White House Responds To Mueller's First Public Statement After Russia Probe

May 29, 2019
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Robert Mueller has broken his silence. It's been more than two years since the special counsel began has now-concluded investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a statement lasting just under 10 minutes, Mueller outlined the results of that work, practically begging the public to read his office's report, including indictments of the Russian intelligence officers who stole sensitive information during the 2016 election and organized it's released to the public.

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ROBERT MUELLER: The releases were designed and timed to interfere with our election and to damage a presidential candidate.

CORNISH: That candidate being Hillary Clinton. Mueller also talked about the findings related to President Trump.

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MUELLER: And as set forth in the report, after that investigation, if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.

CORNISH: To talk more about this is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And Mara, how did the White House respond to Mueller's comments today?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, it was really interesting because it was not their usual tone. One of President Trump's deeply held beliefs is that to win an argument, you have to control the narrative and repeat a simple, easy-to-understand message over and over and over again, as in no collusion, no obstruction. And he also believes that television and social media is always more powerful than print.

So here you have Robert Mueller finally on television, live, talking. And it was a very powerful rebuttal to the president. And for the moment at least, the president seemed to blink. He surprisingly did not tweet his usual attacks on Mueller and his investigation as a big hoax and a coup. Instead, he just tweeted that there was, quote, "insufficient evidence." Presumingly (ph) he was referring to part one of the report that - about whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to interfere. Mueller said he didn't find enough evidence there to bring a criminal conspiracy charge. But he didn't even mention part two, the obstruction of justice part.

And White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders - when she did talk about obstruction, she was very careful. She just said the Department of Justice - as in Attorney General Bill Barr - found that there was no obstruction. So at least for the moment, maybe a little bit of the steam has been taken out of the White House's full-frontal assault on the Mueller investigation.

CORNISH: Another question people have had is how this all squares with the narrative that Attorney General Bill Barr had presented. What did we hear?

LIASSON: Well, it definitely undercut that narrative. Bill Barr, remember, insisted that Mueller's non-decision about obstruction was not based on the Department of Justice's policy that you can't indict a sitting president. Well, it turns out it was based on that according to Mueller today. He said today and in his report that Congress has the authority to apply the obstruction laws to the president, not him.

CORNISH: So if he's saying it's up to Congress now, what are they going to do about it?

LIASSON: Well, they just got another hot potato handed to them by Mueller. This guarantees that the calls for impeachment will get louder. According to Nancy Pelosi, about 35 members are calling for impeachment now. On the campaign trail, Cory Booker became the latest 2020 Democratic candidate to join in the calls for impeachment.

But Pelosi says she wants to do what's right and what will get results. She said we're going to stay on this path of investigation, litigation and legislation - in other words, not impeachment. She said no one is above the law, and nothing's off the table. But to have a successful impeachment, you have to get the country and the Senate behind you. So today, in a sense, Mueller helped her make her case that the president did something wrong, but it didn't change the underlying politics of impeachment, which is that if you start a formal impeachment process that doesn't end in Trump's removal, you have handed the president a big victory and, Nancy Pelosi believes, an easier path to re-election.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.