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Questions Remain After Redacted Mueller Report Is Released

Apr 19, 2019
Originally published on April 19, 2019 9:09 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway stepped out of the White House yesterday for the TV cameras, and she called it the best day since the president's election. It was the day when the public saw a special counsel's report that does not charge the president with criminal conspiracy as Russia worked to help his election.

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KELLYANNE CONWAY: We're accepting apologies today, too, for anybody who feels the grace in offering them.

INSKEEP: Conway apparently referring there to those who suggested the president was a willing, witting Russian agent. A more detailed look at the report does raise questions, though, about exactly who is owed an apology and for what. Robert Mueller's report affirms numerous news media accounts of conduct within the White House.

In one case, the president told the White House's top lawyer to have the special counsel fired. But Don McGahn refused. The report shows both that such stories were true and that White House officials knowingly made false statements to the media about them to cover them up. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So one thing we learn about here is evidence on obstruction of justice. We know that Mueller did not - neither charged nor exonerated the president on obstruction. We know that William Barr, the attorney general, decided on his own that there would not be a charge on obstruction. But now we see the evidence for ourselves. What is it?

JOHNSON: Yeah. You take the time and read this evidence of something like 10 or 11 episodes in which the president, both before and after the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey, tried to allegedly put his hand on the wheel at the Justice Department and try to control the investigation. The way the report describes it is that there were two phases of the president's conduct - one phase when it was just national security adviser Michael Flynn being investigated. And then another, more serious phase opened up after the president realized he himself was under investigation for potential obstruction of justice for firing Comey and other actions.

And the report chronicles really serious efforts by the president to lean on his lawyer, White House counsel Don McGahn, lean on Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein at the Justice Department and lean on other aides to either get rid of the special counsel or limit the mandate of the special counsel. And this was very, very strong evidence laid out in this report.

INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah. The quote, I believe, is "nonpublic efforts to control" the investigation. So it's not just angry tweets by the president. It is actions behind the scenes. And specifically, among others, this order to McGahn to get rid of the special counsel. "Mueller has to go" is the quote that's attributed to the president. Would this have been a slam-dunk obstruction of justice case had McGahn himself not refused that order?

JOHNSON: I don't know about a slam dunk, Steve, in part because the Justice Department guidance says you cannot charge a sitting president with a crime. Obstruction of justice is hard to prove. It requires a showing of intent. That said, there is evidence later on in this report that seems to suggest the president knew what he was doing when he was trying to get people to either refuse to cooperate with the special counsel investigation or get rid of the special counsel himself.

INSKEEP: William Barr, the attorney general, at a press conference yesterday gave what one reporter there described as a generous interpretation of the president's intent. And intent is vital here; did you intend to obstruct justice? Barr says, well, he was frustrated. He was being attacked in the media by false reports. Although, we now know many of those reports were true.

But in any case, Barr says the president was frustrated, and that seemed to be an explanation for his conduct, given that he was sure that he was innocent. What do other lawyers you've talked to say when they're told that the president attempted to obstruct the proceedings but had certain motives and didn't succeed?

JOHNSON: Well, the notion that he didn't succeed is not entirely persuasive to some of the attorneys I've been talking with in the last 24 hours. In fact, they wonder why the special counsel didn't consider certain other kinds of charges, like an attempt to obstruct justice or aiding and abetting after the fact. It's not clear why authorities didn't analyze or at least show their work on that analysis in their report. And it's also hard to imagine - according to a lot of former prosecutors with whom I've spoken - that if this involved any other person, that it would not have resulted in some kind of criminal charge.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Now, NPR political reporter Tim Mak is also covering this story. He's focused on the response in Congress. Hi there.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing?

MAK: Well, so congressional Republicans, they're echoing the president's line - no collusion, no obstruction. And they think that a lot of these investigations are baseless. Here's what Mitch McConnell - he's the Senate majority leader - here's what he told the press yesterday.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I trust Bill Barr. I think it's rather laughable to see them turn their guns on him. But that's all they're left with, frankly, is to go after him.

INSKEEP: And when they talk about going after him, of course that's the criticism for the way that William Barr has presented and interpreted this report and Barr's decision - not Mueller's decision - not to proceed with obstruction of justice charges.

MAK: Right. And you'll expect Bill Barr to be on the Hill, being forced to explain his decision by Democrats who are very upset with what they feel is his behavior, his behavior in not appropriately handling the rollout of the Mueller report.

INSKEEP: Who will continue investigating and in what way?

MAK: Well, Democrats will continue to investigate, not only on how this Mueller investigation took place but also on other issues related to the president's finances and oversight of what they see as scandals throughout the Trump administration. They'll also be trying to get a fuller, less redacted version of the Mueller report we saw yesterday.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note that in some cases, the redactions in the Mueller report specifically said, this item is redacted because there's an ongoing matter. Clearly, things are still being investigated behind the scenes by federal prosecutors of the FBI.

MAK: That's right. And it will also be of immense interest to Democrats who are trying to provide oversight of ongoing matters in the administration and things that happened before the Trump administration began.

INSKEEP: Any appetite in the House to move for impeachment?

MAK: Not amongst Democratic leaders. I think that Democratic leaders in the House just don't want to move forward with something so divisive without some Republican buy-in.

INSKEEP: Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.