Recapping The Big Moments In Mueller Russia Investigation

Originally published on April 18, 2019 5:56 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has been roughly 22 months since special counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation into the 2016 election. Along the way, he's charged 34 people, including 25 Russians. More than seven have been found guilty of crimes.

Today, the public gets to see the final version of Mueller's report, though some of it will be redacted. Attorney General William Barr is expected to speak later this hour and we will bring that to you live.

And as we await that, I'm joined by several members of the NPR Politics team. We have national political correspondent Mara Liasson, congressional correspondent Scott Detrow and Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department for us.

Thanks to all three of you for being here. And thanks for all the reporting I'm sure you're going to be doing all day.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Sure thing.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.

GREENE: Ryan, I wanted to start with you. Can you just step back and remind us what this almost three-year investigation was actually looking at?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: You bet. Remember that this investigation actually dates back to the summer of 2016. That's when the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation. It was in late July. They had learned of contacts between Russians or Russian proxies and people tied to the Trump campaign. And what the FBI wanted to do was find out what was going on.

At the same time, there was a lot of other nefarious Russian activity that was focused on the U.S. presidential race. Remember, the Russians had hacked into Democratic Party computer systems. They provided those hacked emails to WikiLeaks, which ended up publishing them during the campaign - that became a big theme of the 2016 campaign. Russian operatives, at the same time, were also bombarding Americans on social media with propaganda.

Mueller enters the scene in May of 2017 - that's when he was appointed special counsel - to lead this investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That included looking into any links or coordination between people in the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

GREENE: And I suppose it is worth never forgetting the larger context - that a foreign government tried to influence an American election. I mean, when you talk to national security experts, many of them will say that they just hope that, while a lot of the focus and energy in Washington has been on President Trump and what he, his administration - you know, possible ties, possible collusion, possible obstruction of justice - you know, whatever happens with all of that, there is an election to try and protect and a reality that the Russians really tried to influence the last one.

LUCAS: Did try to influence and some would say actually did influence. It's very difficult to measure that. But certainly, this is something that national security folks, as you said, are very concerned about. It was something that was a concern in the midterm elections in 2018. People in Congress wanted to make sure that those elections were protected from nefarious activity by foreign powers. And it's something that, of course, is going to be a concern looking ahead to 2020 and down the road from there.

GREENE: Almost three years old, this investigation, as you said. Is there a big moment or two that kind of stands out to you as you've been covering it?

LUCAS: Oh, man. This is an investigation that has lasted nearly three years. There are a ton of big moments. The public learned of this in March of 2017. That's when James Comey, who was then the director of the FBI, announced at a congressional hearing - I was in the room at the time. There was kind of a gasp. We all knew that there was something going on, but to hear him actually say it in Congress was something. And then remember, Comey was fired two months later, in May. That's what led Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller as special counsel.

A lot has transpired since then. We've learned in detail - kind of nitty-gritty detail - about Russia's propaganda and hacking efforts. There were two big indictments that Mueller's team brought against Russians for those operations. Twenty-five Russian nationals, three Russian entities were indicted in this investigation.

And then we can talk about Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. He was charged as part of this investigation. There was a bank and tax fraud trial outside of D.C. He was convicted by a jury there. He later pleaded guilty in a second trial here in - right before trial here in D.C.

We can talk about President Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. President Trump's former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to financial crimes.

GREENE: It's amazing - all those moments that seemed like, you know, the biggest headlines each time they happened.

LUCAS: They were huge.

GREENE: But there were so many of them that stacked up.

LUCAS: Yes.

GREENE: What aren't we going to see today? I mean, a lot of this report's going to be redacted, right?

LUCAS: That's right. Attorney General William Barr has said that people from Mueller's team have been working with folks at the Justice Department to identify sensitive material that's going to be blacked out from the version that the public will see today. Barr has spelled out four categories. Here he is explaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: I identified four areas that I feel should be redacted, and I think most people would agree. The first is grand jury information - 6(e) material. The second is information that the intelligence community believes would reveal intelligence sources and methods. The third - information in the report that could interfere with ongoing prosecutions. And finally, we intend to redact information that implicates the privacy or reputational interest of peripheral players where there is a decision not to charge them.

LUCAS: And Democrats have been particularly concerned about that last group - about peripheral individuals who aren't charged, concerns that material about the president himself might be blacked out since he wasn't charged. But Barr has assured lawmakers that Trump does not actually fall under that category.

GREENE: Mara Liasson, let me let me turn to you. Is the president ready for this report and its details, how the public might react? What is the White House doing to get ready for this?

LIASSON: Well, on one level, yes, and on one level, no. I guess the president would not want to be described as a peripheral person. He would not like that.

GREENE: No, never.

LIASSON: He's not a peripheral person. I think that on one level, he's not ready because through his tweets and his statements over the last two years, you can see how rattled and obsessed he is with this investigation. That's why he's been so intent on discrediting Mueller, calling it a hoax, calling it a witch hunt even at the same time that he trumpets the conclusions in Barr's summary that he was, quote, "totally and completely exonerated." That's not exactly what Barr's summary said.

But on another level, they are ready - the president and the White House - because they believe that they have succeeded in undermining Mueller's credibility, certainly to their own voters. All along, the White House has viewed this as a political problem, not a legal problem. They believe that he would not be indicted. The only problem was perhaps impeachment or just making the president look like he - if he didn't do anything criminally conspiring with Russia, he at least was knee-deep with the Russians.

And for some inexplicable reason - maybe the Mueller report will explain why - he and his aides over and over again lied about contacts with Russia. But I do think the White House feels voters are so locked in, especially the president's base, that they have prepared the ground pretty well to withstand whatever is in this report.

GREENE: Isn't it kind of a weird position, though, to be in - trying to undermine the credibility of Mueller but also sort of liking the conclusions, at least based on Barr's original letter, that there was no clear collusion between the president's team and Russia - and that the president, you know, as Barr at least said, that there's not going to be any sort of prosecution for obstruction of justice.

LIASSON: Well, I've asked that question many times to people at the White House - how can you have it both ways? And they say, first of all, the whole thing was illegitimate. But even a group of 18 angry Democrats, even the conflicted, incredible investigation by Bob Mueller - even they couldn't find any crime. In other words, the truth was so powerful, that even this witch hunt couldn't get the president.

GREENE: OK. That's the position they're trying - the balance they're trying to strike. Scott Detrow - so Democrats in Congress repeatedly saying, just let everyone see the report unredacted in its pure form. You know, we don't know what's in this report yet but likely that that's going to continue to be their message and their reaction to this?

DETROW: Absolutely. The main thing Democrats have been focusing on yesterday and this morning is Attorney General Bill Barr, who they say they just do not see as an honest broker at this point in time. Democrats have focused on that initial four-page summary that Barr put out of Mueller's report saying there wasn't much detail. It was much more about Barr's opinion of Mueller's conclusions than Mueller's actual conclusions. They've been very skeptical of this redaction process.

And I think one of the first things that they'll be looking for is how much of this report is redacted. Democrats also very critical of Barr's decision to have a press conference about 15 minutes from now, which is about an hour and a half, if not more, before this report becomes public or even goes to Congress.

Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, put out a statement saying that all of these moves by Barr have resulted in a crisis of confidence in his independence and impartiality. The solution here from House Democrats, who are more relevant here because they have subpoena power unlike Senate Democrats, is that, first of all, there is going to be a push to - at least to Congress, if not fully public - get this full report - the entire report unredacted and the underlying materials. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said that he may move subpoenas in the coming days on that front.

Secondly, you're seeing a push to see Robert Mueller testify before Congress as well. Barr is going to testify before Congress in the coming weeks, but Democrats are now increasingly saying they want Mueller to testify. And I think, one way or another, Robert Mueller will make his way to Capitol Hill because on the House Intelligence Committee, you have Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Devin Nunes, who really agree on absolutely nothing in the world. But they put out a joint letter saying that they wanted Mueller to testify in a classified setting.

GREENE: Well, that'll be - even if it's classified, that'll be one of those other big moments that Ryan and I were talking about. Scott, is it clear whether it will benefit or not benefit Democrats to keep all of this in the conversation heading towards the 2020 election?

DETROW: This is a question that Democrats have been wrestling with for about two and a half years now at this point. You have seen, very consistently, Democratic leaders saying that they want to hold the White House accountable. They want to use their subpoena power and their ability to set the agenda in Congress to conduct a lot of oversight of the Trump administration that they feel was just lacking the first two years when Republicans controlled Congress.

But they are not interested in banging on the topic of impeachment - pushing forward with impeachment. Pelosi, all along, was very hesitant, saying that she didn't want to move forward unless it was a consensus bipartisan approach - unless Robert Mueller was very clear-cut in this report.

And even as we get the details, I think that bar will not be met because unless there was a gross mischaracterization of the report, Robert Mueller did not have clear conclusions saying that there was obstruction of justice. And that seems to be the only thing that politically would have gotten Republicans on board with that idea as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.