What Robert Mueller brings to the Russia probe

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named as a special counsel to lead the investigation into Russian election interference. John Yang gets reaction from John Carlin, a former assistant attorney general for national security, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., plus what precipitated the decision by the Justice Department from Matt Zapotosky of The Washington Post.

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    We return to our top story, the Justice Department appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee their investigation into coordination, possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.

    We're joined now by phone by John Carlin. He served as chief of staff and senior counsel to Robert Mueller. He's now an attorney in private practice specializing in cyber-security and crisis management.

    Mr. Carlin, thanks for joining us.

    Tell us a little bit about your former boss.

    JOHN CARLIN, Former Assistant Attorney General for National Security: I can't think of an American of higher integrity and experience.

    This is someone legendary who prosecutors and agents in the field, who — a former Marine, spent a career as a prosecutor, has been nominated by presidents, including President Clinton, President Bush, and President Obama, for different positions, and, throughout his career, has earned respect on both sides of the aisle.


    And do — talk about his independence. There was — you talked about being legendary. There's — one of the legends about Robert Mueller is his threat to resign, ironically, with then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey facing down the Bush administration.


    He's someone who has a firm belief in what's right and wrong and what the appropriate role of a government official should be.

    I think he's someone who looks to — epitomizes the idea that you should just follow the facts and the law, and has done so in all the different steps of his — of his career.

    And, as you have referenced, he's someone who, if something appears that it's outside the law, he won't do it, or, if it's improper, he won't do it. And it's that type of firm backbone that earned the respect of so many people that have worked with him as FBI agents, worked with him as prosecutors, and observed him over the years.

    He's also highly unusual in this age. He's someone who hates the — and avoids the limelight. And he's managed to stay out of most news stories and keep an unbelievably low profile, when you consider what he's done over his career.


    Could you remind us of that episode? Recount for us that episode with the showdown with, I believe, as I recall, it was White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. They wanted to overrule a Justice Department finding regarding surveillance, as I recall.



    And according to public reporting about what occurred there, there was a surveillance program that the then attorney general — Attorney General Ashcroft was ill.

    So, and Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey had assumed the role of acting attorney general. And based on the advice he received from lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel, he found that the program, as it was currently being run, wasn't lawful, and so had to be shut down.

    And he learned about a visit that was going to be made by members of the White House, including the White House counsel, to Attorney General Ashcroft in his hospital bed, and was concerned. And so he asked Director Mueller to accompany him to that hospital room.

    Director Mueller did so. Attorney General Ashcroft said that, as acting attorney general, it would be Comey's decision as to what was lawful or not lawful.

    And I think Director Mueller, kind of consistent with his career, if the lawyers at the Justice Department say something is not lawful, then you can't do it, until you work out a way that it's within the confines of the law. No matter how important the program might be, the law is the law.


    Ironically, the careers of James Comey and Robert Mueller once again intertwined.

    John Carlin, thank you very much for joining us.


    Thank you.


    And now we turn to — continuing on this story, we turn to Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican of Illinois. He called today for a special counsel.

    Representative Kinzinger, I presume your — well, what's your reaction now to the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller?


    Well, I was surprised. I was surprised in a good way.

    I think this is the right thing to do. The reason I called for it today, with the revelations of the supposed memo yesterday, the questions that have been arising, I just came to the realization — and I have always said from the beginning the American people deserve the facts, whatever they are, whoever they exonerate or whoever they indict.

    The American people deserve that. And this had become way too political. Any new story, any new piece of information that had come out, you know, the left screams — some on the left mention impeachment right away. Some on the right would say it's fake news. And neither is true.

    So, we need to get to the bottom of it. We need answers, and we need them in a nonpartisan way. And my hope is, this is the beginning of the process of saying, let's all tack a deep breath. Let's aggressively find out the truth of everything and the facts, and then we can move ahead, and the American people can have faith again in the institutions of government.


    Do you think this is going to turn the temperature down a little bit on the Hill, sort of the boiling controversy that's been going on for the past really couple of weeks now?


    It's hard to tell.

    You know, truthfully, probably not a lot. You're going to have now an outlet, I guess, for this. It's — Congress can say — there will probably be these investigations continuing still in the Congress, but the majority of the focus will be with the special counsel's office.

    But this is a very hot-button issue. And any new revelation that comes out, people are angry or people are happy about what they see or whatever. So, you're going to continue to see that dynamic, I think. I think this is going to continue to drive news cycles and drive stories.

    But I think this is the right way to go for the American people, so they can say — you know, look, notoriously, have a very low faith in Congress to be able to do things in a nonpartisan way, because we're a partisan body.

    But to be able now to move forward and say we want to get to the bottom with a very honorable American like Mr. Mueller, I think, is a good step.


    Is this any way an acknowledgment that the turmoil and sort of the back-and-forth that you saw with the House Intelligence Committee trying to investigate this, that they just could not handle this, that you had to turn to someone, an outsider like this?


    Well, I think, ultimately, it's handleable.

    And whether it's the House Intel or the Senate Intel Committee, they do this kind of stuff. They have access to the information. They go through the process. But there's no doubt, a month or two ago, it got very heated, it got very personal. You can't have that on the Intel Committee.

    I don't necessarily know who to throw stones at on that, but you can't have that on the Intel Committee. What you need is a calm, rational investigation.

    This, with this special counsel now, hopefully, we can get that. And, again, there will still be a lot of passion. Donald Trump is a very controversial president. People either love him or they don't love him, and so you will continue to have that.

    But I think now people can hopefully rest assured that the work is going to be done. But they need to understand, everybody needs to understand this is going to be a slow and deliberate process. I guess I'm hearing it's almost 60 days to even get a special counsel up and running.


    Let me talk you about the other controversies that have been around this week, the — not — this was topped obviously yesterday by the Comey memo.

    But, before that, we had the allegations about President Trump giving Israeli intelligence, what's reported to be Israeli intelligence, to the Russians. What do you think about that?


    So, I was disappointed.

    So, I'm a military pilot. I still serve in the Guard and fly planes, and I have been in since basically after college. And we learned early that, when it comes to classified information — I have a military classification, as well as a congressional classification — you have to be very careful with that.

    Now, the president does have the right to declassify information whenever he wants to. Theoretically, a president could take everything Edward Snowden stole and release that himself.

    But it doesn't make it wise. And so if you're going to, especially with an adversary, talk about something that's classified, you need to do two things.

    Number one, talk to the folks that provided that information to you and make sure it's OK, and, secondly, I think put that through the brain trust of your national security group, H.R. McMaster, everybody else, to say, hey, I want to reveal this to the Russians because it may help us in our fight with ISIS or whatever reason.

    If we can go through that filter, I think it would have been very different. But it seems like — I wasn't in the Oval Office — it seems like it was released willy-nilly. And I think that's a very bad thing, very dangerous, and hopefully a lesson learned from all this.


    How has all of this affected your confidence and trust in the president?

    It's a very early administration, and we have had all this turmoil, all these stories going on. Has this shaken your confidence at all?


    Well, as I have always said, I think the policies — as a Republican, the policies coming out of this administration, the foreign policy, has been good. The strike on Syria was good, pushing back against North Korea.

    The words are not. You know, the tweets, the early morning kind of Twitter rampage and some of these other things aren't.

    Does it shake my confidence? Look, I think that's a pretty boisterous thing to say for a member of Congress to say whether or not their confidence is shaken. I have concerns. But I know he has a great team around him advising him, and I hope he takes that advice.

    This is, again — hopefully, this special counsel is the beginning of bringing the temperature down a little bit. It will always be pretty hot, but, hopefully, we can see that.


    Do you think — are you hopeful that you will and — you and your colleagues in the House will be able to focus more on the Republican agenda now than on the president's tweets and other things?


    Yes. I'm really hopeful. I have been hopeful for while that we can do that.

    Look, we can walk — I hate to use the term, but we can walk and chew gum out here. So, we can have these controversies going on, but, still, today, we just voted on a bill passed unanimously for sanctions against Syria. We can continue to do that work.

    But when you have all this basically dominating the news cycle, it doesn't give us an opportunity to get our message out, whether it's health care, tax reform. And, frankly, then the president of the United States is not out selling that agenda, too.

    So, it takes away some key pieces to getting this done. So, hope springs eternal, and I have it now.


    Adam Kinzinger, representative from Illinois, thanks so much for joining us.


    Any time. Take care.


    And now we are joined by Matt Zapotosky from The Washington Post to talk about this.

    Matt, thanks for joining us. I think I probably butchered your last name. And I apologize.



    Matt, this — as recently as yesterday, the White House was saying there was absolutely no need for a special counsel in this case.

    From your reporting, what — what happened? How did this — what precipitated all of this?

  • MATT ZAPOTOSKY, The Washington Post:

    I don't know that the White House always knows what's going on inside the Justice Department.

    And, for days now, Rod Rosenstein, who is the deputy attorney general, had just seen his reputation battered over his role in the Comey case. You know, pressure had been increasing on both sides, Democrat and Republican, for the Justice Department to appoint an attorney general.

    I'm sure conversations were going on that we're still trying to report on between him and Bob Mueller, the former FBI director that they appointed to be special counsel. And those obviously came to fruition today, though it's really late-breaking. We're still trying to report out exactly what happened.


    But do you think — we know there was reporting that Rod Rosenstein had — was unhappy that the dismissal of Comey was put on him, that the White House was putting it on him, and that he may have even threatened to resign.

    Is this a way for him to try to sort of reclaim his reputation?


    I think somewhat, you know?

    And, I mean, look, he maybe made some threats or said some things to express his unhappiness with the way this went down, but you can't read his memo any other way than to see that he wanted Jim Comey gone. That was just a blistering critique of Jim Comey.

    I do think he saw a lot of the blowback and reacted in some ways, and maybe that is what led to us where we are right now.


    Let's turn to this — the new development, Robert Mueller.

    What — remind us who he is, his background, and what he brings to this.


    He's a former FBI director who is very well-respected in Washington.

    Just as I sat down, a former federal prosecutor I know was texting me saying, there just could not be a better pick. He has a reputation of fierce independence. I think he has some military experience in his background and, of course, led the FBI for a long time.

    So, you know, and what he will do now is just take over this investigation, take over what Rod Rosenstein would have done. He could bring in his own team. He could use FBI agents. Maybe he knows some from his time in the bureau, but just a very well-respected guy in Washington.


    Matt, you cover the Justice Department. What's this done to the career prosecutors, the career officials, the career lawyers at Justice? What's the morale been like, from what you can gather?


    I think there's some frustration.

    But, by and large, people are just putting their heads down and working. I mean, there's a very small number of people, you know, a very tight circle, I guess I should say — I don't know about small number — but on this Russia stuff.

    And the other business of the Justice Department is going on. Certainly, I don't think anybody likes the hit that it's given to the Justice Department's reputation, but these are career people who are going to come in and do their jobs every day.


    And do you have any sense of where this investigation is, where it was before this announcement?


    I would say now it has probably slowed down.

    I mean, Bob Mueller now has to come in, decide what he needs for a budget, decide who he's going to keep on, and if he needs to bring in any new people. I don't have a crystal-clear sense of exactly how far along they were. I think the FBI director — the former FBI director said that it had started in July, and that's a pretty small amount of time for a counterintelligence case.

    And now, you know, Bob Mueller is going to have to come in and wrap his arms around this and decide where to go from here.


    The fact that it is a counterintelligence case and sort of the FBI and the Justice Department's spy hunters, does that make it different? Or how does that make it different from a criminal investigation?


    Certainly, that adds sensitivities to this. You could be talking about clandestine sources and methods. You're talking about FBI counterintelligence agents who have been involved in this.

    This is just a little more sensitive than, say, a bank robbery, which is something the FBI also investigates. But, at the end of the day, that's not to say it could not produce criminal charges.

    Now, I'm not saying we're there that — yet — excuse me. Even in making this announcement, Rod Rosenstein said, said explicitly, look, I am not saying this because I think we are ready for a prosecutor or this is ready for criminal charges. I'm just saying it's in the public interest that someone outside the Justice Department oversee this thing.


    So, we are probably still months away?


    I would guess, yes.


    Matt Zapotosky, who covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.


    Thank you.


    And now we go back to Capitol Hill for a Democratic perspective this time, Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

    Mr. Schiff, thanks for joining us.

    Your reaction to this news that the Justice Department has appointed Robert Mueller as the special counsel in this case?

  • REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.:

    Well, I think it's a very positive step, and I applaud the choice of Bob Mueller. I think he's very widely respected by people on both sides of the aisle, immensely bright, capable person.

    And I think it's the right call. This is not to say that there aren't good career people at the Department of Justice that could do this. But, nonetheless, I think it will have that much more credibility in the public eye by appointing someone in the special counsel position that has that added degree of independence from the department, still not the full independence that you would have had under the old statute, independent counsel statute, but, nonetheless, I think a very solid decision.

    And I think it ought to help inspire confidence in what the department is doing.


    Now, how will this work with the investigations on the Hill? Will your committee investigation continue in parallel with Mr. Mueller's?


    Yes, absolutely.

    And it's very important, I think, for people to understand just what this means and what it doesn't mean. The House and Senate investigations will continue to go forward. We have very important oversight responsibility. And, obviously, if we uncovered facts that we think that prosecutors ought to know about, we would refer that now to the special counsel.

    In the sense that we may need to coordinate our activities, because we have parallel investigations running, we would now work with Mr. Mueller. So, none of this stops what's going on in the House and Senate. Indeed, if we form an independent commission, that also is a completely separate mission than that by the special counsel.

    The special counsel will be overseeing the FBI agents who are working the investigation, and the special counsel will be making decisions, if it comes to that, whether charges ought to be brought and against whom.


    And what will your committee be asking for, with this disclosure that Mr. Comey appears to have kept contemporaneous memos of his conversations and dealings with the president throughout this?

    Will you be seeking those documents? Will you be seeking testimony from Mr. Comey?


    I think we will in Congress be seeking those documents. Indeed, many of the chairs have already asked for them.

    I also think it will be important for Director Comey to come and testify once again, I hope in open session, so that we can add context to whatever is in these written memoranda. If there are tapes as well, as the president has threatened, we ought to obtain those.

    Those, in fact, would be the very best evidence of the discussions that may have taken place along the lines of that New York Times report in which it's alleged that the president asked Director Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn.

    So, all of that work in Congress by the House Intelligence Committee, by the Senate Intelligence Committee and others will go forth. It's just that the FBI investigation, the prosecutorial decisions will now be made by the special counsel, Bob Mueller.


    And on that question of the tapes, the — is there going to be any investigation to determine if there are tapes to ask for?


    Well, we do need to find out whether there are tapes.

    And so I think we need to use whatever compulsion, if necessary, to find out. The president has obviously stopped talking about the tapes, and we don't know whether that was a — simply a hollow threat he was making against Director Comey or in fact it's backed up by the existence of tapes, but we do need to find out.


    Where is this — can you give us an update on sort of where your investigation is, where the House committee's investigation is, and where it's likely to proceed in the immediate future?


    Well, we are where you would expect a large investigation of this kind to begin. And that is with a review of an extraordinary number of documents.

    A lot of them are intelligence assessments that underlie the intelligence community's conclusion about Russian intervention, about the Russian motivations. Obviously, we're also looking into the issues of collusions. Were U.S. persons involved associated with the Trump campaign?

    We're inviting witnesses to provide us documents. We're inviting witnesses to come before the committee. We're scheduling open and closed hearings. And we should have more to say about that in the near future.

    But these are all the steps that we're taking. And I think we're working together very well in a nonpartisan way.


    Representative Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, thank you very much.


    Thank you.

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