ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra. We’re picking up where we left off on the broadcast about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Joining me to analyze it all, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Kaitlan Collins, White House correspondent for CNN; Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
Let’s first turn to the attorney general, William Barr, who released a four-page summary, then gave a press conference a few weeks ago – well, actually just this week, on Thursday – before reporters had a chance to read the report, declaring five times there that investigators found no collusion, as Josh mentioned during the show, between the Trump campaign and Russia. Attorney General Barr, what a character in this unfolding political and legal drama. Inside the White House he was at part maybe seen as an establishment nominee, an old figure in the – from the Bush 41 years; now what’s the view?
JOSH DAWSEY: For two years the president mocked his attorney general for recusing himself, for being weak, all of these problems he had with Jeff Sessions, just brutal. And he said this week to different advisors of his: Now we have a real attorney general; this guy’s tough, this guy knows what he’s doing. And it’s kind of the attorney general that the president wanted all along. He wanted an attorney general who would go out and defend him, who would say the things in front of a podium the president wanted to hear. If you watch that press conference on Thursday that Barr performed, there was nothing for the president not to like. Even the worst parts of the report he took the most charitable view every time for the president. He gave the president’s lawyers a chance to read the report. He came out immediately and said there was no collusion in his first summary, no charges. Everything Bill Barr has done, from the – from the release of the report to now, or the completion of the report until now, is to the president’s liking.
KAITLAN COLLINS: And we had some Justice Department officials telling us they were actually questioning why when Bill Barr came out and in his prepared remarks he really essentially defended what the president has said and done about the special counsel in the last two years, saying that he was so frustrated because he knew he wasn’t guilty, and he really defended the things the president has said, including that it’s all Democrats that were part of the team, that it was a hoax, a witch hunt. He essentially gave credit to what the president has said. Justice Department officials were wondering why the attorney general would feel the need to do that because that is not typically what the chief law enforcement officer would do. But a really interesting aspect to all of this is how close Bob Mueller and Bill Barr truly are. Their wives are in the same Sunday school class. They often go to dinner together. They were at each other’s children’s weddings. The president used to say that James Comey and Bob Mueller were best friends, but actually Bill Barr and Robert Mueller are actually very close.
MR. COSTA: What about Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer? He and others were urging the president throughout this process not to sit for an interview. Looking back, how important was that decision?
CARL HULSE: Well, I think that turns out to be very important for the president. I think that when you read the sort of conversations and dialogue that go in the White House – I hate to keep saying they’re liars – but that, you know, there was obviously going to be a grave chance that the president was going to make a mistake or a statement in that kind of interview that would really get him in trouble. So I think that turned out to be –
MR. DAWSEY: His own lawyers thought that, to be clear. That’s why his lawyers didn’t want him to testify.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, and that’s the reason they didn’t want him to testify, yeah.
MS. COLLINS: And it worked.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, and it did work.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And Rudy Giuliani has said over and over again that it would be a perjury trap, but when you realize that the president basically when he talks to people he likes to just make things up, he likes to fly by the seat of his pants, any interview with a federal official where you’re under oath and have to tell the truth could be a perjury trap for President Trump.
MR. COSTA: How much would this report have been much more of a political problem for President Trump if we didn’t know a lot of it already through news reports?
MS. COLLINS: It would have been devastating. If we had gotten everything we got yesterday and if there had not been the news reports that the White House has denied for so long about what really goes on inside the West Wing, including the fact that the president tried to fire the special counsel, tried to pressure the deputy attorney general, tried to pressure his own attorney general to unrecuse himself, it would have been a very devastating day yesterday for the president and his presidency if it had all come out at once. So actually, the president often derides the media, but he benefitted from really good reporting, because it allowed it to come out so slowly.
MR. HULSE: Well, and as the report says, a lot of this was done in public. A lot of the things that he was kind of chided for in the report, the tweeting pressure, you know, the pardon dangling, these were things he was doing in public.
MR. COSTA: But if it’s helpful to him in a political sense that it’s already out there, it’s not criminal in terms of causing him criminal jeopardy, why is he still calling it crazy?
MR. DAWSEY: He’s calling it crazy because he sees the chyrons on television, and he sees that his officials were saying that he didn’t know what he was doing. He’s absorbing copious amounts of news coverage of this report, where his own people are describing him as a bit unhinged. Not left-wing activists. Not Eric Swalwell, not Nancy Pelosi. His own people. And that frustrates the president to no end. I will say the mood in the White House was more nonplussed yesterday than I actually expected it to be. I mean, several people that I talked to, we were going through the report, I was asking them questions, said we already knew that, we already knew that, we already knew that. I mean, in some ways I think Kaitlan’s point was right. If you look at it as a cohesive document, it provides a pretty damning, nasty picture of the president. But almost every one of these incidents had been in the Post, or the Times, or the Journal. It was all known.
MS. ALCINDOR: And really what you’re saying, and what Kaitlan is saying, is that we had expectations that the president was a liar, and as a result we read a report that said the president has instructed people to lie and he’s lied himself. But I think yesterday I spent all day at the White House, and the president had a little bit of a swagger. There were all these aides that were walking around saying: This is the best day of his presidency. The president we all expected him to speak on the lawn. He basically just walked by us, gave us a little smile, and left. And we all thought, at least I thought, as well, that they were possibly in a good mood. That they thought that the narrative that Attorney General Bill Barr set at the beginning of the morning, that that was going to hold. What we now see is that the president has gotten to Mar-a-Lago, he’s sat on his couch and he’s watching TV, and realizes that narrative is not sticking. And that’s why you see the president calling it crazy today.
MR. HULSE: I also think he probably doesn’t like this idea that he’s so easily ignored by his top staff. You know, he can’t be happy sitting there reading: Oh, and he told us this several times, but we just never were going to do that.
MR. COSTA: But we had a White House advisor and a former advisor tell us today at the Post that if he was – if he was actually followed by his own advisors, there could have been a constitutional crisis.
MR. HULSE: Sure. Yeah, no I think they saved him from himself. But I still think he seems himself as the boss-man there, as Hope Hicks called him, and that he expects people to carry out his orders. He obviously lacks the follow through. I mean, he never – he never went and chased people down and said: Well, did you do this?
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, Senator – I think back to Senator Flake of Arizona saying that this was an adult daycare. If you’re the president and those words are stuck in your mind, you realize that here were people around saying –
MR. DAWSEY: Corker.
MS. ALCINDOR: Oh, it was Corker. Saying – which is even – (laughter) – Corker said that. And what you is the president probably sitting around thinking: Are they treating me like a child? Is this an adult daycare?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, and that was early on. I mean, the whole theory of Reince Priebus’ six months of chief of staff, the president would demand folks do things and Reince would say, sure, sure, sure, Mr. President. We’ll do it next week. And they called it the next week rule. And what they would do was hope that he president forgot about it. He would say nothing is dead until it’s buried, because sometimes the president would bring it back up, bring it back up. But they kind of joked internally: If we fired everyone the president told us to fire once, we wouldn’t have anyone in the building.
MS. COLLINS: And few things infuriate the president more than this idea that he’s being managed by his staff. He doesn’t like the idea that they’re controlling him or that they’re responsible for his successes. But that’s interesting about the president taking people’s advice, because he did take people’s advice when he wanted to fire James Comey, including his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, who said it would be a good idea and the Democrats would applaud it. And then when that didn’t happen, the president was shocked that he had gotten bad advice, even though other people had been telling the president: This isn’t the way to do it. This isn’t the way to fire him. And you shouldn’t do this.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. Mueller week, what a week. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.