Full Episode: The end of the special counsel’s investigation, but the start of a political war

Apr. 19, 2019 AT 9:01 p.m. EDT

Attorney General William Barr declared that special counsel Robert Mueller's probe concluded that President Donald Trump did not commit a crime. However, Mueller's team did not exonerate the president. After the release of Mueller’s report this week, the panelists discussed what the report reveals, the questions it raises, and the impact it may have on the Trump presidency.

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ROBERT COSTA: The Mueller report shines a bright light on the president’s conduct. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week .

President Trump claims victory.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No collusion, no obstruction.

MR. COSTA: And continues to attack the Mueller report, calling it crazy. But Democrats say hold on.

REPRESENTATIVE JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): (From video.) The special counsel made clear that he did not exonerate the president, and the responsibility now falls to Congress to hold the president accountable for this actions.

MR. COSTA: The special counsel and the attorney general are called to testify as an impeachment debate and a new political battle begin. We cover it all, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week . Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. The release of Robert Mueller’s 448-page report marked the end of the special counsel’s investigation, but it was also the start of a political war. Mr. Mueller’s volume on Russian efforts was extensive, showing how Russian officials and business executives sought to boost the Trump campaign, but the special counsel did not establish that the campaign conspired with Russia. Mr. Mueller then provided a vivid portrait of how the president operates. Witnesses were under oath, and personal notes and documents were cited. Again and again, the president is portrayed as angry and pushing his advisors to the brink of obstructing justice or to lie. Attorney General William Barr called the president’s actions furious, not criminal.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) There is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.

MR. COSTA: One such episode came when the president told then-White House counsel Don McGahn that Mueller, quote, “had to go,” and asked McGahn to engage the Justice Department about that idea. But, Mueller writes, that and other requests were mostly unsuccessful, largely because the people who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders. Democrats, however, say that the president’s conduct demands more scrutiny and more testimony.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) Whether these contacts were sufficiently illicit or not to rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy, they are unquestionably dishonest, unethical, immoral, and unpatriotic, and should be condemned by every American.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for CNN; Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour ; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times ; and Josh Dawsey, White House correspondent for The Washington Post .

A vivid portrait of the Trump presidency, Kaitlan. It shows the president trying to get his advisors to act on his behalf, but so often they said no. It this how the Trump administration operates? Is this how this president operates?

KAITLAN COLLINS: Yeah, this is something that seems related to the Mueller report, but this is actually something that happens on so many other fronts in the West Wing, whether it’s policy-related, staffing decisions, any kind of decision – the president tweeting decisions that the president wants to make. There is often this runaround going on behind the scenes happening with the president where people are trying to either get the president not to do something he wants to do, change his mind, slow-walk his decisions. So the president is seeing this, and that’s why he’s growing so angry now that this report is out and he’s seeing how it’s being covered on cable news and in the newspaper headlines, and he’s growing angry because not that he didn’t know what’s in it but because he’s seeing how his staff sees him behind the scenes, and you see a very different picture of the way they talk about the president compared to how they talk about him publicly.

JOSH DAWSEY: And one of the chief perpetrators of these elaborate schemes to kind of stymie the president’s actions was Don McGahn, the White House counsel that Bob referenced. I mean, Don McGahn, in his extensive interviews with the special counsel – 30 hours or so – in his handwritten notes described a president that was trying to fire Justice Department officials, that was trying to go around traditional avenues of contact with the Justice Department, that at every turn was really trying to take this probe and knock it down a level, was trying to get it off of his hair, was trying to make Jeff Sessions – his attorney general – unrecuse himself, and McGahn really became the star witness in this Mueller report. For all of the – for all of the details, the cover, the schemes, the lies, the descriptions in there, McGahn’s testimony really wove together a lot of it, and that’s why you see the president, as Kaitlan said, now pretty frustrated with Don McGahn because he is the person who’s showing the president as he was in those moments.

MR. COSTA: The president’s frustrated with Don McGahn today, fuming on Twitter, Carl, but McGahn’s a more complicated figure.

CARL HULSE: Yeah, he’s a complicated figure personally. He’s this libertarian lawyer who plays in a rock band and is a pretty accomplished musician, but he’s also – he was the star witness, but he’s also the architect of the biggest accomplishment so far of the Trump administration, the judges. He worked with the president to develop the famous judicial list of the Supreme Court nominees that was so beneficial to the president in his campaign, so he – and he worked with Mitch McConnell to put dozens and dozens of people onto the federal courts. So at the time that the president is expressing frustration and anger, he could look at McGahn two ways: one, his blocking of the president and refusal to do what the president ordered might have saved the president from real obstruction charges; two, he delivered what is probably going to be the biggest legacy of the Trump era. So it is pretty complicated.

MR. COSTA: You talked about McGahn saving the president, perhaps, from obstruction charges, and that was one of the main questions we were all asking each other this week in the newsrooms: Why didn’t Mr. Mueller come to a different conclusion on obstruction? Well, according to The Washington Post , the issue was, quote, “complicated” by two factors: DOJ practice says a sitting president can’t be charged with a crime and the president has a great deal of constitutional authority. The president did not obstruct justice in the view of Mr. Mueller and the Department of Justice; at the same time, what does this conduct say about this presidency?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, this – what the report really gets at is the essence of the White House, this idea that you have someone that some could consider a mad king because he’s giving all these orders and the people around him are calling him crazy, saying I’m not going to follow that through. I think if you’re President Trump and you think about how hard it was to get the nomination to the Republican nominee, to actually be elected president, and there’s always this idea where he feels as though people think he’s not legitimate – when you read this report, you realize that his staff is also saying a lot of his decisions aren’t legitimate. That has to be infuriating, but it’s also very much what people who cover the White House, including myself, have gathered over the last couple years, which is that the president has all these ideas about things he wants to do, a lot of them aren’t actually legal, and as a result his staff doesn’t carry this through because they don’t also want to be caught up in doing illegal things.

MR. DAWSEY: And what makes this report different from other accounts of the White House, a lot of these episodes were reported in real time by The New York Times , by The Washington Post , by CNN, by others – by Bob Woodward, our colleague at the Post . Here it’s the president’s own aides on the record, under oath with prosecutors, describing how he was governing this country and how he was trying to affect this probe. It’s different. It’s a lot harder for the president to come out and say fake news, no way when it’s his own people saying it under oath.

MS. COLLINS: And that’s what’s fascinating about the fact that his – he’s so mad at Don McGahn right now, because Don McGahn, yes, was part of the reason, because of either his notes he took, statements had made, or recollections he had during his interview with the special counsel. But he also was the one who potentially singlehandedly helped the president avoid an obstruction of justice charge. So the president seems to be missing the forest for the trees here by being so mad at Don McGahn because of his notes, when a lot of the information in here that’s pretty damning of the president came from a wide group of his associates.

MR. COSTA: Why didn’t Mr. Mueller subpoena an interview with President Trump, demand that the president sit down? Because the whole report is full of these examples we’re talking about, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the president’s intent.

MR. HULSE: I think when we see Mr. Mueller on Capitol Hill, there’s going to be a lot of questions about that. He seemed to have pulled his punches in some ways. He decided that he didn’t want to waste the time. They had enough good evidence already. I’m not going to waste the time on this court fight to get the president to testify. And in other ways, he left bread crumbs in the report for Congress, basically saying it’s really your job to investigate some of these things. But he didn’t come out and declare that. So I think people want to hear from him on the Hill and get some explanation for a few of these things.

MR. DAWSEY: And he said in the report that the president’s answers were inadequate, but it would have caused too much of a delay to go through a subpoena fight. The president’s lawyers told us for a story we did in the Post several weeks ago that they kept thinking Mueller’s team was going to say: You have to come in for an interview. And he never did, and he never did. And one of the deficiencies of the report in some ways in the prosecutors can never say why the president exactly was doing something. There’s a lot of holes because they’re saying: We don’t know what the president’s intent was here. What was he really trying to do?

MR. COSTA: So what about the political cost of lying? You have all these instances, Yamiche, throughout the report – whether it’s Sarah Huckabee, the White House press secretary, President Trump talking about Don Junior’s meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in 2016, General Flynn. There are pervasive lies throughout this report, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of obstruction of justice.

MS. ALCINDOR: And one of the things that’s remarkable after this report is that Sarah Sanders was doubling down on some of the things that she told reporters that we know how just completely wasn’t true. One of them being that she was hearing – in personal contact with all sorts of FBI agents who were telling her that they did not have – that they were not happy with James Comey. We now know that she told the special counsel that that was based on nothing. But she’s still on TV today saying –

MR. COSTA: But why is that? Was that because of the loyalty – the whole culture of loyalty around this president? Is she under pressure to do so?

MS. ALCINDOR: I think there are a lot of people who want to keep their jobs. I also think that they’ve seen a president who’s had political success continuing to lie while really not having any political problems with that. He was able to – even though, obviously, there were issues with the midterms, that was largely based on Democrats being able to talk about health care. The president himself has not faced a lot of political ramifications. 2020, of course, will be a completely different story. Maybe then people will look at this report and say: We have a president who has been forcing – or, has been trying to get people to lie for him, so we can’t back him. But I was talking to a really frustrated Democratic consultant today who said: Is he really just going to get away with it? And the answer right now is yeah.

MR. COSTA: Lie is a strong word, though. How does the White House defend that?

MS. COLLINS: Well, lie is a strong word because, say, what Sarah Sanders said, that the president certainly didn’t dictate that misleading statement about Trump Tower. She said that she was told that he had not done that, that he had simply weighed in, that he hadn’t actually dictated it. And she later learned, of course, through the president’s attorneys to the special counsel that he had actually dictated the statement. So that’s a situation where it’s is she getting bad information that she’s been relaying to reporters?

And that’s why it’s so fascinating what you bring up about the culture of being around the president, and people see the president get away with lying. That’s such an epidemic with Trump, is that people get too close to Trump and they think they can act how he acts, and they can get away with it. And they can’t. So as far as the lying goes in the White House, it all stems from the top. President Trump is the one who says the lies, makes his staff defend the lies, and then they’re the ones, like Sarah Sanders today, getting so much crap about it.

MR. HULSE: But it is kind of funny, because the president is accusing the people who testified under oath that he told them to lie, he’s now accusing them of lying. So that’s a little –

MR. COSTA: And the president also encouraged his officials to cooperate. He’s angry today, but you had the original lawyers, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, say we’re not going to raise the issue of executive privilege. Everyone should go down to Mueller’s office and sit down for an interview.

MR. DAWSEY: And they did. And former and current officials went with Bob Mueller’s office and sat for 10, 20, 30 hours. When Mueller said, did you have notes of these meetings, they brought in contemporaneous notes. They never exerted privilege. Now, once a different team of lawyers came in, once Rudy Giuliani and others came in later, they took a more aggressive posture. But in the early days of this investigation, when a lot of these key interviews were done, the theory was, like, we will cooperate extensively. We will hope the president gets cleared quickly. And we think we have nothing to hide. But then at the end, they also didn’t exert privilege. So the president and his team told these folks: Go in. Tell the truth. Give the documents over. And now you’re seeing blowback from people who were doing what the White House said to do.

MR. HULSE: I will say on the – on the report, though, in the instances in the report where the president’s word is at odds with someone else, they always – the report finds that the weight of the evidence is usually with the other person. They do not believe the president when he asserts some of these things.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to Capitol Hill, because Democrats have called on both Attorney General Barr and Special Counsel Mueller to testify. They want to probe how Barr handled the report and its rollout. And many say he seemed to be protecting the president. On Friday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena to Barr for the unredacted version of the report and all underlying evidence. Late Friday, the Justice Department pushed back and said they had done all that was necessary to do.

Yamiche, the question now goes to Speaker Pelosi, House Democrats. How do you handle a report that doesn’t recommend criminal charges but still raises many questions about this president?

MS. ALCINDOR: Nancy Pelosi’s in a very tough spot, because if you read the report Congress is explicitly talked about. And Robert Mueller says Congress has the authority to check this president, to look at his behavior, and really protect the integrity of the Constitution. But now, Nancy Pelosi still has people – has people in her party that are running for president.

And the question is whether or not you want to have 2020 be all about these fights and these testimonies on the Hill, or whether or not you want to just quietly move past this, and move past the idea of bringing people in and really grilling them, and really talking about impeachment, and instead take that case to the American people and say: Look, we’re going to use this report as a roadmap for maybe political commercials, maybe speeches. We’re going to say the president is corrupt and here’s all the things he did. If you didn’t read the report, here’s some thing that you need to know that the president lied about. Or do you bring people in and continue this argument? I imagine that the way that I’m hearing from Democrats that they are not interested in a long, continuous conversation about the Mueller report.

MR. COSTA: But what about Attorney General Barr? The Democrats and some Republicans are unhappy with the attorney general issuing his summary a few weeks ago, and then having a press conference before the report’s even released to the public.

MS. COLLINS: And don’t forget that he let the president’s – the White House counsel and the president’s outside legal team look at the report days before it was released to Congress and to the public. That was an interesting thing that came out of this week, was that not that a lot of Democrats were in unison calling for the president’s impeachment. Instead, they were calling for Bill Barr to resign or to be fired from his position, which is not something that seems likely at all to happen if you pay attention to the White House, because the president has been praising Barr privately behind the scenes effusively and comparing him to Jeff Sessions. So the president is pretty pleased with what he’s done.

MR. HULSE: I think that the Democrats expected Barr to be siding with the president, but they never expected it to be as bad as they consider it to be. He’s going to have a very uncomfortable time.

MR. COSTA: How uncomfortable?

MR. HULSE: With the Democrats, when he testifies. They’re furious. They think he—you know, this was—

MR. COSTA: What could they do, Carl?

MR. HULSE: Well they can just, obviously, complain and try and embarrass him. I think that they – setting the narrative in Washington is very important in these stories. And Barr really helped the president get out in front of this. I think the report coming out has started to reverse that narrative a bit. But they’re furious. They think he acted extremely unethically and improperly.

MR. DAWSEY: If you watched Barr’s press conference on Thursday morning before the report came out, before anyone had saw it, the defenses he gave of the president mirrored what the president’s own legal team has said, and the president’s own aides. In the report, you see it says no coordination or conspiracy. He kept saying no collusion over and over, which is not a legal term, which is the president’s term. He said the president had noncorrupt intent and was going by sincere beliefs. The president –

MR. COSTA: What does he mean by that?

MR. DAWSEY: The president was just mad at the investigation. What explains that is either Barr genuinely, truly feels that way after looking at the report. He sees noncorrupt intent. Or, he has a broad, expansive view of executive power, which we know that he does. And he thinks the president has a right to do all of these things, and that the public should not be able to repudiate him for that, essentially. And he seems – he seems to totally comfortable in a role of defending the president, almost as his own personal lawyer.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, one of the glaring things that Barr said at that a.m. presser – and I almost loath to call it a press conference because those DOJ reporters had not seen the report, so they couldn’t ask informed questions. And I think that’s something that has to be flagged over and over again, because had they seen the report that a.m. presser would have been completely different. But he said: Robert Mueller didn’t leave it to Congress to make the decision on obstruction of justice. When you read the report, Congress is mentioned so many times that it’s clear that Robert Mueller saw a role for Congress when it comes to obstruction of justice, and that – and that Attorney General Barr didn’t have to make that decision in his summary letter, in his letter talking about the Mueller report.

MR. COSTA: We know the Democrats are unhappy with this process, but are Republicans totally with this president? We saw this week that former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, he’s running a longshot bid for the Republican nomination, but are there any other cracks or are they with him 100 percent ahead of 2020?

MS. COLLINS: Well, it depends on who you ask. Most of them have been able – have been sure to say, yes, some of the things that’s going on in the West Wing, it’s problematic to see this culture of dishonesty that’s emanating from the West Wing, but they have been very quick to say that there was no collusion and they are following party lines saying there was no obstruction, though the report raises a lot of questions about the president’s activities.

MR. COSTA: What do you make of Senator Romney?

MS. COLLINS: Senator Romney’s comment was pretty interesting, that he made.

MR. COSTA: What did he say?

MS. COLLINS: He was talking about the report and he was essentially saying – he was the most critical so far about the president’s activity.

MR. HULSE: He said it was sickening. He said it was sickening.

MS. COLLINS: He said he found it sickening, but he toed party line; he said there was no obstruction. So it’s one of those things where they’ll look good so they come across as criticizing that behavior, but they won’t go as far as to say there should be more questions raised about the president’s activities as far as obstruction.

MR. HULSE: No, it’s very, very limited. Rob Portman called some of the actions inappropriate, and that seemed like almost a bold statement compared to some of the other ones.

MS. COLLINS: Yeah. (Laughs.)

MR. HULSE: So, yeah, they’re totally hanging in there with the president. They have used the excuse, oh, we have to review the report. I think that there’s no eagerness on the Senate side to call Mueller up to –

MR. COSTA: What do you – what do you think about – you cover the House as well, Carl. Impeachment, is it happening or not in the House?

MR. HULSE: I don’t think so. It think that what they will do is continue to investigate, have witnesses, but don’t get into that crucible of the impeachment, although –

MR. COSTA: Why not? Is it the – because they’re haunted by what happened in the ’90s or other presidents?

MR. HULSE: Right, they’re haunted a little bit by what happened to the Republicans with Bill Clinton when it kind of blew up on them in ’98. I think they just figure that that’s going to be seen as overreaching, it’s going to distract from the policies that they want to talk about, health care. They want to keep the focus on this, but once you turn it into an impeachment process then Trump and the Republicans say we’re being – he’s being persecuted, and Pelosi – Speaker Pelosi has been pretty clear that she doesn’t want to do this without bipartisan support, and as we just discussed there is none.

MR. DAWSEY: But on the other side you’re going to see a ferocious effort by the president and his allies to highlight what they see as bad conduct from the investigators and to turn the tables on a lot of the Democrats, a lot of folks who were calling for collusion – who said there was collusion: Adam Schiff comments publicly, the FBI leadership, DOJ leadership. The president and his team seem more emboldened than ever before to really try to turn the narrative and investigate the investigators, and it will be interesting to see how much executive power he’s willing to use to do that.

MR. COSTA: And let’s also remember Mr. Mueller’s mandate was to investigate Russian interference that began in 2014 and continued through the 2016 election. He showed Russia carried out an extensive social media campaign to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States. He went into great detail about how the Russians used information warfare in a very targeted way that by 2016 showed support for President Trump and disparaged Hillary Clinton. It also hacked into the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee and released information through WikiLeaks. Ultimately, Mr. Mueller wrote that the investigation did not establish members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government. Yamiche, when we step back – and we’ve focused a lot on the obstruction side of this report – there’s also this enormous volume on Russian interference that begins Mr. Mueller’s report. Where does this go moving forward? Is this U.S. government and a president who’s been skeptical of Russian interference for years, do they start to address it now in a more serious way for 2020?

MS. ALCINDOR: It’s really hard to say because Attorney General Barr kept saying that the efforts – there were efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the election. If you read the report, it says that they had a sweeping and systematic way of interfering with the 2016 election. I was standing just a few feet from the president at 11:00 when the report came out; the first things I’m reading on my iPhone – the first thing I read was that line that said Russia interfered with the election in that sweeping way, and I almost gasped because I thought for myself, apart from all these arguments, we’re Americans and this is – we have a foreign government that’s really meddling in our elections. And then you go on to read some of the things that they did, including setting up in Houston, Texas, dueling protests where they had one side for something, one side against it. That tells me that possibly I’m thinking behind the scenes there are going to be U.S. officials who say we need to figure out some way that 2020 is different, but it’s hard to say because it looks as though the president is really focused on the idea that he doesn’t want to be seen as an illegitimate president, and as a result it’s going to really, I think, guide where he thinks about this.

MS. COLLINS: Well, and here’s the thing, in Barr’s press conference he gave a full-throated endorsement of Mueller’s indictment of those Russian operatives who interfered in the election, and that is not what you hear from President Trump, who the day the report came out was saying that the real crimes were committed by the Democratic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign. But when you actually read the report, it makes very clear about how they hacked into – to get those emails from the DNC, from Hillary Clinton, to publicize them to embarrass her, to help – or try to hurt her chances of winning the election. That is concerning for all people because as Senator Marco Rubio has said time and time again, it could easily be Republicans on the other side of the target next time, and no one wants them interfering in that way in the election of course.

MR. HULSE: I think the president doesn’t like to talk about this. However, on the Hill there is bipartisan concern about this. Mitch McConnell even talks about the – they will probably try to find a way to come together in a bipartisan way to do something to limit this, but of course, you know, you’re always fighting the last war on something like this. There will be a whole new kind of way to interfere with the election. But I do think both sides realize, outside the president, that this is a serious issue.

MR. DAWSEY: But to your question, Bob, I talked to Tom Bossert today, who was the president’s first homeland security advisor who handled a lot of this, and he said that reading the report was scary and that we were not prepared to handle it. He said several administrations – three, four, five administrations in the past have been dealing with this, no one’s taken it seriously, and he said he thought it should be a wakeup call for people to behave differently when it came to cybersecurity and hacking.

MR. HULSE: They also use it as a way to blame President Obama for this too, by the way.

MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight. I appreciate it.

And our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube every Friday starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a happy holiday weekend.

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