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Trump tried to stop Mueller investigation, but staff wouldn’t let him, says report

With a redacted version of the special counsel’s report public, President Trump is again claiming vindication. In fact, Robert Mueller's findings document extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, as well as attempts to interfere with the investigation. Judy Woodruff sits down with Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin and NPR’s Carrie Johnson for analysis.

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  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I think we were watching most closely the issue of obstruction of justice, which we know was an open question going into this report.

    On that question, as we expected, there were no conclusions, but there were some very striking sentences about the approach here. This one, let's look at a particular.

    Special counsel Mueller wrote: "The president's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful. But that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out his orders or accede to his requests."

    That really sums up what Mueller is saying here. He's saying the president did try to influence these investigations, but in large part was not able to because his orders were not followed.

    To the overall, special counsel Mueller laid out 11 different incidents that he explored. Some, he said, have substantial evidence of obstruction, some no evidence. There's a spectrum.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Yamiche, from your perspective at the White House, what is standing out?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, essentially, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, said that the president was trying through his staff to influence the investigation, but that there was a shield of people around him stopping him from doing things that they considered and described as crazy.

    I want to read to you, with that in mind, a tweet that the president just sent out moments ago. He tweeted: "I had the right to end the whole witch-hunt, if I wanted. I could have fired everyone, including Mueller, if I wanted. I chose not to. I had the right to use executive privilege. I didn't."

    Now, it's important to also note that the president has been tweeting that he was fully exonerated and vindicated. But to walk you through what was actually in the report, the president is not exonerated. And Robert Mueller writes about that.

    He says, in part: "If I had — if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we're unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while the report is not conclude that the president committed a crime, it does not exonerate him."

    And Robert Mueller really talks about the fact that it was very difficult to decide whether or not the president had criminal intent. So what we see now is the president really saying, I'm exonerated, but Robert Mueller not fully backing that claim.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's go to the Justice Department now, and to Carrie Johnson.

    Carrie, help us understand why, legally, the special counsel made the decisions that he did, and if you could work into that what we heard going into all this from the attorney general.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Sure.

    So it's been an open question as to why the special counsel decided not to make a call on obstruction. We do now, having read the report, have an insight into that. The special counsel points out that there is DOJ guidance, Justice Department guidance that says you cannot or should not indict a sitting president while he or she is in office.

    There's also an argument that the president cannot obstruct justice by taking an otherwise lawful action, doing something like hiring or firing the FBI director, which he did to James Comey in 2017.

    But the special counsel evaluated all the arguments and determined that it is in fact possible for a president to obstruct justice through some corrupt purpose. So it's an open question as to whether any president could be charged after he leaves office.

    And, certainly, this special counsel left open the option for Congress to take this ball and run with it, perhaps as a matter of impeachment for the House Judiciary Committee considering the president and obstruction.

    We do know Attorney General Bill Barr said he disagreed with some of the special counsel's findings and analysis. And we also know that Bill Barr, before he became attorney general, sent a 19-page memo unsolicited to the Justice Department and the White House arguing President Trump could not have obstructed justice by firing James Comey.

    The special counsel seems to disagree with some of those legal arguments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're going to be talking about a good bit of that as the program goes on.

    Nick, you have been looking at this, of course, from the Russia perspective. Walk us through here some of the extensive efforts by the Russians to influence the 2016 campaign.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, we learned a lot about what the special counsel calls a sweeping and systemic effort by Russia.

    We really learned how successful it was at targeting and contacting Trump officials. And, as we talked about, Judy, one of the main efforts was the social media campaign. And that was focused from a building in St. Petersburg that I went to a couple years ago.

    There it is, the Internet Research Agency, full of hundreds of Russians pretending to be Americans online. And they were creating fake accounts and fake posts, especially on Facebook.

    And these posts were about divisive issues, trying to really roil the United States and trying to convince people that, for example, President Obama was — or trying to create false claims about President Obama.

    And the trolls targeted the Trump campaign, specifically asking for things like signs, promotion, and coordination. And campaign officials were replying to these trolls, to these Russian trolls.

    But what's important, the special counsel says there is no evidence that the campaign officials who were replying knew that they were Russians, because, remember, these trolls were pretending to be American.

    And that's why those campaign officials aren't guilty of conspiring with Russia. The second half, of course, is the hacking that Russia did. And there were three main elements to that.

    They really targeted the DNC, as we have talked about, targeted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They targeted individuals and entities and elections administrations in states, and they disseminated everything they targeted, they hacked, through DCLeaks, Guccifer, and WikiLeaks.

    And for the first time, we learned that Trump campaign officials were talking to then candidate Donald Trump about WikiLeaks, really coordinating with WikiLeaks.

    But the attorney general said this today, that WikiLeaks was not part of the original hack. Therefore, it did not commit a crime. Therefore, talking to WikiLeaks is not a crime. But it was part of a real effort by the Trump campaign that was consistent interest in hacked materials.

    And that interest culminated in a speech that candidate Trump made on July 27, 2016.

  • Donald Trump:

    Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we learned we learned, five hours after Trump made that statement, military intelligence in Moscow targeted Hillary Clinton's personal campaign. Up until then, they targeted another aspect.

    So they were apparently listening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many threads here with regard to Russia.

    Lisa, let's come back to obstruction and what the president was doing to try to stop, or slow down at least, this investigation. What do we see?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I mentioned those 11 things that special counsel Mueller looked at.

    If you kind of think of them as being sort of on a large dartboard, some farther away from obstruction, some closer, the ones closer to the bullseye all surround the president's attempt to try and influence the special counsel's investigation itself.

    So let's look at what this report charges of the president. It accuses him of trying to fire special counsel Mueller directly, also trying to block the investigation of himself by saying — trying to limit special counsel's Mueller's powers to not investigating Trump or his campaign, and also asking the White House counsel to lie.

    There is a lot in this report. And these areas, Judy, are the ones in which special counsel Mueller says there is substantial evidence that the president acted with the intent to use his power. But he also in these cases was not able to carry out those powers, for a variety of reasons, mostly because his orders were not followed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But they — but they documented time and again how he was trying in conversation with the people around him to get him to do things.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    To protect himself against this investigation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche, let's talk about the specifics that we learned about the former White House counsel, his role, and then the role of the attorney general in all this.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, there are times where the Mueller report reads like a novel, when you have a president who's really calling people and tweeting and trying his best to really influence the Mueller investigation in any way that he can.

    Here are three examples that really deal with the White House — the White House counsel, Don McGahn, as well as the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

    The first is that the president wanted Corey Lewandowski, who was his former campaign manager, to actually have Jeff Sessions deliver a speech where he would call the Mueller investigation unfair and where he would say that Robert Mueller was actually trying to subvert the Constitution.

    The president dictated that speech specifically, but Corey Lewandowski passed that off to a White House aide, who then felt uncomfortable and didn't actually do it. So we have one example of the president wanting something to happen, and it just didn't happen.

    The second is that he pressured Jeff Sessions — President Trump pressured Jeff Sessions, his former attorney general, to recuse (sic) himself repeatedly. He called him at home. He spoke to him in the Oval Office. He tweeted about it. Over and over again, the president did that.

    The third is that the president basically tried to get Don McGahn to say that I never — that the president never tried to fire Jeff Sessions. He actually called Don McGahn at home, when he was very angry with Jeff Sessions, and said, you need to get rid of the special counsel, and you need to get rid of this problem.

    So, in this case, he was really trying to get Don McGahn to fire the special counsel. And he was really trying to use his power as president to do that.

    Now, it's important to note that Attorney General Bill Barr this morning said that the issue of obstruction is something that the special counsel did not leave to Congress.

    In fact, in the report, over and over again, Robert Mueller writes about Congress. And I mentioned that because those three instances that I just laid out, they could become a road map that Congress might use to start trying to get information from people like special counsel Robert Mueller, who we know the House Judiciary Committee and House Judiciary chairman has asked to come and testify before Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of new information there in the report, especially with — about the efforts to get Don McGahn to step in.

    Let me come back to you, Carrie Johnson, at the Justice Department and ask you about the meeting at Trump Tower in June of 2016. What do we learn about that meeting and also about the statement that was made afterwards by the president's son?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Yes, I'm analyzing this in terms of both conspiracy, or collusion, as the president calls it, and also obstruction.

    So, with respect to conspiracy, the special counsel seems to have evaluated that meeting, which seemed to be about Russian sanctions, not Russian adoptions, and determined that the campaign, the Trump campaign, was willing to accept something of value from Russia, something of value being dirt, opposition research on Hillary Clinton, their political opponent.

    But, ultimately, the special counsel seems to have concluded that the people in that room, the Americans in that room, including Donald Trump Jr., former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and others, didn't have the requisite criminal intent to charge them with any kind of campaign finance violation.

    Now, on the obstruction side, of course, when parts of that meeting began to come to light, President Trump played a personal role in sending out a misleading statement from his White House to explain what that meeting was about and the involvement of his son Donald Trump Jr.

    The special counsel there found those statements to be false. But, of course, lying to reporters is not a crime. Lying to investigators is. And the investigators said the president seemed inordinately concerned with public relations there.

    In fact, Hope Hicks, then a top White House aide, and Jared Kushner both told the president that if the e-mails involving Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump Tower meeting came out, it would look very, very bad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you know, there is so much here to talk about. And I want to try to get around to all of you with another question and other aspects of this.

    Nick, speak about what stood out to you in the contacts between the president and people who were trying to influence him, the Russians?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How many links there were…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … between Russia and the campaign, and yet how none of them were criminal.

    And Carrie just talked about one of them. But let me go through all of them.

    There were business connections. We learned a lot about the Trump campaign attempt to create Trump Tower Moscow. There were invitations by Russia to the president himself to visit Russia and to multiple campaign officials. There was an influence over policy decisions, relief on sanctions, softening policy on Ukraine during the Republican National Convention, even a consideration to allow Russia to control Eastern Ukraine, and, of course, many offers of assistance.

    The main one, we just heard from Carrie Johnson, that meeting in June 2016 between a Russian lawyer and members of the Trump campaign. As Carrie said, the special counsel believed that he couldn't prove the intent of the people who were in that meeting, and also that there was actually no dirt give him.

    And so, therefore, there's no value for what the campaign officials took. And so, therefore, they did not commit any kind of campaign finance violation, which is the law that the special counsel talked about for pages whether they would have.

    So, so many links, and yet none of these deemed criminal.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, so now, finally, let's look ahead.

    What does it look like comes next for Congress, Lisa?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    Well, there are two issues here. One is Attorney General Barr. We already see letters from top Democrats. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer just sent out an e-mail blasting him, saying that his summary is not in keeping with what they see in this report.

    Second, we expect now the special counsel himself will testify, likely. He's been invited to before Congress in coming weeks. Now Congress has to wrestle with the decision of how it handles impeachment, especially Democrats.

    I want to look at very quickly one conclusion from the report. Yamiche mentioned this as well. Mueller went to great lengths to say Congress can permissibly criminalize certain obstructive conduct by the president.

    That is another line that's going to be part of that road map, I think, that Yamiche mentioned for Democrats that we're going to pay a lot of attention to.

    One other thing. In the last hour, Judy, some top Republicans, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the number two Democrat in the House, and also Intelligence Chair Schiff, have said they do not think this leads them to move toward impeachment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating. And I will be talking to Congressman Jeffries in a moment. We will be hearing that.

    Yamiche, the White House, they want this behind them. What are they saying about what's next?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the bottom line is that President Trump is really feeling good about where the narrative stands as it relates to the Mueller report.

    However, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters, including myself, that there should be an investigation of the investigators. She's actually saying that there should be somewhat of a look into how this all got started, whether or not things were done in the correct way.

    I also spoke to the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. He tells me that they're supposed to be some sort of counter-report released, either in the next day or so or even next week. That report, we're not exactly sure what's going to be in it.

    But you can be sure that it's going to be saying that the president was cleared, that this is really something that was unfair, that this was presidential harassment, as the president has said. So, even as the president feels good, the White House is still on the offense here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Carrie Johnson, Justice Department, what is — what are they looking to next?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Judy, the work is not done.

    One of the most tantalizing parts of this report was in the appendix. It said special counsel Mueller and his team had referred 14 cases to other prosecutors. Twelve of those cases are redacted, blacked out, under seal. There's still a lot of work going on behind the scenes. Someday, it's going to break into public view.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I know you're going to continue to report, as our entire team is.

    Carrie Johnson at the Justice Department, Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin here in the studio, thank you all very much.

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