Special Coverage: AG Barr Press Conference On Mueller Report

Apr 18, 2019
Originally published on April 18, 2019 12:24 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now it looks like William Barr himself is coming to the podium in a suit, red tie, with his glasses. He's got a red folder that he's putting on the lectern in front. And let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

INSKEEP: We're listening to Attorney General William Barr - Special Coverage from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

INSKEEP: Looks like that's it from the Justice Department today, where William Barr, the attorney general of the United States, has given some description of his process and some description of his conclusions on the special counsel's investigation and the Mueller report, which just to repeat for those who had not heard, we expect to learn about a little bit later on this morning.

Attorney General Barr said that at about 11 o'clock Eastern Time - that's just a bit more than an hour from now - copies of this report redacted somewhat, he says, will be transmitted to key congressional leaders and that sometime after that, the Department of Justice will make the report available on a web site so everyone can see it. We could reasonably expect that if there was any delay from the Department of Justice that congressional leaders might take the lead in releasing this report.

NPR's Susan Davis is among those who are here and have been listening along. What did you hear there Sue that struck you?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I will leave the legal conclusions to my colleagues, but I will say politically, I don't think that could have gone better for Donald Trump, for the presidency and for this White House. Attorney General Barr unequivocally said repeatedly on multiple occasions, absolutely no evidence that the president, his campaign or any American, for that matter, in any way colluded with the Russian government to undermine the 2016 elections. That is consistent with every - with the president's defense of himself throughout this entire process. And I think this is a good day for the president.

INSKEEP: Remarkable bit of political messaging, although the attorney general surely would argue that it's not political messaging, but just a fact. There is a difference between colluding with someone and being criminally liable for conspiracy. We knew the Mueller report found no criminal conspiracy, but had been widely noted that that could be different than colluding with the Russians.

Barr went ahead and went farther today, didn't he? He said there's no collusion. He used the very two words that the president himself has used again and again and again in his defense.

DAVIS: He did. He put a period at the end of that sentence, and I think - again, I'm not speaking to the legal terms; I'm speaking to the political terms. I believe the White House will view this and his party will view this as a complete political exoneration of the president.

INSKEEP: OK. We have much more to discuss here, and we will continue throughout the morning and throughout the day. But again, reviewing, Attorney General William Barr says there is no criminal conspiracy. He justified his decision not to charge the president or anyone else with obstruction of justice, that there was no collusion and that the full Mueller report or a fuller version of the report will be - will be available to the public a little later on today. This is special coverage from NPR News.

And this is special coverage from NPR News continuing here. Let's just go through a few of the quotes, a few of the findings of Attorney General William Barr. He not only found that there was no criminal conspiracy, not only found that there was no obstruction, but went into a discussion at one point of the president's feelings, the president's emotions.

NPR's Ryan Lucas, we've just got a few seconds here to dive into this. But he said he wanted to put the president's acts in context.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, what he said was that essentially Mueller's report took that into context, looking at the question of obstruction of justice. And the president had said from the beginning that there was no collusion, that he grew frustrated and angered that this report was hanging over his his presidency. So it did take that into consideration in a look at this.

INSKEEP: And let me just stop you for a second because some of our stations will cut away. Perhaps others will stay with us and we're going to continue our discussion here.

This is special coverage from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington, D.C., where we've just been listening to Attorney General William Barr.

He gave a live news conference. I would describe his tone, NPR's Ryan Lucas, as measured. He was quiet - in terms of just tone, not words, trying to sound reasonable, trying to sound as if the conclusions that he was drawing were fairly obvious.

And he pushed back against the notion by one reporter that he was effectively being, quote, "very generous," quite generous to the president in taking into consideration his emotions, his feelings that he was under attack by the media, that he felt frustrated that he was being unfairly criticized. And therefore, although Barr did not quite finish the thought - therefore, perhaps was justified in being so obstructive and firing his FBI director and taking any number of other actions. Barr, however, responded he wasn't defending the president, just stating the facts.

LUCAS: That's right. And, you know, we have seen, obviously, the president's frustration over the past two years with this. It's kind of become a common refrain about how he viewed this as a witch hunt. He frequently said that there was no collusion. Taking that into consideration in this speech today that Barr gave, I think, is probably going to provide a lot of ammunition for Democrats in their ongoing concerns about how Barr has handled this, feelings that he is trying to kind of bake in a narrative, as the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler said last night. At the same point in time, Barr did deal with a lot of other aspects of Mueller's report. The problem right now is that he's talking about a report that we still haven't seen. We're still waiting to dig in ourselves.

INSKEEP: Well, bearing that in mind, Ryan Lucas, let's think through something that the attorney general said, the very precise way in which he said it and something that he did not say. He began talking about one way that - perhaps the single largest way that Russian interference could have affected the course of the 2016 election, and that was stolen emails. That became a large part of the campaign narrative and a great deal of what the media talked about, what the public talked about.

William Barr noted that there were - there was a Russian agency that was blamed for stealing emails, sharing them with some hackers, then sharing them with WikiLeaks. You'll correct me if I get some details wrong here - sharing them with WikiLeaks which then released them to the public.

LUCAS: Right.

INSKEEP: Then the question is, did someone with the Trump campaign take part in that nefarious Russian-based scheme? Barr says a couple of things in a row. First, he says, well, this is not a crime to publish stolen emails unless you actively participated in the theft. And then he says no one associated with the Trump campaign illegally participated in that action. He didn't say no one from the Trump campaign participated. He just said no one illegally participated in that action.

LUCAS: Well, there are a couple of things here. One, we can remember that Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser of the president, has been indicted as - for essentially what the indictment gets into, is acted as a sort of middleman between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. The charges actually relate to lying to Congress, not about his role...

INSKEEP: Not about - not about stolen emails necessarily.

LUCAS: What was interesting, I think, in Barr's press conference about this is he rattled off in a number of spots, no collusion, no collusion, no coordination, no conspiracy. And then he got to this point about the dissemination of these of these emails. And as you noted, there was a very noticeable change in rhythm. And he gets onto this - into this phrase of under applicable law, a publication is not criminal unless the publisher actually took part in the hacking conspiracy.

So, yes, we may learn - and this speaks more broadly to this report and all 400 pages of it - we may learn about more derogatory information, things that raise questions about how people within the president's circle, within the Trump campaign acted that doesn't necessarily rise to the level of criminal activity.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson is here with us. Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: You know, the other thing that's important about this no illegal participation in the dissemination, Roger Stone aside, the president of United States publicly at a rally said, Russia, if you're listening, please hack Hillary's emails.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LIASSON: He said over and over again he promoted WikiLeaks. He said how much he loved them. He encouraged people to read them. So he disseminated but not...

INSKEEP: Although he now says he doesn't know anything about WikiLeaks.

LIASSON: Well, yes.

INSKEEP: Go on. Yes.

LIASSON: But none of that was illegal. And that was the task of Bob Mueller, to see if the president broke any crimes. And just, you know, to pick up on Sue's point about politically, this is a great thing for the president - and I think it's important to say this report is very complex and is about a lot of things, including a counterintelligence operation about Russia interference. So this whole good-for-the-president, bad-for-the-president is just one layer of it.

But the president did tweet today a poster, no collusion, no obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats, game over. And I'm assuming this is a "Game Of Thrones" kind of typeface and image. It shows the president going into a bunch of steam. (Laughter) But...

INSKEEP: OK.

LIASSON: ...This is a triumphant day for him. And the fact that Bob Mueller used his language - no collusion, no collusion. There is no such crime as collusion. There is a crime of conspiracy and coordination, which Bob Mueller said he'd...

INSKEEP: That's interesting.

(CROSSTALK)

LIASSON: ...Evidence of.

INSKEEP: So there was no need for William Barr to go out of his way to use the president's own phrase. But he went ahead and did - oh, you're raising a hand, Ryan Lucas.

LUCAS: Well, I think that the term collusion is something that has kind of spread across our media discussion and the public discussion. It's the word that the public has come to use about contacts that raise questions.

(CROSSTALK)

LIASSON: It's a word the president used...

LUCAS: And well...

LIASSON: ...And inserted it...

LUCAS: Well, hold on.

LIASSON: ...Into the media...

LUCAS: It's...

LIASSON: ...Narrative about 10,000 times.

LUCAS: It's a word that has been used by the public, broadly, including the president, but not solely the president, to describe contacts between the Trump campaign or possible illegal activity between the Trump campaign and the Russians. There has been concern among legal folks from the beginning that, yes, there is no crime collusion. It's shorthand for what essentially means conspiracy or illegal coordination. Whether Barr is using that to echo the president's words or whether he's using it to basically use the word that the public would understand what he's talking about, we don't know.

INSKEEP: And we should be fair also and say he said he was citing the Mueller report in finding no collusion. Although, yet again, we must note we have not seen the Mueller report. We cannot confirm that claim at this time.

DAVIS: I do think - I think there is a broader point to be made here, too, especially because we have watched this so closely through the lens of politics with Republicans versus Democrats, with President Trump being a divisive president. But at the core here, Robert Mueller was investigating whether any American, up to and including the president of the United States, had worked with a foreign power to undermine an election. That is a huge question.

And it was notable to me when Barr said today the fact that there was no evidence that any American at any point conspired with a foreign power to undermine our election. And he said that is something all Americans can and should be grateful to have confirmed. That is a good point.

Now imagine the alternative scenario where if there had been evidence that fellow American citizens had worked to undermine an election. Think about...

INSKEEP: Horrifying.

DAVIS: ...How corrosive that would be to democracy, to the question of our upcoming elections. I mean, that was a huge existential question for us. And we have no reason to believe the report will undermine what he just said. That is a fundamentally good thing.

INSKEEP: And we...

LIASSON: Although he said knowing assistance. In other words, there might have been people who did it. But he said there was no knowing insistence - knowing assistance by any American.

INSKEEP: Ryan Lucas.

LUCAS: One thing to take a step back at kind of a three-year look at this, it's the point that you make, Sue, about Barr, is, I think, noteworthy and important. At the same point in time, looking at what has transpired over the past three years and the way that this investigation and questions hanging over whether someone, whether an American coordinated with a foreign power to undermine American elections, whether that happened, the way that this has eroded the democratic process here in the U.S., the way that Democrats and Republicans have been going after each other for three years, the divisive way that this has kind of split apart the American public, that is all a win for Russia.

DAVIS: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Mara Liasson, I want to follow up on a question that you posed before William Barr spoke. You said one of the questions that you would like to know the answer to is essentially, why did the president lie so much? Why did he make so many false statements? Why did he dictate himself, according to news reports, a statement that turned out to be false about a meeting with Russians involving his son and senior campaign officials? Do you feel you have any better sense of that after William Barr's statements?

LIASSON: No. I mean, first of all, there were so many instances, not just the president. Michael Flynn, his son - why did so many people dissemble about contacts with Russia, when what we're hearing today from Barr is that it's perfectly legal to invite the Russians to hack, to welcome the Russians' hacking, so long as you don't knowingly assist them? In other words, all those other things are OK. They might be distasteful, but they're not illegal.

So there are a lot of theories about why did the president and his team lie so often about Russia. One of them is that he feels, in some way, guilty or there's some evidence out there that he has longstanding connections with Russians, not that he committed a crime necessarily in the election, but that he has longstanding business ties with Russia. He owes tremendous amounts of money to Russian oligarchs. Who knows? This is all...

INSKEEP: His lawyer also lied about the business...

LIASSON: ...Speculation.

INSKEEP: ...Ties.

LIASSON: And his lawyer lied about the business talks about building Trump Tower in Moscow. So I think none of those questions are definitively answered. But it's a question that remains and to the extent Congress wants to continue investigating all of these things, maybe there's stuff in the Mueller report that will help that.

INSKEEP: I want to put on the table the way the attorney general spoke, his conduct, the way that he formed his sentences here because I think it's important just to reflect on for a moment. We noted that he said no collusion. He said no crime committed. He said he concluded there was no obstruction, no American involved, one negative absolute sentence after another.

One might note that this is the way that a defense lawyer would speak if the president were on trial, for example. You don't say, my client is a great person. Hard to prove that. You say my client is not guilty.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: So you could say the attorney general spoke like a defense lawyer, but you could also say the attorney general spoke the way an attorney general should speak because his determination is whether there is a crime or there isn't a crime. You probably don't want your attorney general to be out there making a judgment as to whether you're president or any American is a nice person or not a nice person.

LIASSON: Except for he cut off the questioning as soon as the questions got to his role and whether or not he was defending the president, whether - you know, he was asked, why isn't Mueller here? And he said - very definitively he said, he's not here because - the person said, it's his report. He said, no. It's my report. He did this report and delivered it to me.

LUCAS: There are a couple of factual things that we learned from Barr about the report in his comments today that don't involve his interpretation of what the report says - the report, of course, which we still have not seen - but actual things that just draw on facts. He said, for example, that it's broken into two parts, which we already knew. One part is about the question of possible coordination, conspiracy with the Russians. The second part is on whether the president obstructed justice. We got an additional detail on that. Barr said that the report looks at 10 episodes involving the president and potential legal theories around obstruction of justice.

INSKEEP: Ten episodes - so maybe the firing of James Comey, the FBI director, is one of them. But there's a bunch of others.

LUCAS: There are a bunch of others. And Barr has said previously that a lot of this is stuff that took place in public. But there may also be stuff that we don't know about. I'm very curious to see what these 10 episodes are, what more we can learn. And then there are - we also learned that the president did not invoke executive privilege at any point in time with this report. Barr did explain contacts with the White House counsel's office about this report. They got to review a redacted version beforehand in order to see whether there was any need to invoke executive privilege. Ultimately, it was not.

INSKEEP: We're listening to - you're listening to live special coverage of NPR News. I suppose I'm listening as well to NPR's Ryan Lucas here along with NPR's Susan Davis and Mara Liasson. And we have been listening to Attorney General William Barr, who explained some of his conclusions and gave his version of the Mueller report that we still have not seen at this point.

Let's listen to a little bit, for those who missed it, of what William Barr had to say a little bit earlier this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARR: We now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign or the knowing assistance of any other American for that matter.

INSKEEP: OK. So no knowing assistance of any other American. President Trump did not assist the campaign - did not assist nor did any other American. And let's listen to a little bit more of what Barr had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARR: Here, too, the special counsel's report did not find that any person associated with the Trump campaign illegally participated in the dissemination of the materials.

INSKEEP: That's referring to the hacked emails, the Democratic emails, that according to the special counsel's report, we're told were stolen by Russia and ultimately distributed by WikiLeaks. Again, Barr not denying that people in the Trump campaign may well have participated. He didn't say either way. He got around that, but he said no one illegally participated in that.

I want to ask about a couple of figures who were behind the attorney general of the United States as he spoke. One is a man named Ed O'Callaghan. He's a senior Justice Department official. I think his name did not come up. But the other one is a much more public figure, and the attorney general went out of his way to name check him and thank him. Who is he, Ryan Lucas?

LUCAS: That would be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has really been kind of the man overseeing this investigation from the beginning because back when this - when the Trump administration first came in and this probe was ongoing, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation because of his role in the campaign. Rosenstein became kind of the public-faced man who would discuss publicly this investigation. He was the one who had to go answer questions of Congress. And he frequently was berated by Republicans in Congress - in the last Congress over Mueller's handling of the investigation, over the early days of this, over how the FBI and the Justice Department were generally - have dealt with this.

Now Rosenstein is leaving the Justice Department shortly. It's not unusual for a deputy attorney general for only to be there for a couple of years. But again, he really has been the man overseeing Mueller and this investigation over its entirety.

INSKEEP: Susan Davis, when I watched William Barr thank Rod Rosenstein, who's standing there behind him, there's a particular message that I perceive as being sent there. William Barr is saying, without quite saying it, look, I had the support. I had the active support of this credible guy who has been defending the investigation against all sorts of interference for a couple of years. And his conclusions are the same as mine. So if you don't believe me, you ought to believe him. My question is, is Rod Rosenstein at this point credible with Congress?

DAVIS: Yes I believe he is. I don't believe that he is someone that the Congress has really turned their sights on to the extent that they have with the attorney general. You know, there's always going to be a level, with Democrats on Capitol Hill - a level of suspicion about anybody who goes and works for the Trump administration, particularly in the role of attorney general, particularly considering all the attacks against the DOJ about the way that the president has conducted himself in office.

Barr entered that job with a baseline level of distrust among Democrats. I think that his handling, his - the optics of a lot of this, the release of the letter, the decision to have this press conference has led Democrats, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to question both his integrity and his intentions. That is why Democrats, I believe, have continued to call for Robert Mueller himself to come and testify. As Nancy Pelosi said, I don't trust Barr. I trust Mueller.

Although what - to Ryan's point, too, when - we will know soon as this report comes out - but Barr was pretty forthcoming that the report will be forthcoming. The fact that the president was - had the ability to exercise executive privilege and chose not to, the fact that he made the point that this will be a lightly redacted report was notable, the fact that he said that members of Congress will be given an unredacted version of the report with some material with - withheld and also that he will be up to testify soon.

He was also asked by NPR's Carrie Johnson if he had any problem with Robert Mueller going to testify on Capitol Hill. And he said he did not. So, you know, he is being...

INSKEEP: He said he didn't object to Mueller personally...

DAVIS: Personally.

INSKEEP: ...To testify, whatever that means.

DAVIS: Well, I'm not sure exactly what he means. But we do know that Robert Mueller is closing up shop here.

INSKEEP: Might be off as a private citizen.

DAVIS: He might be a private citizen very soon.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

DAVIS: But you add all those points up and DOJ is, you know, putting their cards on the table here. And I think that speaks to, I think, a level of trust in Mueller's conclusions and also, you know, the the White House could have intervened here more directly. They could have exerted executive privilege. They didn't. I think that speaks to the president's confidence that this report is not going to be a bad day for him.

INSKEEP: Ryan Lucas, in the last minute we have before we take a break for - to local stations, I want to just underline one thing. There is, of course, the question of Russia's participation in the 2016 election, something the president repeatedly denied and has dissembled about again and again. I think that's just a matter of record, not even a critical statement, just a fact. What did Barr say - William Barr say Russia did in 2016?

LUCAS: Well, he talked about what the intelligence community has concluded and we've known for several years from - from the U.S. spy agencies - but that Russia did hack into Democratic Party servers. They stole emails. They gave them to WikiLeaks, which then published them. And he also talked about the very intense social media campaign, the propaganda that Russians used to bombard Americans, one, to try to divide American - American voters and also to just sow discord and, some way, shape or form, influence the election.

INSKEEP: So much more to discuss here, and of course we have the publication of the Mueller report coming later today. And we'll cover that fully. Right now, we have Attorney General William Barr's statement not only that there was no criminal conduct, but, quote, "no collusion" between President Trump, his campaign and Russia. We will continue to bring you more as we learn it, right here on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.