Full Episode: What did we learn from Robert Mueller's testimony?

Jul. 26, 2019 AT 9:44 p.m. EDT

After former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill this week, the panelists discussed possible next steps for Democrats in Congress and the future of election security in the wake of Russian election interference. The conversation also turned to the latest economic news and the federal budget deal.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: House Democrats at a crossroads and Republicans face pressure on election security. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.

Democrats debate impeachment following Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress.

ROBERT MUELLER: (From video.) We did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.

MR. COSTA: Speaker Pelosi pledges to move forward with investigations and their battles in the courts.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) It’s based on the facts – the facts and the law, that’s what matters; not politics, not partisanship, just patriotism.

MR. COSTA: The president wants to move on.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) This whole thing has been three years of embarrassment and waste of time for our country.

MR. COSTA: But foreign interference remains a pressing issue as the Senate Intelligence Committee releases new details, next.

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

MR. COSTA: This week the former special counsel, a respected nonpartisan investigator, stepped into a partisan wildfire on Capitol Hill. Robert Mueller testified before two House committees about his probe of Russian interference during the 2016 campaign and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. Mueller’s remarks were serious and concise, and underscored his report’s conclusions. The Mueller hearings leave House Democrats, led by Speaker Pelosi, intensely deliberating whether to impeach the president. While some Democrats are now calling for impeachment proceedings to begin, the speaker says Democrats will not make a final decision until the courts decide whether the White House must comply with congressional demands, including the call for testimony from former White House Counsel Don McGahn. CNN’s Manu Raju asked the speaker about her approach earlier today.

MANU RAJU: (From video.) Democratic colleagues believe you’re simply trying to run out the clock on impeachment.

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) That’s not true.

MR. RAJU: (From video.) Are you trying to run out the clock?

HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From video.) No, I’m not trying to run out the clock. We will proceed when we have what we need to proceed, not one day sooner, and everybody has the liberty and the luxury to espouse their own position and to criticize me.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Mark Landler, London bureau chief for The New York Times; Rosalind Helderman, political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post, and co-author of the analysis in the Post’s bestselling publication of the Mueller report; and Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News; and of course, Manu Raju, senior congressional correspondent for CNN.

What’s next for House Democrats?

MR. RAJU: Well, look, I think that impeachment is suddenly on the table in the House, which is a big shift. This has – the speaker has been very reticent about going down this path. She has said that it’s not going to happen. She’s said that the president’s simply goading us into impeachment. She said the Senate’s controlled by Republicans; why would we go down this route, because they’re simply not going convict the president? Her messaging has changed.

She said after the Mueller report let’s see what the courts do, let’s figure out the courts – the situation of the courts. I asked her directly after the Mueller hearing about her concerns about that it will dying – it would die in the Senate. She said, that’s not my concern anymore; my concern is what’s going to happen in the courts. She said this is not going to be endless. And in that very significant development today, they added – they put language in this lawsuit to get this Mueller grand jury information that says the House Judiciary Committee needs that information because they are considering articles of impeachment against the president, and she signed off on that. So does this mean they’ll pull the trigger? Not necessarily, but it means it’s seriously on the table.

MR. COSTA: Ros, what’s the outlook in the courts about getting that grand jury information?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yeah, so grand jury information is secret. It is sealed. It is very hard to get. There was actually just a court ruling in the past year from the D.C. Circuit saying that a judge can’t release grand jury material just because it’s in the public interest. So one exception that allows you to get it released is if there’s a judicial proceeding underway, and what the House Democrats are going to argue is that impeachment is that judicial proceeding – it brings them under an exemption in the law and allows them to actually make a potentially – we shall see – persuasive argument to adjudge that they should get this stuff.

MR. COSTA: What about Don McGahn’s testimony? Can they compel him to testify?

MS. HELDERMAN: That’s also going to be a legal battle. It’s interesting, they’ve said they’re going to enter the courts but they actually haven’t filed that lawsuit yet to try to compel – to force him to comply with their subpoena. That’ll be a big executive privilege battle that’s likely to go to the Supreme Court.

MR. COSTA: You’ve covered Speaker Pelosi. What’s her calculation here? Does she want to move on, or are there cracks in the ranks even at the highest levels?

ANDREA MITCHELL: There are cracks in the ranks. We saw, you know, the vice chair of the caucus also coming out; now it’s close to 100 or around – maybe just over 100 members. I think she wants to not admit that she’s running out the clock, but we are running into the clock. They say they’re going to work during this six-week recess, but there’s no sense of real urgency outside of the Judiciary Committee, and Adam Schiff from the Intelligence Committee has said the only way to remove him from office now is to defeat him at the polls. I think that that is the logic of we’re going into this next set of debates next week, then there will be more debates in September. The tempo of this campaign, this primary campaign, is increasing. They’re running right into the 2020 election, and that timing really puts a dead end, I think, to this if the courts don’t move quickly, and the courts have not been moving quickly. And so far at least, the Department of Justice, William Barr has had all the cards. He and the White House have delayed this to take this sense of immediacy away from it. It’s been months since the report was released, since Barr put his own stamp on it – misleading the public, I think, by most accounts. And the Mueller testimony did not rise to the drama of expectations, even though the nuts and bolts were there and the hard facts were there that could support impeachment.

MR. COSTA: What about inside the White House? Walking away from Mueller’s testimony, what’s their next step?

MARK LANDLER: Well, I mean, the president continues with what he’s been doing, which is to discredit the investigation, you know, while at the same time claiming it totally exonerated him, so he’s followed the same strategy. It was sort of interesting watching him in the – in the days and hours leading up to the testimony because he did look like he had genuine anxiety about what was going to come out. He was incredibly critical of the fact that Robert Mueller brought one of his leading legal advisors to sit next to him and advise him. So there was this sort of sense of slight panic on the part of the president in the days leading up to it. I think when it ended up being as undramatic as it was and Bob Mueller stuck as closely as he did to the report itself and refused to speculate/elaborate, offer any conjecture at all about the White House’s motives, the president breathed a sigh of relief and there was that note of triumphalism in his tweets the way we saw after Attorney General Barr delivered his first highly misleading take on the report itself.

I think the president – I think Andrea is right in saying that the calendar is rushing forward so quickly you’ll probably see him pivot a little bit now to “Sleepy” Joe Biden, the squad, the political enemies that he’s already been making hay with over the past few weeks. And my own view is in a way Donald Trump mirrors the American public. If Mueller ends up being this story that quickly recedes into history, I think you’ll watch the president move on to the next chapter as well.

MR. COSTA: What about the summer recess? You think about moderate Democrats; many of them won office in 2018 in the suburbs running on the healthcare issue, on the economy. You have Representative Brindisi, Anthony Brindisi of New York; he told The Washington Post anyone who is looking for a smoking gun with the Mueller testimony didn’t get it, it’s time to move on and focus on some bills to get passed and hopefully get signed into law. We talk a lot about the pressure on the – on the left towards Speaker Pelosi. What about from the center on the speaker?

MR. RAJU: Yeah, and that’s what she has to consider about moving forward, how does moving forward the impeachment affect the people who actually got her in the majority. Yeah, they’re not the loudest people in the room, but they are the most important to protect. That’s going to be a key calculation. I talked to two of them yesterday – Congressman Van Drew from New Jersey, Max Rose from New York – both of whom won Republican-held seats. They made it very clear that they are not anywhere near supporting an impeachment inquiry. But there are some other frontline Democrats – they call it the frontline Democrats, the most vulnerable Democrats in the House Democratic Caucus – who are starting to slowly support impeachment. One congressman, Mike Levin from California, today announced his support for opening up an impeachment inquiry. So if you do see movement on that front, perhaps that could move Pelosi. So we’ll see what they hear from their constituents in the recess.

MR. COSTA: Andrea brought up the Attorney General Bill Barr. We had Robert Muller’s testimony, but what should we expect from DOJ on the IG investigation into Carter Page and the FISA application, as well as the AG’s own report on the origins of the Russia investigation?

MS. HELDERMAN: Yeah, Barr had said that we should expect that IG’s report in May or June. It’s now July. So I think we are expecting that within the next several months. That could be a really critical moment if he finds that there was some wrongdoing in the surveillance warrant that was issued for the Trump advisor Carter Page. And then we’re going to have this separate investigation. Unclear when we will get that. It’s being run by a U.S. attorney who has a very good reputation. Also, frankly, a reputation for going quite deliberately, in other words slowly. So I wouldn’t expect that we’re going to get the results of that too terribly soon. But that’s supposed to take a broad look at how the investigation began. So, you know, all this Mueller investigation material is not quite in the rear-view mirror yet.

MR. RAJU: Yeah, and of course Mueller – sorry – Muller didn’t want to answer those questions about the start of the probe during the hearing.

MS. MITCHELL: In fact, one of the more frustrating things for people who wanted to get the facts out was that Mueller chose not to rebut highly misleading questions that were really misstating the facts about the origins of this investigation. And the Democrats then stuck to their narrative, rather than trying to correct it, one in particular. Carter Page had been under investigation long before Donald Trump even thought of running for president. He was under investigation in a prior case because of his connections in Russia. And those FISA warrants were based, in part, on his previous relationship, because he had been followed by the FBI.

MR. COSTA: Let’s turn to a related issue here. A new bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee Report shows that Russian intelligence targeted election systems in 2016 in all 50 states. And it went on largely undetected. Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s chairman, described what happened. In a statement Burr said, quote, “In 2016 the U.S. was unprepared at all levels of government for a concerted attack from a determined foreign adversary on our election infrastructure.” The report goes on to say, “The U.S. remains vulnerable to hacking by Russia and other foreign actors.” It cites three major issues: Insecure voter registration databases, aging voting equipment, and paperless voting machines. Mr. Mueller warned lawmakers about these matters on Wednesday.

REPRESENTATIVE WILL HURD (R-TX): (From video.) (In progress) – investigation. Did you think that this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence to suggest they’ll try to do this again?

MR. MUELLER: (From video.) Oh, it wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.

MR. COSTA: Whatever you think about Robert Mueller’s performance, there are also the facts. And the facts he laid out were also echoed this week by FBI Director Chris Wray. Russian interference is serious, and it’s likely to happen again in 2020. Yet, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell not moving on bipartisan legislation in the Senate. Will he pay a political price?

MR. LANDLER: Well, this carries echoes, of course, of what Mitch McConnell did in the months leading up to the 2016 campaign. You’ll remember that the Obama administration wanted Congress to pass some sort of a statement, and McConnell blocked it and said he wouldn’t go along because he felt it was being caught up in partisan politics. It was designed to hurt the Republican nominee. And so – and that’s very much his argument today. This is Democratic partisanship. This is not actually about making our elections more secure. It’s about Democrats trying to score points.

The interesting thing – to answer your question directly, I don’t know if he’ll pay a political price in his own state. But I do know that it just sort of, to my mind, reeks of hypocrisy. And it also potentially sets himself up by the sort of a you live by the sword, you die by the sword. So he doesn’t want to see this because he sees it as calculated to go against Trump or a Republican president. Well, we learned today that the Iranians are also interested in potentially interfering in our election. And if they do interfere in the 2020 campaign, they’re likely to interfere in ways that could have different outcomes. And so – and likewise, the Chinese. So the whole notion of foreign interference in elections isn’t necessarily automatically anti-Republican. And I think that’s the issue that Mitch McConnell should think about.

MS. MITCHELL: And I think what’s so outrageous about this, to a lot of people, is that Richard Burr is the Republican chair. That committee, that Senate Intelligence Committee, worked as a bipartisan committee. I’ve covered that committee for decades. And they delivered. And Robert Mueller delivered. That report delivered on this very issue. It is an attack on our democracy. And in fact, in the 2018 midterms the National Security Agency shut down the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg for a number of days, just to make sure that they could not interfere with our election, they were so concerned about it.

This is happening now. And for Mitch McConnell not to let this bipartisan two measures – fairly anodyne measures, but they were at least a start on cybersecurity and other measures – not even get to a vote on the floor is pretty astounding.

MR. COSTA: Manu, the majority leader has cited the Russian sanctions that were put on by the U.S. government, by the Trump administration. He cited 380 million in grants Congress allocated to states last year. Whenever I see you, you’re roaming the halls of the U.S. Senate. You’re talking to lawmakers on both sides. What’s the real state of play? Is this all about preserving his fragile relationship with President Trump? Or is he making a states’ rights case?

MR. RAJU: Well, both. You know, he is making a states’ rights case. That’s how he’s trying to contend that he’s being ideologically consistent. But there are things in there that have wide bipartisan support, such as mandating backup paper ballots and enforcing these election officials to do that because of concerns that these systems could be interfered with in some way. That – yeah, sure, it’s a states’ rights argument, but also if you were to go down that route perhaps you would open this up to a large discussion about election interference, bring up what happened in 2016. All of a sudden you may anger the man who’s sitting in the White House.

And McConnell does not want to do that. And the Senate has not become a place where they legislate anymore. They simply just deal with confirming President Trump’s nominees. What McConnell does not want to do is open up a thorny situation with the White House. Instead, you know, take his hits from Democrats, media, Republicans are silent about this. And then see where the chips fall where they may.

MR. COSTA: So there’s a Senate report on interference, but you cover interference as a beat, Ros. And you know it goes beyond just what a Senate committee concludes. There are deep fake videos online. There are WikiLeaks of documents and emails. What are reporters, citizens confronting on this interference issue, broadly speaking, as we head into 2020?

MS. HELDERMAN: Yeah, I think that was one of the messages that Mueller had, that, you know, not just Congress but we as citizens, maybe we in the media, have not yet fully come to grips with the lessons of 2016 and what we’re going to do next time, because there is undoubtably going to be a next time that stolen material appears online that can be helpful to one party or the other. You know, every day we still see fake viral memes pop up online and, you know, get spread like wildfire before they’re shut down. So I think we’re just very much at the beginning of confronting this problem as a society. We haven’t figured it out at all yet.

MR. COSTA: What was your takeaway on Mr. Mueller’s testimony about WikiLeaks?

MS. HELDERMAN: Yeah, I thought that was really one of the most striking moments of his testimony, because he had tried so hard not to enter the partisan fray. And so he had this one moment where he was asked what he thought of the statements that President Trump had made during the campaign about WikiLeaks. And it was – you know, I expected him to sidestep, as he had almost everything else. But instead, he said that he found, you know, problematic was an understatement. That it was giving hope and boost to illegal behavior. It was really a striking moment to hear him be so critical of President Trump and the way that he dealt with WikiLeaks.

MS. MITCHELL: In fact, he came to life more in the afternoon session with House Intelligence, I think precisely because of the way he started in his initial nine-minute opening statement back after the report was released and ended again on the Russia attack. This is what was animating him. This is the mission that he was there to cover. This was the original crime, if you will, that led to the potentiality of obstruction. And I think that that’s why he went beyond the yes, no, maybes, you know –

MR. RAJU: And the second-guessing you hear from Capitol Hill is that perhaps they should have started with the House Intelligence Committee’s part of the hearing –

MS. MITCHELL: Exactly.

MR. COSTA: Why didn’t they? Why did they structure it this way?

MR. RAJU: Well, they – technically he – they oversee – the Judiciary Committee oversees the Justice Department. The special counsel reports to the Justice Department. So this is a jurisdictional thing. So they could say the House Judiciary Committee should go first. It’s a turf battle. Everything in Capitol Hill is a turf battle. Some of these guys want to be the first person to put their imprint on things.

MR. COSTA: A turf battle on Capitol Hill, big surprise.

MR. RAJU: (Laughs.) Believe it or not. Exactly.

MR. COSTA: There wasn’t actually too much of a turf battle this week on the budget. The House passed a sweeping two-year budget and debt limit deal Thursday before lawmakers left Washington to begin their six-week summer recess. The deal raises federal spending levels, lifts the debt limit for two years, and prevents automatic spending cuts to military and domestic funding. It now heads to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass and ultimately end up on the president’s desk next week. Under President Trump federal debt has surged to 22 trillion (dollars), and the annual deficit is expected to reach 1 trillion (dollars) this fiscal year. This is a Republican Party that has been about the deficit under Speaker Ryan, yet now it’s embracing a bipartisan spending package, a debt limit package. Why put all of those principles from the past in the rearview mirror?

MR. LANDLER: I think part of this is a change in mindset; and it’s not just in the Republican Party, it’s among Democrats as well. And it’s actually not even just in the political class, it’s I think somewhat in the academic world as well. There is this evolving belief or conviction that debt and deficits are not as threatening, as damaging as, say, people thought they were a decade ago. If you remember the way Bob Rubin came in as Bill Clinton’s top financial – before Treasury secretary – head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and sort of drummed into him the idea that we have to get this under control, it’s an overhang that’ll, you know, destroy our children’s future, that thinking has completely disappeared in today’s Washington.

MR. COSTA: Was the economy driving this decision inside of the White House, they didn’t want to rattle the markets?

MS. MITCHELL: Absolutely. I think this president, he – the way he loves polls, he loves the stock market. That’s his measure of success. And it may be a false measure in terms of the underlying economy and what we’re going to face with entitlements and deficits down the road, but if that’s what he’s looking at he knew that default on the U.S. debt, not doing a debt ceiling raise, would have been fatal to his economic hopes and reelection.

MR. RAJU: What was remarkable, too, though, he put out a tweet that day calling on the House Republicans to get behind this bill, and overwhelmingly House Republicans revolted and voted against it. Now, many were not – many were not speaking up against it, and this was a bipartisan deal that was cut. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, supports it. It will pass the Senate with Republican support. But the Republicans are not comfortable with this, but they’re scared to speak out, too. Ted Cruz, who led the charge against leading a debt ceiling increase during the Obama years, I asked him, are you comfortable with raising the debt ceiling for two years and spending for two years; he didn’t want to comment when I asked him about it initially. And it just goes to show you, it’s just totally different under a Republican president.

MS. MITCHELL: Well, it was a big defeat for Mick Mulvaney, who did not want this, and a big success for Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary.

MR. COSTA: And we saw new economic data on Friday; the GDP rose at a 2.1 percent rate for the second quarter. That’s a pullback from the 3.1 percent in the first quarter of this year. That’s according to the Commerce Department. You’ve been on Capitol Hill as a reporter for years. The Republican Party with the president on this economy, regardless of his lack of interest in deficits perhaps?

MS. HELDERMAN: Yeah, I did a stint on the Hill. I arrived in 2011 during what people might remember was this really sort of almost frightening moment where they almost didn’t raise the debt ceiling, and I was there through 2013. And my entire tenure was this story of the perpetual fight over the Boehner rule, where they agreed that they would not raise the debt ceiling more than $1 for every $1 of spending cuts. And to watch that just entirely get wiped away is just – in a few short years is just amazing to watch.

MR. RAJU: Yeah, that propelled the House Republican majority back in the 2010 midterms.

MS. HELDERMAN: It was every story.

MR. RAJU: It was that issue, and they ran and they fought the Obama administration tooth and nail. But there’s no talk about deficits and debt in Washington.

MR. COSTA: Final thought on the new economic numbers?

MR. LANDLER: Well, look, it deprives President Trump of a big talking point, which is 3 percent growth, and the number was disappointing. That said, it doesn’t seem that it’s a real warning that we’re headed into a sharp slowdown, but you know, it is an indication that President Trump can’t count on a gangbusters economy into his reelection, which I think a few weeks ago people thought maybe he could.

MS. MITCHELL: And he of course is keeping up his drumbeat of pressure – incredible, unprecedented pressure – against Jay Powell at the Federal Reserve.

MR. COSTA: To try to keep those interest rates low.

MS. MITCHELL: Exactly.

MR. COSTA: Will Republicans break in the House on this budget deal, the Freedom Caucus?

MR. RAJU: In the Senate? Well, you know, in the House they’ve – you know, most of them already voted against this there.

MR. COSTA: They already voted against.

MR. RAJU: Yeah, but in the Senate I think you’ll see half the Senate Republican Conference eventually vote for it, maybe a little bit more than half, maybe about half of the Democrats ultimately back it. It’s not an easy vote for Democrats, too, because you punt the issue of the debt ceiling essentially into the – if there’s a Democratic president, all of a sudden they got to deal with it right off the bat in a new presidency, and how will the Republicans deal with it then? They probably won’t give it to him or her that easily.

MR. COSTA: We’ll be watching that whip count next week in the Senate and we’ll be watching the trade talks. They restart with China next week, but we’ll have to leave it there for now.

And coming up next on the Washington Week Extra we will discuss Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, and we will toast Mark on his new post over across the pond. Watch it on our website, Facebook, or YouTube.

I’m Robert Costa. As Mark may say, cheerio – (laughter) – or have a good weekend.


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