payback kind of situation that doesn't advance anyone's understanding of anything.

    By the way, if there's going to be some upsetness over how the investigation was conducted, and in particular the way that Bob Mueller, who has been described as conducting a witch-hunt over and over and over and over again by the president, then maybe the investigation, if those folks are being honest and honorable, should start with Rod Rosenstein, who is the person that put Bob Mueller in his position, knowing full well, I think, what the origins of the investigation were and the scope of the investigation and everything else, and was overseeing it over a period of time.

    So, if there is going to be such an investigation, it needs to be clear that it's actually in the business of getting to the truth and facts, as opposed to being some retaliation for an investigation that ended up, I think, you know, being closed in a way that most people think is honorable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, in a word, you're saying it does look vindictive, what they're trying to do?

  • Preet Bharara:

    Well, it looks vindictive in part because you have a president who has constantly over time lashed out at people who seek to investigate him or investigate people around him and coddled people, no matter what their positions are, if they seem to be on his side.

    And so, over and over and over again, whether you're talking about the CNN merger, which may have been done appropriately, may not have been done properly, but every time you have the person who is the leader of the United States of America making it look like it's payback or retaliation, that doesn't help people's understanding of what's happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, we thank you.

  • Preet Bharara:

    Thank you.

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