Special counsel Robert Mueller made it clear in his Wednesday statement that he wants his team’s lengthy report to speak for itself. NPR’s Carrie Johnson and former Justice Department official John Carlin join Judy Woodruff to revisit key sections of the report and discuss Mueller's approach to his first public appearance since his appointment two years ago.
Robert Mueller made clear that he wants the report to speak for itself.
We dive back into some of the key points now with John Carlin. He ran the Justice Department's National Security Division from 2013 to 2016. Before that, he served as chief of staff and senior counsel to then FBI Director Robert Mueller. And Carrie Johnson, she is the Justice Department correspondent for NPR.
And welcome back to the "NewsHour" to both of you.
I want to get your reaction, both.
First — and first to you, Carrie.
You have been following this investigation for the last few years. This is the first time we have heard publicly from the special counsel. What did you make of those nine minutes?
You know, he used his words carefully. He said his written report mostly speaks for itself. As you said, it is his testimony.
But he used his short time, nine minutes or so, in front of the cameras and the eyes of the world, to make a few key points. One is that the Russians attacked our elections in 2016, and they may be up to that again.
Another is that the case and the evidence they assembled with respect to obstruction were such that the special counsel team could not exonerate President Trump of obstruction. And the third is that he believes that people should read his report. He doesn't want to testify to Congress. He says, if people read his report, the answers to their questions will be in that document.
And, John Carlin, as somebody who has worked very closely with Robert Mueller in years past, what did you make of how he came across today?
I mean, I think it's classic Mueller.
He thought carefully about every word that was in this statement today. So, I encourage people to listen to the full statement.
And, number one, he heartfeltly meant that what he found, which is that Russians systematically interfered in our election, is something that every American should care about and pay attention to.
And, number two, I think he carefully placed in this report the facts that match up with his report. In his statement today, he carefully said these statements that match up with his report that perhaps clarify what's been confused, so, one, that there was systematic Russian interference.
Number two, as Carrie said, that they — if they had found sufficient evidence that made it clear that the president had not obstructed justice, they would have said it, but they were bound by department policy not to make such a finding.
But it left it wide open, in other words.
And that's what I want to come back to, I mean, on the obstruction question.
Carrie, we have gone back and looked at the Mueller report at a couple of points. And I just want to quickly cite one from the report: "Our investigation found multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian interference and obstruction investigations."
That is one of those pieces of evidence that the special counsel was pointing to.
He talked about a number of possible episodes of obstruction of justice. Among the most serious were efforts to fire the special counsel himself, and efforts to get the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, to limit the mandate of what special counsel Robert Mueller was doing, and also efforts to get the president's own White House counsel, Don McGahn, to go out in public and issue a statement saying, the president never tried to limit the special counsel's mandate to begin with.
Even though these efforts at obstruction were not successful, they were very serious. And the special counsel's report says they amped up after the president himself realized he was under investigation.
And just picking up on that, John Carlin, Carrie mentioned the attorney — then Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
From the report, again quoting: "Substantial evidence indicates the president's effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the special counsel's investigation to future — to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the president's and his campaign's conduct."
So there are three elements to obstruction of justice, and they're laid out in the report.
Number one, that there's an act. Some type of act is taken that impairs an investigation. I think what you have laid out are clearly acts. They tried to shut the investigation down. As a former prosecutor, that would be overwhelming evidence that you're trying to impede the investigation.
Two, that there's a nexus. And this is important in terms of the statement that Mr. Mueller made today. He said that the matters they were investigating were of paramount importance, and that, when a subject of an investigation obstructs it or lies to an investigator, that that strikes at the heart of the government's effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.
That is clearly laying out, there's a nexus. This was a hugely important investigation, and attempts to shut it down would block that official proceeding.
And then the third is the intent. Why was the person trying to block your investigation? Was it corrupt? And corrupt, in terms of the — in the criminal law definition, means that your intent was not part of your official duties, but you had some personal motive here in order to shut the investigation down.
And that's where he says he clearly couldn't find him innocent, and says there's another body whose job it is to make this determination. He doesn't name Congress, but that's Congress.
But he's referring to Congress.
And just quickly, Carrie, we don't have time to read — read all of these sections that we picked out from the report.
But there's certainly a point where, in the report, from the Mueller report, where the Mueller team says: "Substantial evidence indicates, in repeatedly urging Don McGahn, the president's own White House counsel, to dispute that he was ordered to have the special counsel terminated, the president acted for the purpose of influencing McGahn's account, again, in order to deflect or prevent further scrutiny of the president's conduct towards the investigation."
So you don't have to go back over all of these, but you do see parallels between what the special counsel said today and what is in that report?
Don McGahn was one of the central witnesses in this investigation. We know he met with the special counsel team for 30 hours or more. We also know that Democrats in Congress desperately want Don McGahn to testify. They think he will be a very important witness to make their case to the American public.
McGahn, for now, at the instruction of the White House and his own view, is that he's not going to testify. But there may come a time where he becomes an important witness in any kind of congressional inquiry moving forward.
And then, John Carlin, coming back to the Russia — the investigation — the part of this that started the whole investigation in the first place, was there any collusion, cooperation, conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians?
And you have the special counsel saying, we were not able to prove a broader conspiracy. But, again, you point back — you look at the Mueller report, they describe deleted text messages, failure to talk to witnesses. They couldn't get to people like Donald Trump Jr. They call the president's written answers to their questions inadequate.
So you get the sense that they didn't get everything they wanted to know.
I think that's clear from the report.
And he reiterated again, though, based on what they did find, they didn't find the criminal evidence to support a criminal conspiracy charge. But what they found was troubling, in terms of an amazing Russian campaign directed by Russian military intelligence officers to target one candidate and harm her, along with an attempt to undermine our confidence in our — in our democracy.
And then they found numerous individuals who didn't tell them the truth about what was occurring.
And, finally, Carrie, as we hear the reports from Congress that Democrats are not there yet in terms of launching an impeachment inquiry, but there's more and more of a drumbeat in that direction, what is the Justice Department's posture about that?
What are they saying about that?
The attorney general, Bill Barr, has been in conflict with some Democrats, in the House in particular. Remember, the Judiciary Committee has voted to hold him in contempt.
But, since that time, he's reached some accommodations with the House Intelligence Committee to provide some briefings and other documents. That's where things stand right now. It's possible that parts of the House could decide to try to vote — the full House could try to vote the attorney general in contempt of the House.
And I wonder what that might do to any ongoing efforts at cooperation and evidence-sharing. Probably put a nail in the coffin of that effort at this point.
Well, so much to digest after this day.
Carrie Johnson with NPR, covering the Justice Department, John Carlin, thank you both.
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