Congress Awaits Release Of Mueller's Report On Russian Interference In 2016 Election

Apr 18, 2019
Originally published on April 18, 2019 8:56 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We are awaiting a press conference in 10 minutes or so from Attorney General William Barr. He will discuss the Mueller report, a special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It is widely acknowledged that Russia worked to interfere in that election and worked to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect President Trump. The questions for Robert Mueller in his long investigation were, was there some kind of collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and was there afterward an obstruction of justice by the president or people around the president?

We know some of the headline conclusions only through Attorney General Barr. We will hear more from the attorney general in a few minutes. And sometime later this morning, we think, or later today, the public will get its look at a redacted version of the report. Some of the most sensitive information, we're told, will be blacked out, but the rest of it will be there for the public to view.

We're going to be going through this morning with a lot of live coverage, including our discussion right now which begins with NPR's Susan Davis. She covers Congress. Sue, members of Congress will get a look at this, maybe, a few minutes before - a little while before - the public does. What are they anticipating?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: One of the things that the Democrats, particularly in the key committees that are going to look at this - specifically Intelligence Judiciary - one of the top questions for members of Congress is the issue of redactions. How much of this report is going to be made public? And what do the redactions tell us about the fight that Congress is going to have with the DOJ and with the administration to see everything? The public won't get to see everything. Congress has made clear they want to see everything.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DAVIS: Jerry Nadler is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He said that Democrats not only want to see a full, unredacted report, but they're also asking for all of the underlying evidence that Robert Mueller and his team used to draw their conclusions. How willing DOJ is to turn that over is absolutely going to be one of the things that Congress is going to continue to ask for. And I think, on the whole, Congress is looking to see if their conclusions corroborate with the conclusions of Attorney General William Barr in his letter dated March 24.

INSKEEP: So let me think through this problem a little bit. Clearly, Democrats do not trust Attorney General Barr who was appointed by President Trump. They have not liked - as we've been discussing here on this program, they have not liked some of Barr's moves so far. And yet, it's hard to deny that there are legitimate concerns - can be legitimate concerns - about releasing raw material from a federal investigation. Ordinarily, that is never done. You can implicate someone unfairly. All kinds of terrible things can potentially happen.

Democrats had been saying, initially, they want to see the full report in public. They don't want a classified briefing. They don't want to be told about the report in a way that they cannot share it with the public or cannot discuss it. Is that still the Democratic position, as we prepare for this release of the redacted report?

DAVIS: It is. And one of the things that has been interesting as we've been waiting for this report is how clearly and much more amplified the Democratic message has become - that they simply don't trust the attorney general. They don't trust his take, his version of events, and from leaders - including Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to committee chairmen - are saying we don't actually want to hear from William Barr. We want to hear from Robert Mueller.

The call to have testimony from Robert Mueller both in a classified setting has come from the leaders of the Intelligence Committee. And as of this morning, the leaders of Congress - the Democratic leaders of Congress have - are asking for Robert Mueller to come and also testify in public.

INSKEEP: OK. But if they're talking about a public session and a classified session - which is kind of routine for sensitive matters...

DAVIS: Very much.

INSKEEP: ...That suggests that Democrats are acknowledging that maybe not every word of this report ought to be out in public. Maybe they'd be willing to take some of it in private and at least have their own private check on what is there.

DAVIS: Sure. And I do think that there is - you know, obviously, there's so much of this that's seen through a political lens, but there is also, certainly, things that members of Congress would not disagree can't be made public - things like grand jury testimony, things like sources and methods and intelligence gathering. No one is saying that the public has a right to know all of those details.

What Democrats are saying and some Republicans are saying, Congress does have that right to see that information and that there is a question of, obviously, Robert Mueller had a task of deciding legality of crimes committed. Congress has a different task. They are not a prosecutorial body. They're an oversight body. They're a legislative body.

And there is a question of - could there be details in this report that may not raise the question of criminality, but should a new law be passed? Should there be new levels of oversight into this administration or what happened in the 2016 election?

INSKEEP: And they are also the body who can fire the president of the United States, although the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, doesn't seem too enthused about that possibility right now.

DAVIS: No. And I think, you know, Pelosi - even before the Barr letter, even before the report - had very much been cooling expectations that impeachment was a path that Democrats were interested in walking down.

I do not imagine that there could be anything in this report today that would fundamentally change that calculation. And if there were, it would have to be something so revelatory and something that would fundamentally change every calculation. And I don't get the sense from talking to lawmakers across the spectrum on the Hill that they are really anticipating something along those lines.

INSKEEP: We are a few minutes away from William Barr's press conference, or at least from its scheduled beginning, and we will bring that to you live. As we wait, we bring in NPR's Ryan Lucas who covers the Justice Department.

And I want to ask about the man who is the face of the moment - not maybe the person Democrats want to hear from at the moment, but the person who's going to tell us what he wants to tell us about the Mueller report and about his process of redaction and releasing this report.

Barr was a guy who came in saying, I was attorney general before. I don't need this job. I'm independent. I can decide independently. What has happened to that reputation that he's tried to craft as he's headed into this job?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, certainly Democrats have raised concerns about Barr's even-handedness with all of this. We heard Sue describing some of that, talking about a crisis of confidence. That's what Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this morning about Barr and his leadership and how he's handled this whole Mueller report. At the same point in time, Barr has said from the beginning - from his confirmation hearing - that he wants to be as transparent as possible, consistent with the law in terms of what he releases from this report.

The tricky part right now is that we don't know how much of this report we're actually going to see. There are four types of sensitive information that are going to be redacted from this. It could be that large chunks of this report will be blacked out. It could be that - not all that much of it. And that's something that, in the next couple of hours, we'll be able to see for ourselves.

INSKEEP: We have certainly heard the criticisms of William Barr - why did you release such a brief letter some weeks ago with your conclusions about the report? Why are you scheduling this news conference before anybody can see the report? Why are you taking questions from reporters when reporters will not have the report in hand to raise questions? Those are the questions that have been raised - some of them about William Barr.

But you talked to people who were around the attorney general. You listened to people who defend the attorney general. What are the substantive defenses of Barr's conduct so far?

LUCAS: Well, in terms of redacting the report, there is a reason to keep a lot of this material out of public view. You don't want sensitive intelligence sources and methods to be released to the public. Grand jury material, by law, is protected. You have the question of not releasing information about peripheral individuals in this investigation who were not charged because this is something that James Comey, when he was FBI director and had this announcement about the Hillary Clinton investigation, was really dinged up about - the fact that he was providing all of this derogatory information about Hillary Clinton even though she wasn't charged. Barr has said that's not what we do at the Justice Department. That's not how we act.

INSKEEP: Do you have any sense of whether the man we expect to hear from momentarily believes that this is the moment that is going to define his place in history for better or for worse? This is what he's going to be most known for. And do you have any sense of whether he even particularly cares if that's the case?

LUCAS: Barr has been around this town for a very long time. As you mentioned, he was attorney general before. That was during the George H.W. Bush administration. He has served in all sorts of government posts. He has a long career in private practice as a lawyer. I don't know whether he has concerns about how he's going to be perceived in history and his handling of this. And frankly, it's kind of a little early to judge how that is going to be handled because we don't actually know what the report says at this point.

It may be that everything that he said in that four-page letter that Democrats have criticized him over may actually line up perfectly with what is in the report. The thing is, we're working with a lack of total information at this point in time, and we just have to hold our horses for a little bit. And then we'll learn more.

INSKEEP: And we should just note the various cable television networks are now showing a lectern, a podium, where Attorney General Barr will speak. There is an American flag behind it along with other flags. I guess that's - what? - the Justice Department flag, Ryan Lucas, or whatever it may be. In any case, a number of flags there, and reporters are standing by and waiting to hear from the attorney general.

I want to ask a question, though, of NPR's Mara Liasson who is with us here, because, Mara, we know of one substantive - not tactical, but real substantive decision the attorney general has already made. He was presented with a report by his description that had pro and con evidence for charging the president of the United States with obstruction of justice.

And Barr said, I decided to make that decision not to charge the president of the United States. And I believe he even added, if I'm not mistaken, this is not because of some constitutional belief that the president cannot be charged. It's because I believe this is not a case that should be brought. But this is a moment when we're going to actually see what the evidence was that he weighed, perhaps.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Right. And also just another piece to the who is Bill Barr and...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...What does this moment mean for him? Bill Barr has been, for his entire career, a strong, extremely strong believer in a powerful executive. And he wrote an unsolicited, apparently, 19-page memo - I think it was 19 pages - to the Trump lawyers before - long before he was tapped to be attorney general saying that the president can't obstruct justice if the activities in question were around something that he was legally able to do.

In other words, the president is allowed to fire Jim Comey. How can that possibly be obstruction of justice? That's Barr's theory. And I think that if he's - I don't know if he's thinking about his place in history, but if he succeeds in making the executive branch more powerful and more untouchable, I think he would consider that a great success.

And, you know, one of the - there are many questions about Barr's actions. Why did he say that the president was spied on - using the president's words - instead of, the president's campaign was the subject of court-ordered surveillance? He could have used neutral language, but he didn't. So that raises questions - he was playing to an audience of one. Why did he do that?

INSKEEP: I want to review that for people...

LIASSON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Who, perhaps, didn't follow that in recent days. Here you have the attorney general. It's known, as he's about to make this big, high-profile release of the...

LIASSON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Mueller report, he wants to seem impartial. He goes before Congress. He's questioned. And he's asked about the - let's call it the alternative narrative - the Republican narrative that actually it's the Democrats who are the evil people and that they were spying on the Trump campaign in an inappropriate way. And Barr gave some ammunition to that side.

LIASSON: Right. And they were spying on the campaign and the entire origin of the investigation is therefore tainted. That's the Republican argument. Yeah, that's a question - why did he do that? Why, other than to send a signal to the president that I'm on your team? That's a mystery. Why brief the White House lawyers and why not be open about the fact that you briefed them? You know, why risk coming off as such a partisan for Trump when you probably didn't have to?

So these are just questions, you know, around him. He has participated in some of the most aggressive, you know, pre-spin about this report. He's designed the narrative and pushed it. And I think the White House feels that Barr and the president have been very successful at creating the narrative.

INSKEEP: And we're told we're less than two minutes away from hearing what William Barr actually says. And Sue Davis, I guess that's one thing to listen for. Does this feel like a pre-spin? Does it feel like a defense of the president? Does it feel like a straightforward description of things?

I suppose we should be fair and note that Barr is being criticized for talking before the report comes out. You could imagine a scenario where they simply release the report without any discussion of what's in there or why things were redacted, and that could also be a disaster. Any way that you approach this could be seen as a disaster.

DAVIS: Well, we also know, you know, judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler had a press conference last night in New York in which he said he didn't think that this was the right move and that it's - there is an absurdity to having a press conference with reporters where they can't ask the questions...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...About the thing that you're talking about. I mean, it is certainly an aspect of being able to control what's being said and how it's presented.

INSKEEP: Reporters can ask a question like, Attorney General, what is the thing that you least want me to know? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.