Mueller Defends Office's Investigation Into Russian Interference In 2016 Election

Originally published on May 29, 2019 12:42 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR's Phil Ewing is our national security editor and has been covering - has been coordinating our coverage of the Mueller investigation. He's in our studios. Phil, what did you hear that stood out to you?

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Well, the president will probably not be a fan of the remarks that Mueller made because, during the portion of his comments about obstruction, the special counsel was very clear about how serious he treated that effort to - what he called effort to obstruct the investigation into the Russian interference in 2016. And he described that as being of paramount importance, according to the notes that I wrote here. He didn't hedge. He didn't qualify. He said, when a subject obstructs an investigation or when witnesses lie to investigators, that's obviously clearly problematic.

The special counsel then went into kind of a legal analysis about what action that he could, under the law, take about that. And what he said is he couldn't take any action. It was never an option for him, as he described it, to prefer a charge against the president because of the constitutional issues associated with the way he can enforce the law and the way...

INSKEEP: Yeah. He says there's a Department of Justice regulation, and he points out that, although regulation is not the law, if it's in place, you can't just disregard it with no process. You can't just...

EWING: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Do something else.

EWING: And members of Congress listening to the special counsel also will find music to their ears in the way that Mueller described how, in his view, the way he appeared to characterize it, this is now a problem, for them for the House and the Senate, in terms of holding the president accountable in this construction for the findings that Mueller's office returned.

INSKEEP: Yeah. His words were, the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system in order to resolve a question like this. And he was making those remarks, as I understood them, Phil, specifically about the question of obstruction of justice. Contrary to repeated false claims by the president, he did not exonerate the president. He went out of his way to say they - had they found that the president had committed no obstruction, they would have said so, but they were limited, Robert Mueller says, by regulations from proceeding with an indictment - nor, we should be clear, did he specifically say we would have indicted. He simply said the opposite. We did not find the president to be cleared here, and it is someone else's job - sounds like Congress's job - to get to the bottom of that, if it desires to do so.

EWING: And this is taking place amidst a big, long-term political dispute among members of Congress and within the government more generally about what action to take following Mueller's report. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has been resisting calls from some of her most progressive members, some of those liberal Democrats in the country who clearly oppose the president and have for a long time and say Mueller's findings compel you, the speaker, to begin an impeachment process. The speaker doesn't agree, or she goes back and forth but mostly says it's not the right time. The crimes weren't sufficient. The findings don't hold up to that. And this will only complicate matters for her politically going forward.

In terms of the president's response, it's going to be very interesting to see what he says on Twitter today or whether we see him, on TV, respond to the special counsel's comments because there also were things there for him.

Now, we have video and audio of the special counsel saying that he didn't establish a conspiracy between the president's campaign in 2016 and this Russian interference. That's a helpful clip for the president and Republicans to have out in the media ecosystem. And this dispute about what action to take will mean that there is no clean decision for Republicans, but there's also no indictment for him to worry about. And in fact, as we learned from Mueller, the special counsel's office is going away. And so the peril for people in the president's camp also may be dispelled.

INSKEEP: Robert Mueller made another point subtly, but to my ear, unmistakably, Phil. He talked about the seriousness of these allegations, and he said, quote, "they needed to be investigated." That seems significant at this moment when the White House and the president's closest allies in Congress are promoting conspiracy theories about how it was that this investigation started and whether it was the deep state ginning up some kind of case to destroy President Trump even before he was president of the United States. That's the conspiracy theory that has been spread without much credible evidence at this time.

Do you hear, in that phrase from Robert Mueller, a very simple, straightforward response? There was cause for this investigation. There was a seriousness to the charges here.

EWING: Well, the interesting thing about Mueller's comments is they hew so closely to the report that we've all read and dissected and which has been the subject of so much focus. So it's extraordinary to see and hear the special counsel because we haven't seen or heard him since his appointment in the spring of 2017. But at the same time, if you look at the substance of the remarks that he made today, nothing was new there, or very little was new there.

Having the audio and having the video is important. You talked a little bit earlier about how unusual it is to hear the voice of a man who's been so central to our political life for so long but we never actually heard speak or saw do anything in real-time other than on TV b-roll. And the way it appears to me is Mueller is saying, if you have questions about this, I've answered them in this report. He also addressed the prospect of talking with members of Congress...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

EWING: ...And said, I will say - or members of my office would only say what's in this report. And he appeared, to me, to close the door on any negotiations with the House Judiciary Committee or other members of Congress, saying, if you want me to come up, what I'm going to say is already out there.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I didn't understand him to say, I will not testify. I did understand him to say, I don't want to testify. This is the only public statement I want to make.

EWING: I don't think that's going to satisfy members of Congress. And there are substantive things that they probably want to ask him - and, potentially, people in his office - that go beyond just the scope of this report. For example, in 2016 and before, which Russian officials decided to launch this interference campaign that the special counsel's office has documented? Who decided how it should be shaped, with the social media aspect, with the cyberattacks? Why were those strategies chosen? How were the targets identified?

We know that it took place from Mueller's findings, but the things before the story we know still remain unclear. That's been the subject of some dispute between the House Intelligence Committee and the Justice Department. Its chairman, Adam Schiff, issued a subpoena to get some things about that part of the story. He's expected to get that. The Justice Department has been cooperating.

But there are things that members of Congress could ask Mueller that are beyond the scope of this report that may prompt them not to take no for an answer and, for example, ask him what legislation they should pass to stop future interference if, in fact, he has any views about that.

INSKEEP: There's still a lot to discuss in this roughly 10-minute statement by Robert Mueller. If you are just joining us, we should let you know that Robert Mueller stepped in front of a lectern at the Justice Department, said that he's formally closing the special counsel's office, that he's resigning from the Department of Justice. And he restated a number of the Mueller report's findings in rather different terms than the attorney general stated them some weeks ago at the same lectern.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was in the room for William Barr weeks ago, was in the room today and, if I'm not mistaken, is on the line. Carrie, what did you hear that struck your ear?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I heard a man we've been desperate to hear from for two years say that he has fulfilled his duty. He conducted an independent criminal investigation and produced a written report, which he says speaks for itself. He says he's closing up shop, resigning his job at the Justice Department and returning to private life. And if he has his way, this is going to be the only time he's going to speak about this matter. He said no one interfered with his decision or tried to lean on him to testify or not testify.

But it seems clear he would prefer not to undergo what could be a circus-like environment in Congress and prefers to have members of Congress read his work and do what they will with it.

INSKEEP: How different were these two statements that you were present for, William Barr and then Robert Mueller?

JOHNSON: You know, Bill Barr went out of his way, in the course of his confirmation process earlier this year, to say that he and Bob Mueller were good friends, that their spouses are good friends. Their relationship goes back 30 years or more. But Bill Barr, only a short while ago in his own news conference, suggested that there were disagreements between the two of these men. There's been a lot of speculation about whether there's a rift in their friendship.

Today, Robert Mueller said he does not believe or question the attorney general's good faith, even though he felt compelled to write a letter urging the attorney general to make more of the Mueller conclusions and summaries public so as to dispel some misimpressions about what they found. Of course, now we...

INSKEEP: Yeah. He also suggested that the public was getting the wrong idea because of the way the material had been presented. That's what he said in that letter.

JOHNSON: That's what he said in that letter. But today, Robert Mueller told all of us and the public who was watching and listening that, now, the report is mostly public. There are 400-plus pages. And while there are fights now about whether members of Congress can see and review the underlying evidence this investigation amassed, that was no longer his fight. Other parts of the Justice Department, the White House and Congress are fighting that out in court and elsewhere. And he feels that he can step aside now and leave that fight for other people.

INSKEEP: Carrie, I want to ask one other thing, and it's about tone. It's about the special counsel's shaking or quavering voice at the beginning there. Now, I don't want to assume anything about that because those of us who've had to step before microphones, sometimes you're a little off balance at the beginning. Sometimes you've got to fall into a rhythm. It may not mean anything in particular.

But you were there in the room and you've followed Mueller's career for years. What did you take away from his emotion, if any, in that moment?

JOHNSON: You know, I did hear him stop and slow down and sometimes repeat himself or correct a word here or there, which is not something I remember from his tenure as FBI director when he testified. That said, Steve, this is a 74-year-old guy with the eyes of the world on him. And words matter to Robert Mueller. We know that. And he basically wanted to get through this process, say his piece and not make any news - not make any unwelcome news. And I think he was aware of the moment. And, you know, hey, we all need a drink of water from time to time. God knows I do, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Indeed true. Indeed true. And I've got a cup of coffee here, which I can sip unseen. Let's bring another voice into the conversation here. NPR's White House correspondent - or national political correspondent, I should say, Mara Liasson was also listening in. And, Mara, what struck you?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, what struck me was that, up until now, the main voices describing this report were the attorney general, Bill Barr, and the president of the United States, who of course has said, over and over again, this report exonerates me. No collusion. No obstruction.

Well, you just heard - and there's something more powerful than the written word. As Justin Amash has been saying - he's the one Republican calling for impeachment - has been saying over and over again, nobody has read the report. Well, very few people probably have. And there you have Robert Mueller on tape saying, if we had confidence that the president did not commit a crime, we would have said so, but we didn't. We didn't make a conclusion about whether he committed a crime is what he said.

So you now have that piece of tape that's going to be played over and over again. You have a rebuttal, in effect, to the president. So that was significant.

INSKEEP: And I - we have a duty to state this clearly because the president has said total exoneration so many times.

LIASSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: That's not a partisan statement. It's just a duty that we have, as citizens, to observe that the president's statement has been totally false every single time.

LIASSON: Yes. Yes, and so that, I think, is interesting. On the other hand, Bob Mueller is very reluctant. He doesn't want to testify before Congress. He - that doesn't mean he won't end up testifying privately before Congress. But he said over and over again, this is all I'm going to say. I want the work to speak for itself. We chose our words very carefully in the report. But I do think that having Bob Mueller in person, on television saying this is significant.

INSKEEP: What do you make of another thing that was stated by Robert Mueller toward the end? He said, I'd just like to remind people that we found conclusive evidence of multiple systematic efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. And he wants every American to have that on their minds. Does it strike you, as someone covering the political world, that that is actually the focus of a large part of Congress or the administration?

LIASSON: Well, it's certainly not a focus of the administration. Donald Trump has gone back and forth about whether he even believes that happened. In other words, today, Mueller said that Russia launched a concerted attack on our political system. They used cyber techniques to hack into the Clinton campaign. They stole private information and then released it through WikiLeaks.

The president still calls it a Russian hoax, the whole thing. So that's another rebuttal to the president. I think that there are many members of Congress, both parties, who want to find out what they can do to harden our defenses against this happening again in 2020. But the president, who doesn't even acknowledge that it happened in 2016, is not seized of this issue. On the contrary, he has spent a lot of time and effort arguing that it didn't happen at all.

INSKEEP: Phil Ewing.

EWING: The other thing is, you know, the cyber security firm FireEye, yesterday - this is a day ago - issued a big report about Iranian efforts that it described influenced the 2018 midterm elections, which followed a very similar playbook to the one used by Russia in 2016 in terms of the social media agitation. According to this report, Iranian operatives created fake Twitter and Facebook accounts and posted in places where they thought Americans would see their pro-Iranian, anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli messages. And that was connected with the political campaigns of people running for office.

And so not only is this a rearward-facing issue where we are going to endlessly litigate the 2016 election for the rest of our lives, this phenomenon is going to stay with us and continues until this day, according to these findings.

LIASSON: And...

EWING: And that's why it's been called so pressing by members of Congress to get to the bottom of this story to try to address this issue going forward.

LIASSON: And it's not foreign actors. Snopes.com did, recently, a whole expose of American actors who are posting fake accounts, who are peddling disinformation, who are doing the - you don't need a Russian or an Iranian to cyberattack or have a disinformation campaign. You know, you can do that right by our very own selves here in the United States. And that is happening. It happened in 2016. It happened in 2018, and we assume that it's going to happen in 2020 as well.

INSKEEP: Let me ask Carrie Johnson a couple of questions about Robert Mueller's immediate boss, the guy who I presume will be receiving his resignation letter now that Robert Mueller says his job is done and he's leaving the Justice Department. Carrie, first, William Barr, does he - does he accept - has he accepted - just so far as your reporting suggests - the idea that there was serious interference in the 2016 election and that there is more that needs to be done to prevent that in the future?

JOHNSON: The attorney general is on record as saying that there was election interference, not just by Russia, but by other actors, as is the FBI director Chris Wray. Now, the FBI director has said that they're undertaking efforts to try to harden the structures in place for 2020. But there are a lot of open questions about whether enough has been done.

And because this problem is so wide and international and domestic, it really in some ways requires the White House leading the way. And there are big questions about whether this White House is prepared to take on that responsibility and make it a priority ahead of next year.

INSKEEP: Let me ask another question regarding William Barr. He's been accused of becoming a total partisan. He's been accused of becoming the president's defense lawyer because of the way that he's framed the Mueller report. Have you perceived any regrets, from Barr's side, or any concern about how he is perceived by the public?

JOHNSON: You know, Bill Barr said in his confirmation hearings this year that he's 68 years old, and he didn't really need this job. He was getting ready to retire and enjoy his family life, and he felt obliged to take on this job again, which he had previously under President George H.W. Bush. We do know he has a rather sweeping view of executive power, one that he has - he has considered in the course of the special counsel investigation and other policy matters on his desk.

As it happens, as Bob Mueller is making this announcement today, the attorney general is in Alaska doing events centered on the Native American and Indigenous population there. So he's a bit far from Washington today.

INSKEEP: That's interesting because a different day could certainly have been chosen for this statement, but this is the day that was approved.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and another thing interesting, Steve, has been members of Congress are not around to respond to Bob Mueller's statement that he really would prefer not to have to undergo testimony on Capitol Hill. Interestingly enough, although, Mueller didn't take questions at the end of his statement, he was asked a question about whether he would appear, if he received a Congressional subpoena. He said no questions. And that's when he walked out...

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's hear a few of Robert Mueller's words as we prepare to wrap up our Special Coverage here. Let's hear some of his statement from earlier this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT MUELLER STATEMENT)

ROBERT MUELLER: Under long-standing department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited. The special counsel's office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation, it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider.

INSKEEP: Robert Mueller explaining why the president was not indicted for obstruction of justice, although he specifically said the president was also not cleared. A bit of other information in there, he said that it would not be possible to leave an indictment under seal. So that seems to clear up the possibility that there is some indictment waiting around for after the president would have possibly left office, which is one theory that's been discussed.

Again, the news here, Robert Mueller says he's closing down the special counsel's office. He is resigning his position at the U.S. Department of Justice, although that is by no means ending the debate.

You've been listening to Special Coverage from NPR News - Mara Liasson, Carrie Johnson, Phil Ewing with us. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.