ROBERT COSTA: Mueller finally speaks out, but what now? I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.
Robert Mueller defends his report and his decisions.
SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER: (From video.) If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) There was no crime. There was no charge because he had no information.
MR. COSTA: Impeachment calls grow louder, but Speaker Pelosi won’t be pushed.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) Many constituents want to impeach the president, but we want to do what is right and what gets results.
MR. COSTA: And the president launches a trade war with Mexico, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Robert Mueller’s investigation is complete. He formally shuttered the special counsel’s office this week, but the debate over his conclusions continues inside the Justice Department, on Capitol Hill, and across the nation. Mr. Mueller, after years of silence, stepped forward on Wednesday to defend his team’s work and offered what he hopes are his final remarks on this front.
SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER: (From video.) Russian intelligence officers who are part of the Russian military launched a concerted attack on our political system. The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.
MR. COSTA: On President Trump and possible obstruction of justice, he said this.
SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER: (From video.) If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.
MR. COSTA: The president fired back.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I think he is a total conflicted person. I think Mueller is a true never-Trumper.
MR. COSTA: Attorney General Bill Barr raised questions about Mueller’s legal analysis, telling CBS News that he disagreed with, quote, “a lot of it.” He added that it did not reflect the department’s view.
Joining me tonight, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Devlin Barrett, national security reporter for The Washington Post; Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief for USA Today; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal.
Devlin, you’ve covered the Department of Justice day in, day out. Listening to Robert Mueller, his associates, DOJ officials, what was most significant about Mr. Mueller’s statement?
DEVLIN BARRETT: First of all, that he spoke at all is the most significant. You know, I think for two years Mueller has sort of been this blank canvas upon which people have projected both their hopes and their fears about where this investigation will lead, and he finally spoke, and that’s very powerful. That’s, obviously, very compelling precisely because he’s never done it before. But his message was really interesting in that it was one of, folks, I’m done here; you know, whatever you decide to do is up to you now. You know, this investigation has been on sort of two roads for a long time, a legal criminal investigation and then the political road, and I think those two roads have now merged. And Mueller is saying I’m not driving any further down the road; whatever happens will be on the political road and it won’t involve me. I don’t know that Congress is going to take that for an answer.
MR. COSTA: Before that merger happens, did he offer any clarity on obstruction of justice?
MR. BARRETT: The problem for so many people with what Bob Mueller has done is that he insists he will not answer that question, and he insists that so forcefully that he insists he won’t even consider the question. And that’s the basic contradiction of his work, right, because why do you investigate the president if not to reach a decision on that point? He believes, and he lays this out in his report, that Justice Department policy does not permit him to reach a decision on that. And I think, frankly, House Democrats would like him to reach a decision because I think they think that would help their cause in investigating the president. But what he laid out this week is a very emphatic I’m not going there and you can’t make me.
MR. COSTA: Susan, who was the audience for Mr. Mueller?
SUSAN PAGE: I think – I think his audience – of course, we were all consumed here in Washington, but I think he actually had a message very much directed at Americans generally across the country that got less attention, and it was the subject he started with and finished with in his just nine minutes – so not a lot of ground that he could cover in just nine minutes. He started and finished by talking about Russian meddling – not about President Trump’s role; about Russia’s role. And the fact is, the fact that that has gotten not – hasn’t been as inflammatory as it seems like it should be is remarkable because the impact of Russian meddling on our election, which is going to continue, has much more far-reaching, longstanding consequences than even President Trump.
MR. COSTA: If it’s so important, will Congress act on Russian meddling?
MS. PAGE: On Russian meddling? Well, I think it’s – you know, there is – the House has passed some legislation aimed at trying to shore up defenses and there’s been some action, but there hasn’t been the kind of concerted national campaign to harden our election systems that you would have expected, I think, after the 2016 election.
GERALD SEIB: You know, and I think – I think one of the interesting unobserved parts of that whole problem is that this does increase the pressure on Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to move legislation designed to stop election interference by the Russians and by others, and he’s kind of sat on that and he’s gotten away with sitting on it for months and months. But I think one of the things Bob Mueller probably wanted to do was turn up the heat a little bit on Congress to act in that sense.
You know, the other thing I found interesting about it was that Bob Mueller seemed a little conflicted on the obstruction of justice. But there was a huge wink involved there, which was to say, well, we didn’t find that the president didn’t obstruct justice, and now it’s time for others to decide what to do about it. And it was seen as kind of a wink to Congress: Well, now it’s your turn, as you said, and that was the other takeaway from it.
The third point I would make is that the president was pretty conflicted, too, because he wants to say Bob Mueller exonerated me – complete exoneration; oh, by the way, he’s a never-Trumper and he was deeply conflicted. You kind of can’t have it both ways. Either Mueller is honorable and exonerated me or you can’t trust anything Mueller says. But you know, that’s the way it plays at the White House right now.
MR. COSTA: How is it playing at the White House? Inside the West Wing, what’s the mood?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think the mood inside the West Wing is one of President Trump still feeling very angry at the fact that the Mueller investigation ever happened. I think that we saw him tweet today or tweet this week I had nothing to do with Russia helping me win the election; and then quickly backtracked and said, actually, that’s not what I meant, what I meant was I won this all by myself. And that’s pretty remarkable because we have all these intelligence agencies and Bob Mueller saying we should really be concerned about Russia and its – and its role in the elections. I think Susan’s really right when you think about he started and ended his message with that, so that was a message to the American people.
I will add, though, that from the political point of view I think if you look deeply at what Robert Mueller said there was – for Democrats he was saying my – this report is my testimony. I took that to mean, OK, Democrats, I know you’re going to want to do oversight, but when I come to Congress if I have to come to Congress I’m not going to go beyond my report.
MR. COSTA: Is he going to come to Congress, Yamiche, based on your conversations with House Democrats? Are they going to call him?
MS. ALCINDOR: I’m not sure. I think that if you listen, Adam Schiff from the House Intelligence Committee, he sounds like he might subpoena Mueller. But Jerry Nadler, when he was asked, you know, what are you going to do, are you going to subpoena Mueller, he said, you know, I heard much of what I thought I was going to hear. So maybe – he didn’t even say maybe not; he just basically stopped at that point. I will say, though, if you’re a Republican who was listening to Bob Mueller, you also have to make it very clear that he said if I thought I could clear the president I would have, and I think that that’s the political message to Republicans. He’s making it crystal clear I’m not giving him a pass, I’m not exonerating him, which is exactly what the president has been saying over and over again, and Robert Mueller’s basically saying that’s not what I’m saying.
MR. COSTA: Do your DOJ sources, Devlin, expect Mueller to head to Capitol Hill even though he wants this to be his final word?
MR. BARRETT: I think there is still a great deal of expectation and pressure from the Congress for him to come and testify. I think part of the message he’s sending is that he will be a hostile witness. I think it’s sort of an interesting question for the House Democrats: Do they – are – which is worse?
MR. COSTA: Well, what about Attorney General Bill Barr? How does he handle it?
MR. BARRETT: I think Barr – from Barr’s point of view, Mueller has said he doesn’t want to go. I don’t think – first of all, Mueller is not a DOJ employee anymore. Barr can’t make Mueller do anything. So at this point, it’s really a conversation between Mueller and Nadler and some others in the House. And I think the challenge for Democrats is, do you want a hostile witness or no witness? Which is – which is better/worse for what you’re trying to accomplish, which is to keep public pressure on the president and give these investigations some oxygen and some fuel?
MS. PAGE: One of the things that’s been so annoying to both sides is that Mueller won’t do what either side wants him to do.
MR. BARRETT: Correct.
MS. PAGE: He won’t go and say, you know, there’s really nothing there, case closed, we should move on. But he also doesn’t give the kind of crisp answer that Democrats were hoping he would give to say yes there’s something to do here, yes you should impeach, which was the message that some Democrats heard, but it wasn’t explicitly what he said.
MR. COSTA: It’s not just about being crisp. Was he too late? Now he’s debating the attorney general about the meaning of his own report.
MR. SEIB: Well, I think that he didn’t want to – as Devlin suggested at the outset – I don’t think he wanted to do this at all. I think he wanted to go away without ever saying a word. It’s ironic in a town where most people run toward a television camera, that Mueller runs away as fast as he can. But I think he felt he had to close the book and put a period at the end of a sentence in some fashion and this was the fashion by which he did it.
MR. COSTA: House Democrats want to open the book, a growing number of them, on the question of impeachment. What are the pressures, though, Yamiche, on Speaker Pelosi?
MS. ALCINDOR: The pressures on Speaker Pelosi are that there is still a minority of Democrats in the House that want to impeach the president, but they’re loud and they are people who are very savvy with the media and they’re people who have a lot of energy behind them. And, by the way, you have now Democrats who are running for president, who more and more of them are saying we should look into impeachment and we should – and we should impeach. So I think there’s this idea that Nancy Pelosi, I think she still has a handle on her caucus as of today, but when Democrats come back and the Congress comes back, that could be a completely different story.
MR. COSTA: Susan, you’re writing a biography of Speaker Pelosi. What’s your read on her positioning?
MS. PAGE: Well, she’s got this – she’s in kind of a bind. She’s got, at this point, 55 House Democrats who support either an impeachment, empaneling an impeachment committee or starting an impeachment inquiry of some sort. But she’s got 41 Democrats who flipped Republican seats in 2018, gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives. There is no overlap between those two lists. The people, the members who flipped seats and on whom Democratic control is crucial are entirely separate from the 55 Democrats who now support some kind of impeachment inquiry. And that’s because impeachment is a risky business. It’s risky for the president, but it’s risky for Democrats who really got elected, regained control of the House with a promise to deal with things like health care.
MR. COSTA: Is it a risky business for Speaker Pelosi? You’ve been through so many Washington wars as a reporter.
MR. SEIB: It’s absolutely risky. I mean, among those people are 21 House freshmen who won in districts that Donald Trump carried in 2016 and they look at their districts and say people are going to be mad if we move to impeachment, that’s not a very useful strategy, you know, from our point of view.
So there’s another risk involved, by the way, and I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago saying at the – in the – at the top, maybe President Trump wants the Democrats to impeach him. And I thought I was being facetious, but the more I think about it and the more Nancy Pelosi speaks, I think she may think this way, too. Maybe he does want them to, because what would happen? He’d be impeached by Democrats in the House. He would not be convicted in the Senate. He could then say I was vindicated and the Democrats overreached and spent all their time attacking me rather than dealing with the country’s business.
MR. COSTA: If the Democrats are going to build an impeachment case, it has to go beyond Robert Mueller’s testimony. Don McGahn could matter, the former White House counsel, getting to the question of intent. Do Democrats have more work to do on that intent front?
MR. BARRETT: Well, absolutely and that’s why this question of hearing witnesses is so important. It’s not just Mueller who’s a problematic witness for the House Democrats or a nonexistent witness for them. It’s McGahn, it’s a number of former and current White House officials who the Trump administration has made very clear they do not want coming within a hundred miles of a hearing room. And so, you know, the Democrats have approached this problem with the notion of, you know, we need a high-profile hearing. If it’s Mueller or McGahn or someone else, we need, like, bright lights and a lot of live TV to sort of drive this point home to the American public. They’re reaching, they’re searching for a witness and right now they don’t have one.
MR. COSTA: There’s no star witness at this point who’s going to make the case for the Democrats. Did the president – to Jerry’s question – does the White House want impeachment as a grievance tool for 2020?
MS. ALCINDOR: White House aides will say they’re not going to welcome impeachment, but they are obviously having meetings about impeachment. And also, there’s this idea that White House aides have been telling reporters, including myself, that having an impeachment proceeding against the president might help him win back the House and take it back from Democrats.
I also have been talking to sources inside the Trump campaign and they say this would help turn out our voters, we need them to get excited, we want them to come, and what better message than to say, hey, they’re still mad about 2016 and now they’re trying to take him out of office before 2020? So that’s what I think what Nancy Pelosi is looking at and why she’s proceeding so cautiously.
MR. COSTA: Are there any Republican cracks? We saw Representative Justin Amash of Michigan. Is that it?
MS. PAGE: You know, so far that’s it. And I think he does not represent a crack. He’s a, you know, he’s a particularly principled libertarian member of Congress who speaks only for himself. It’s not as though someone who – it is not as though Kevin McCarthy announced that he was in favor of impeachment. So I think that does not reflect a crack. That doesn’t mean you could not possibly have some erosion of Republican support if you had some big disclosure that seemed very shocking.
Now, Republicans have really stuck with President Trump in a remarkable way for the past two years. You can’t guarantee – the White House cannot be confident that a Mitt Romney, for instance, wouldn’t find something that made him support taking action.
MR. BARRETT: But can you imagine 20 Republican senators voting to convict?
MS. PAGE: No.
MR. BARRETT: No, it’s – and I think it’s interesting. Nancy Pelosi says another thing that probably doesn’t get enough attention. She talks about how impeachment would be very divisive in the country, not just whether it’s a good strategy or bad strategy for Democrats, and I think she’s sincere in that and she’s certainly right. I mean, that would be extraordinarily divisive and I think that’s a consideration in her mind as she does the calculus on this question.
MS. ALCINDOR: The issue is, though, that when you look at the country, politics has already become so tribal over the last two years. Take any event – Robert Mueller’s statement or what President Trump is tweeting or what – or what Nancy Pelosi is saying – and if I talk to Republicans, it’s a completely different story than when you talk to Democrats.
MS. PAGE: But there’s risk for Pelosi not taking action as well, because we know that this gins up the president’s base, but not impeaching a president who many of the most reliable Democratic voters believes ought to be impeached is – it could hold down Democratic turnout, it could be a problem for Democrats in 2020 as well.
MR. COSTA: A final question on this issue. Whether the Democrats impeach the president or not, could he still face charges once he leaves office?
MR. BARRETT: That’s always been sort of a theoretical possibility. And it’s something that Mueller says very specifically in the report that it’s a scenario that could happen. I think that’s still a difficult and high hurdle politically and legally. But yeah, that is definitely on the table in terms of a legal possibility down the road.
MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to trade. President Trump has threatened to impose new tariffs on Mexico with the goal of prompting Mexico to be more aggressive in addressing undocumented immigration into the United States. Some high-profile Republicans slammed the move as a, quote, “misuse” of presidential tariff authority. The Wall Street Journal reported that Mr. Trump’s top trade adviser, Bob Lighthizer, also opposed the plan, arguing that it could jeopardize the ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
Jerry, what does this mean for U.S. consumers?
MR. SEIB: Well, first of all, it’s a very big deal. I mean, Mexico is the second-largest provider of imports to the U.S. after China, so there’s all kinds of stuff that comes in. In particular, it’s harmful to the auto industry because lots of parts that are put in American-made cars come from Mexico, so prices of cars goes up, price of Mexican produce at the restaurant or the grocery store goes up, the appliance that you might buy might have been made in Mexico, that cost goes up, so there’s a lot of impact for consumers.
There’s also potential follow-on impact if this actually happens and Mexico responds by putting tariffs of its own on, then that’s going to affect farmers who like to ship products to Mexico.
One footnote, though. This is not happening immediately. The president said I will put these on effective June 10th if Mexico doesn’t act –
MR. COSTA: Five percent on all goods starting June 10th and then 5 percent in addition every month.
MR. SEIB: Every month until you hit 25 percent, which would be very onerous. But there’s a period of time here for Mexico to do something to allow President Trump to back off. And we’ve seen this sometimes in the China trade dispute. There’s a threat, there’s a panic, the president puts a deadline and then sees enough progress to say, oh, I succeeded, I convinced them to act and he backs off.
MR. COSTA: Why did he act now?
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s a question I’m not sure I can answer. What I can say is that obviously this has been a White House that’s been trying to really make a case that there’s a crisis on the border and has been using everything from changes in asylum to obviously now trade policy to make that case.
I will say this. I was on the call with the White House officials as they were announcing this and one of the key questions people asked is, well, what can Mexico do to make sure that these tariffs don’t happen or at least that they don’t increase? There were no clear goalposts from the White House. So you have a very clear punitive action – it’s going to be this date and this date and 5 percent then 10 percent – but they don’t say, OK, well if border apprehensions go down by 5 percent, then we’ll pull this back or if we have less people in custody, then we’ll pull that back. So what you have is a vague successful goal or a vague goal for success and Mexico could pretty much do anything and Trump could say, OK, you know what, I’m OK, we’ll take this away or say they didn’t do enough, we’re going to 25 percent.
MS. PAGE: Well, Jerry said “if this happens,” and I think that’s a real question because –
MR. COSTA: Why do you say that?
MS. PAGE: Because, well, for one thing the president’s made threats before to do dramatic, drastic things like this and then not done them, and he often does them at a moment when he wants to change what we are talking about. So what are we talking about this week? We’re talking about the Mueller – Mueller’s announcement, and we’re also talking about the controversy over trying to shield the president from having to see John – the ship in Japan that was named the USS McCain. Those are both stories on which he was not getting a lot of defenders, and this – now we’re talking about trade and an issue he would much prefer us to be talking about.
MR. SEIB: And that his base would like to hear about.
MS. PAGE: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: And we’re seeing the president use emergency powers, very controversial even among Republicans. It’s raising questions about the executive branch and going into the national security area.
MR. BARRETT: Well, I mean, one of the great things about politics – or maybe one of the worst things about politics – is that your view of executive power depends very much in this country on who’s the – who happens to be the executive at the time. You know, there’s this battle over how much authority the president has on a whole number of fronts, and frankly, Attorney General Bill Barr is a big proponent of as much executive power as possible, and that helps Trump in a number of ways. And one of the ways that you’ve seen him, you know, become very close to Trump very quickly in a way that, frankly, a lot of other Cabinet officials have struggled and failed to do is that Trump seems to really like his attorney general already, and a lot of that is because a lot of what Barr is doing is to the benefit of the president. And for Democrats, they see that as, you know, very dangerous and alarming, and Trump finally feels he has a real defender, a real lawyer in the Justice Department.
MR. COSTA: Does this upend the USMCA, the new version of NAFTA that sits in Nancy Pelosi’s hands on Capitol Hill?
MR. SEIB: Well, that’s the – that’s one of the real dangers. As you suggested, that’s one of the reasons some of President Trump’s top advisors said don’t do this, because it puts the ratification of the new trade agreement in jeopardy both here and in Mexico, because in Mexico this sort of thing stirs up nationalist sentiment which is very clear – close to the surface anyway in Mexico. And they – there’s a chance the legislature down there says, nope, we’re not going to do any deals with the U.S. under these circumstances. And here it kind of gives Democrats an excuse to vote against a trade agreement they’re not sure they like that much anyway. So, yeah, I think it creates a political problem for an agreement that’s very close to the president’s heart.
MR. COSTA: Thanks, everybody. Appreciate you being here on a Friday night.
Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Watch our discussion on politics and social media. You can stream it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.
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I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.