STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're live on the radio and reading a very long document which has just been released in the last couple of minutes. It is entitled Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. It is the report of Robert Mueller, the special counsel who was investigating Russian interference and raising questions - investigating questions of whether President Trump's campaign or President Trump himself was in any way criminally involved with the Russian effort to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect the president of the United States.
This is a very long document. It affirmatively states the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in, quote, "sweeping and systemic fashion." And then it begins getting into the details.
And here and there, something is redacted. I'll give an example before we turn to one of our correspondents. The Internet Research Agency, which was a Russian entity, was based in St. Petersburg, Russia, and received funding from a Russian oligarch and companies that he controlled. This oligarch is widely reported to have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin - comma - and the rest of the sentence is blacked out with an explanation that there is a harm to an ongoing matter.
We're going to be reading through this throughout the hour, and no doubt throughout the day, here on NPR News. And NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here along with NPR's Scott Detrow. Ryan, let's start with you. What is the significance of what we're looking at here? What are we looking for?
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, we're looking for a host of things. One is, are there more details on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia that we didn't know about? There were a ton of facts that came out over the past couple years about questionable contacts between associates of the president and Russians or Russian proxies. I'm curious to see whether there are more things in here that we didn't learn - that we didn't learn earlier.
There's also a big question hanging over this report, And that is, why didn't special counsel Robert Mueller, according to Attorney General Bill Barr, make a call on the question of whether the president obstructed justice or not? Barr says that Mueller looked at 10 episodes of potential obstruction but did not come to a conclusion, did not make a decision whether or not to prosecute that.
INSKEEP: And there was a remarkable exchange between the attorney general of the United States and a journalist in the last couple of hours. Barr came out and said that part of his consideration in deciding not to charge the president with obstruction of justice was his frame of mind, that he was under attack by the media, that he was sure he was innocent and that therefore he was, quote, "frustrated." That seemed to be a sympathetic explanation for why the president would have fired the FBI director, lashed out at law enforcement in a variety of ways over a couple of years, made a number of false statements.
Barr went to the president's frame of mind. He was asked about that, quote, "generous interpretation" of the president's frame of mind, and he said, this is not my conclusion. It's what the special counsel's report said. And we should be frank that we've just got this. I'm on page 12 of 448 pages. So we've got a little bit of reading to do. NPR's Detrow has also been reading. What are you finding, Scott?
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Carrie Johnson, our justice correspondent, who I usually ask for her opinion of most things along this front, flagged a key paragraph that gives us a bit more context from one of the main sentences that jumped out from that initial Barr report saying that the report did not exonerate the president. Let me read that full paragraph.
DETROW: And this is about Robert Mueller's thinking about why he did not make a key recommendation.
INSKEEP: Let's remember - this is where we've had about a sentence of this report from William Barr some weeks ago. Now we get a fuller quote. Go.
DETROW: So here's four sentences, and this is from the report.
(Reading) If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the president's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
INSKEEP: Let's back up into the sentences that are new to us there. There's a reference to the president's intent. I guess that gets to what the attorney general was talking about when he was describing the president's frustrated frame of mind.
DETROW: Yeah. And a few other things that Carrie has flagged - and again, we're going to have a lot more material as we make our way through this. One key quote that jumped out to her - this is this is from a Department of Justice aide telling - this is his response when he found out that a special counsel had been appointed. "The president slumped back in his chair and said, oh, my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm bleeped." So I'm redacting here.
INSKEEP: You're redacting that last word.
DETROW: This is me redacting for radio purposes.
INSKEEP: But we can imagine a word that starts with F.
DETROW: You know, use your imagination.
INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Carrie Johnson, who is at the Justice Department, is now on the line next. And Carrie is reading along with a large part of the country, I would think, at this point. Carrie, what are you finding?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah, Steve. We do now half up-line (ph) conclusions out of the mouths of these investigators themselves with respect to obstruction of justice, which we know was very seriously considered regarding President Trump. We know the special counsel appears to have focused on 10 episodes, both before the firing of James Comey, the former FBI director, and after.
The special counsel seems to suggest that Trump's motives changed, and his responses changed after he determined he may himself be under investigation for a crime that is obstruction. That said, they did not make a determination one way or another if we know about whether the president obstructed justice. They did not exonerate him. And the attorney general, Bill Barr, told us at a news conference this morning that he objected to certain legal theories and analysis by the special counsel. I'm still working to figure out what exactly the nature of those objections were. We do have some new details on obstruction.
In many instances, Steve, surprisingly, the president may have directed senior officials in the White House to do things that would have been considered obstruction. But those aides simply decided not to follow the president's directives and ignored him.
INSKEEP: Whoa. You're saying that if the aides had listened to the president of the United States, it would have been obstruction of justice. But because he simply said things and they did not follow through, that might be the reason that there was not a charge of obstruction here.
JOHNSON: Well, it's a complicating factor in the legal analysis at least. It seems to be, at this early stage, in my quick reading of the report - I have not read the whole thing yet, Steve.
INSKEEP: Let me go to a redaction. If I can have our panel turn in your hymnals to Page 5 here because there is a reference here to WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. And let us recall that, according to the U.S. government and according to the Mueller report, according to Attorney General Barr, a Russian intelligence agency stole Democratic emails during the 2016 presidential campaign, provided emails to a couple of hacking operations and also provided emails to WikiLeaks, which then began releasing them in a way that was beneficial to later President Trump.
There is a discussion of this that is partly redacted. There is a mention here that in June 2016, someone unnamed - it's blacked out - forecast to senior campaign officials that WikiLeaks would release information damaging to candidate Hillary Clinton. WikiLeaks' first release came in July 2016, around the same time candidate Trump announced that he hoped Russia would recover emails described as missing from a private server used when Clinton was secretary of state. This was a public statement in a speech, as we may recall. He later said he was speaking sarcastically.
And so we're getting to this dramatic moment in the narrative. And then a sentence or two is blacked out, and it says, harm to ongoing matter - pretty clearly stating, while not what the investigators think they know, but that there is something they still don't believe that they know or that they still intend to prosecute relating to this case. Is that correct, Carrie Johnson?
JOHNSON: Steve, what that signals to me is that of course Julian Assange, the founder and co-editor of WikiLeaks, is now in British custody pursuant to an arrest warrant that the Americans have issued for him based on a charge in the Eastern District of Virginia here, a federal charge. We do know that the investigation into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks does continue as far as the Justice Department goes.
And it's not clear whether they're looking at Assange and other people for this activity or for other hacking or other alleged crimes. But we do know that WikiLeaks investigation remains very hot and heavy at this moment in Alexandria, Va.
JOHNSON: Now, with respect to collusion, I just want to point out, Steve, nobody disagrees - at least nobody on the special counsel team - that the Russian government interfered in the election in a sweeping fashion. The question is whether the evidence was strong enough to support any criminal conspiracy charges against Americans. So far, my read of this report suggests the evidence was not strong enough, the special counsel determined.
INSKEEP: If you are just joining us, I want to underline that we are reading this document - perhaps with you at home - live, figuring this out as we go. And we're going to be very frank about what we know and what we don't know. It's been just in the last 15 minutes or perhaps even a little less that the U.S. Department of Justice has posted this redacted version of the Mueller report.
Carrie Johnson, I want you to have an opportunity to go back to reading. Please come back to us when you find something of note. And as you're doing that, I want to turn to NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who has been reading along with us as well and listening to all of this. And we're going to be going shortly to President Trump as well - or hearing from President Trump, who has commented in the last few minutes.
Mara, from what you've heard so far, what stands out?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, what stands out, of course, we had the press conference this morning - Attorney General Barr said, as he said earlier, he was going to try to land the plane. He landed the plane and described the report in a way that was - would be welcomed by the president. But I think that the redactions are going to be interesting. There's going to be a lot of speculation about what's behind the black marks.
And I just would add one little factoid, when after the report says that he announced he hoped Russia would recover emails described as missing from Hillary Clinton, in parentheses, the report says he later said that he was speaking sarcastically. That's much later because he was actually asked a question on the same day that he made that plea to Russia.
He was asked by Katy Tur of NBC - gee, why did you ask that? And he did not say he was joking or sarcastic. He said, I because I think we should see the emails or whatever. But the point is he had an opportunity contemporaneously to say he was just kidding and he didn't. It was only later that he said he was being sarcastic.
INSKEEP: And these are not terribly small matters of the presidential attitude, particularly when the attorney general of the United States has said, as he did in a news conference just a little less than a couple of hours ago, I made a decision not to charge the president with obstruction of justice. And part of my reasoning had to do with the president's intent. And part of my judgment of his intent had to do with Robert Mueller's judgment of his frame of mind - that he felt he was innocent, that he felt he was frustrated and that he didn't think that he had done anything wrong.
We should also note - when it gets to this question of collaborating with the release of emails, William Barr made a particularly limited statement. He said that no one illegally participated in the release of the stolen emails after noting that it would only be a crime to publish such emails if you also participated in the hack that produced them.
And so he made a relatively limited - quite limited statement that did not, to my ear, confirm whether someone in the Trump campaign may well have participated in the publication of these emails in ways that have been widely reported, in ways that we've heard about - but just not in a way that would be considered criminal under the law as interpreted by the special counsel.
NPR's Scott Detrow is among those who's continuing to read here. Scott, what do you got?
DETROW: A little bit more on the - I'm making my way through the executive summary of that second part of the report. This, of course, deals with obstruction of justice. We have heard from Attorney General Barr. And now we've seen some excerpts from the report as to why Robert Mueller did not make a clear conclusion. But here are the broad areas that he was looking at in terms of - here are the facts that happened...
DETROW: ...Here is the pro; here is the con. Some general areas that they examined - the campaign's response to reports about Russian support for Trump; conduct involving FBI Director Comey and Michael Flynn - this, of course, is that conversation...
INSKEEP: What page are you on, Scott Detrow?
DETROW: (Laughter) Well, I am on - according to - it is Page 3, which is not helpful. Let me - the pages of the PDF do not line up with the pages of the document, the usual problem with...
INSKEEP: I didn't mean to totally throw you off there, my friend (ph).
LIASSON: Of the actual document, what page are you on?
DETROW: Let me get back to you on that after...
DETROW: ...I've worked my way through this.
INSKEEP: That's an important thing, but go on please. OK. So...
DETROW: Live reading on the radio and the...
INSKEEP: Exactly. It's - OK. But what we're doing here is listing a number of things that the special counsel looked into as acts by the president that could plausibly be construed as obstruction of justice - and do they add up to obstruction of justice? - that's what you're listing. Is that right?
DETROW: And by the way, Page 215 of the PDF....
INSKEEP: Thank you very much.
DETROW: ...If you are reading at home, as well. So I'm going to walk through highlights here.
INSKEEP: And I'm going to go there, as well. Please proceed.
DETROW: So the campaign's response to reports about Russian support for Trump, conduct involving Comey and Flynn says that February 2017 conversation of the president saying, I hope you can let this go to Comey in terms of the investigation into whether or not Flynn had lied to the FBI about dealings with the Russian ambassador. The president's reaction to the continuing Russia investigation - a lot of that played out on Twitter and in public with President Trump routinely criticizing Attorney General Sessions for recusing himself and starting the process of this investigation.
The president's termination of Comey - of course, one of the things that really kicked this off in May 2007, when President Trump fired Jim Comey.
INSKEEP: 2017 - this is why there was a special counsel investigation.
DETROW: 2017, yes. Yes. The appointment appointment of a special counsel and efforts to remove him - we had seen some reporting about that along the way, that President Trump had allegedly asked the White House counsel if he could get rid of Robert Mueller for conflicts of interest, among other things. Efforts to curtail the special counsel's investigation - that's an area where I want to read the fine print and learn more. Efforts to prevent public disclosure of evidence, further efforts to have the attorney general take control of the investigation, efforts to have McGahn - the White House counsel - deny the president had ordered him to have the special counsel removed, conduct towards Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and conduct involving Michael Cohen, who are all, of course, key people who either pleaded guilty or were found guilty as Robert Mueller went on with his investigation.
INSKEEP: And these are - this is a fairly well-documented list of events. We don't have any doubt that these things happened - that there were efforts to to curtail the special counsel's investigation that, that there was - that there were lies repeatedly told by the president and other people at the White House. There's really little doubt about that. The question is - did it amount to obstruction of justice as considered by Robert Mueller and really, ultimately, considered by William Barr?
DETROW: And there's hundreds of pages of details about all of these incidents that they looked into.
INSKEEP: OK. Let's go back to Mara Liasson. Mara, as you consider what we're learning here - as you continue reading, what do you got?
LIASSON: Well, I just think that there's so much in this report that has to do with counterintelligence, that has to do with Russian interference beyond the questions of obstruction and collusion. And I think this is the kind of thing that doesn't lend itself to a quick hot take - you know? - good, bad, politically.
What I'm reading now is the Executive Summary to Volume II, where he talks about the campaign's response to reports about Russian support for Trump. And maybe it'll shed some light on the mystery of, why did Trump publicly expressed skepticism, according to the report, that the Russians were responsible for these hacks? At the same time, he and other campaign officials privately were trying to get as much information about what was in the emails as possible.
INSKEEP: And I guess we should be clear that although the president has somewhat acknowledged Russian interference in the election, he has obfuscated that point again and again. He said, OK, now I agree that it's Russia, but it was also China and a bunch of other countries. And when he had an opportunity to confront Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, and came out and had a press conference with him in Helsinki, Finland, he spoke about Vladimir Putin's strong denials.
DETROW: Another key point that that came up this morning when Barr was talking was that Attorney General Barr - and I'm paraphrasing here - said that the White House fully cooperated with Robert Mueller's investigation. And of course, a lot of people said, wait a second: President Trump did not do an interview.
DETROW: He declined to be interviewed.
DETROW: Here is a paragraph explaining Mueller's approach to that and his conclusions. During the course of our discussions, the president did agree to answer written questions on certain Russia-related topics, and he provided us with answers. He did not similarly agree to provide written answers to questions on obstruction topics or questions on events during the transition.
DETROW: Ultimately, while we believe that we have the authority and legal justification to issue a grand jury subpoena to obtain the president's testimony, we chose not to do so. And here's why - we made that decision in view of the substantial delay that such an investigative step would likely produce at a late stage in our investigation. We also assessed that based on the significant and body of evidence we had already obtained of the president's actions - it goes on - we had sufficient evidence to understand relevant events and to make certain assessments without the president's testimony.
INSKEEP: This is an important point - before we move on - that I feel obliged to underline, to flag for later as we learn a little bit more, Scott Detrow. The attorney general of the United States said, before the lectern on this network - on every TV network in America and probably much of the world - that the president of the United States fully cooperated. We just had you read a passage of the report in which it is said the president did not agree to answer questions, even in writing, about specific matters. Mueller decided on his own that they had enough, that they would give up. But is it plausible that William Barr, on live television, on live radio, made a false statement when he said the president fully cooperated? That doesn't sound like full cooperation.
DETROW: I'm not sure how to assess that. I'd be curious what other folks who are a bit more plugged-in to the law would say about that. But I think the argument here, perhaps, that would be different if Mueller had said - and it's frustrated the investigation, but his answer here is that, we thought we had the information we needed anyway, so we moved forward.
LIASSON: What? No.
INSKEEP: OK. Scott Detrow, stay with us. David Greene is coming in next.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is a Special Report. We're covering the release of Robert Mueller's redacted report, which we're all spending time reading at the moment, and we do have some reaction from the president of the United States himself. He was at a Wounded Warrior event at the White House, and this is what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But I say it in front of my friends. This should never happen to another president again. This hoax - it should never happen to another president again. Thank you.
GREENE: The president has also been responding to this morning's news. On Twitter, he posted a photo of himself with a "Game Of Thrones" motif. It says, no collusion. No obstruction for the haters and the radical-left Democrats. Game over. I want to bring in NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas, who has been reading, as quickly as he can, these 400-plus pages.
Ryan, what is standing out to you so far?
LUCAS: Well, I'm paying very close attention to the decisions that the special counsel made concerning obstruction of justice. There is a lot to dig through here. I am reluctant to get into the specifics of it because this deserves and merits a very close reading indeed.
But I think that taking a step back and looking at what the president just said and his frequent attacks on this investigation, I think that it bears reminding people that there were concerns about contacts. There were - between Trump associates and Russians. There were concerns about ways in which folks within the Trump orbit responded to those contacts - public lies they made about those contacts which helped give rise to this investigation to begin with.
And I think that the man who oversaw the investigation for the most part - Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - he has defended this investigation and said he does not believe that it's a witch hunt - that it was a well-founded probe. And it's just - it bears reminding people that those directly involved with it - those who know the law - do not necessarily agree with the president's assessment on whether this was a witch hunt, it should never happen again - that there was a reason to conduct this investigation.
LIASSON: What I...
GREENE: Yeah, go ahead.
LIASSON: No, I wanted to ask Ryan a question. Is it common to determine someone's intent just from written questions?
LUCAS: It is - the question of intent is always difficult. And it's something that, particularly on questions of obstruction of justice - I think that Mueller is going to get into the difficulties of this. From the very little bit that I've been able to read so far, it appears as though this is something that he's going to touch on. I think that any decision that the attorney general makes is going to be viewed one way by Democrats. It is going to be viewed in a totally different manner by Republicans.
LIASSON: Because it certainly justifies the president's legal strategy, even though he saw this whole thing as a political problem not a legal problem from the beginning. But his legal strategy was to not sit down to talk to Mueller. And they seemed to have gambled correctly that Mueller would decide it wasn't worth it, for a variety of reasons, to subpoena the president and fight that out all the way, you know, for however many years it took. So they made a calculated, strategic decision. And it sounds like it was the right one.
LUCAS: Well, the president's legal team - his early lawyers, John Dowd and Ty Cobb - certainly provided the special counsel's office with a lot of documents. And they like to talk about how this was...
LUCAS: ...an unprecedented level of...
LUCAS: ...cooperation with an investigation. They certainly did provide a lot of that stuff. But when it comes down to a president sitting with investigators - we saw in the case of Bill Clinton - there's a lot of resistance to that from folks in the White House.
LIASSON: Right. And it never has been adjudicated whether or not you can subpoena the president. And that's what Mueller would have had to embark on if he had decided to go down that route. And the president's lawyers, I guess, guessed correctly that he wouldn't want to.
LUCAS: Well, and the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about this. He made clear from the beginning and - not just to me, but more broadly - that they would fight a subpoena day in and day out.
LIASSON: And Mueller chose not to engage them.
GREENE: They never had - they never actually had to do that. Ryan, can I ask you to sort of dig into this question a little more of intent? I mean, when we heard from the attorney general earlier, he was talking about the mood and the feeling of the president - that he was feeling angry and frustrated thinking that this investigation could undermine his presidency. How does that bear on the legal question of potential obstruction of justice?
LUCAS: Well, here's the way that the attorney general - because a lot of this dates back - ties back into the attorney general's decision to make a call on whether to, you know, prosecute the president on the question of obstruction of justice because, of course, as we have said, special counsel Robert Mueller did not make a decision one way or the other on that. And what Barr says is that, you know, there was substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated, angered that the investigation was undermining his presidency. He has said that there was no collusion. It turns out that that is what Mueller's investigation determined as well.
But what Barr said today, this morning at his press conference, was, apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation. Now, I was speaking to a former prosecutor yesterday. The question of intent is difficult to assess. It's always going to be difficult to assess.
But you will talk to legal experts about this specific case, and you - I assure you, you will hear different views as to whether you can assess the president's intent in this. Now, we have to read all through the special counsel's report and see what all he was looking at in coming to his own conclusions on this investigation.
GREENE: Mara Liasson, I mean, Democrats, I mean, they are facing the reality that they now will have a lot of details - maybe 10 cases that Robert Mueller looked at to see whether or not there was obstruction of justice. You have the attorney general saying that there is nothing to prosecute. What, if anything, can Democrats do with all of this information?
GREENE: They want to get to the truth, and they're concerned.
LIASSON: Well, Democrats can do a lot of things. They have subpoena power, and they now have control of the House. So they can investigate this. They can follow every single one of these leads. And don't forget the conclusion that Mueller reached in this report. He said - he goes out of his way to say, just because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the president's conduct. He goes out of his way to say, we did not exonerate him. You know, we didn't conclude the president committed a crime. It also does not exonerate him.
So the question for Democrats has always been, how do they balance investigations with legislation? Do they want to spend all their time, you know, following up on everything that's in the Mueller report? And there is some thought that to follow up some of these things means you have to open impeachment hearings. And the Democratic leadership in the House is absolutely against that. They know that the voters don't care about this as much as they care about kitchen-table issues like health care and jobs, and they're determined to focus on that, too.
So the Democrats - for those Democrats who've been thinking, wrongly, that Bob Mueller was going to kind of do their work for them and provide an open-and-shut case about how the president committed a crime, those Democrats are sorely disappointed.
However, there are a lot of things in this report about Russian interference in the campaign that merit follow-up even if you're not going to open an impeachment hearing against the president. So they can go ahead and investigate.
GREENE: All right, again, we're listening to special coverage from MORNING EDITION and NPR News on the release of a redacted version of Robert Mueller's report which we are poring over this morning. We have a whole team reading these 400-plus pages, among them is NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. And, Scott, just step back for us, what do we know at this point? What have you learned from your reading so far?
DETROW: Sure. So here's the big picture. We have a report that - while it does not make a recommendation on whether or not President Trump obstructed justice - and of course Attorney General Barr said that his conclusion was that he did not, there was no crime there - it details 10 different instances of President Trump's behavior that were investigated for obstruction of justice. That includes directing the former White House counsel to instruct the Department of Justice to remove Robert Mueller. That's something that was not carried out.
Here's the thinking that Mueller's report says on why they took this approach. This is a quote, "if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice" - Attorney General Barr and Rod Rosenstein concluded there was not sufficient evidence there. Some of the details in this report describe President Trump as fearful for the end of his presidency when Mueller was first appointed.
I just made my way through one of the very first of these 10 sections. And this is kind of an indication of providing a little bit more detail, but basically filling in the blanks that we already knew. Mueller is talking about how the Trump campaign first responded to this - reports of the fact that Russia was trying to boost his campaign. It quotes President Trump - then-candidate Trump - saying, I have no business with Russia - no business at all. And then the report notes, of course, he was developing - in talks to build a tower in Moscow.
GREENE: A big project in Moscow, right?
DETROW: Yes. Which ultimately was not built, but the report quotes Michael Cohen as saying afterwards having a conversation with Trump and saying, that's not necessarily true, and Trump saying, why mention it if it's not a big deal?
GREENE: Fearful for the end of his presidency - I mean, what does that tell us? Even though, I mean, the attorney general was saying that laws were not broken by this president. I mean, he was afraid that his presidency was ending. You don't have those fears for nothing.
DETROW: Yes, though after a three-year investigation, the conclusions today were, as Barr repeated over and over and over again, no evidence of any sort of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. And while there are lots of details that certainly may lead to bad political headlines for Trump on the obstruction front - no charges there. So in the end, Robert Mueller has done his job. Robert Mueller was not actually fired by President Trump. And the headlines, by and large, are pretty good for the president in terms of the big-picture conclusion here.
INSKEEP: NPR's Sue Davis has been reading along with the rest of us. And let's just remind those who may be joining us that we are reading a multi-hundred page document live on the radio here, all of us working together to try to figure out what this means. And, Sue Davis, I want to read a couple of passages that get to the question of obstruction of justice. And perhaps Scott Detrow and Mara Liasson, who are still with us, may also have thoughts. There is a passage here in which Mueller's team goes through the investigation of possible acts of obstruction of justice - those things that Scott Detrow listed earlier. And they divide the president's conduct into two discrete phases reflecting a possible shift in the president's motives. I'm reading now.
(Reading) The first phase covered the period from the president's first interactions with James Comey through the president's firing of Comey - that was in May of 2017. During that time, this report says, the president had been repeatedly told he was not personally under investigation. Soon after the firing of Comey and the appointment of the special counsel, however, the president became aware that his own conduct was being investigated in an obstruction of justice inquiry. At that point, the president engaged in a second phase of conduct involving public attacks on the investigation - that we knew, of course, because we heard them loudly - nonpublic efforts to control the investigation and efforts in both public and private to encourage witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation. Judgments about the nature of the president's motives during each phase would be informed by the totality of the evidence.
And I want to read one other page and then hear what our correspondents have to say about it. There is a lengthy...
LIASSON: What page are you on?
INSKEEP: ...Description here. Oh, I'm sorry. That was Page 7, as it is in the PDF in the second volume, or 219. You may find it in your PDF there, Mara Liasson.
LIASSON: Yeah, I got it.
INSKEEP: Now, a page further down, there is a discussion of the laws that would apply, the constitutional defenses that might apply, a question of the president's intent. And at the end of that section, a remarkable phase here, given that what we know is Mueller did not make an obstruction of justice judgment. And ultimately, William Barr, the president's attorney general - the attorney general appointed by the president, I should say - decided not to charge the president with obstruction of justice.
Here's what the investigators themselves had to say about this. They went through the various reasons that you might not charge a president with obstruction. And then they said, (reading) finally, we concluded that in the rare case in which a criminal investigation of the president's conduct is justified, inquiries to determine whether the president acted for a corrupt motive should not impermissibly chill his performance of his constitutionally assigned duties. The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the president's corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.
That's a rather complicated, long sentence.
LIASSON: That's kind of an invitation to Congress there.
INSKEEP: It essentially seems to be saying - this is the special counsel's word - it's up to Congress to decide what to do about this.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: What this report does establish is that the legal questions are over now. Every indictment that has come down is going to come down. This now moves into the realm of the political and also into the realm of public opinion. Does this change the way the public views their president, his conduct and how he has conducted himself in office? And does a Congress - and a Democratic majority in Congress - find anything in this report that would lead them to conclude that the president's fitness for office is in question? - which is a different metric than, was a crime committed? That was the metric that Robert Mueller and his team were trying to determine. There are standards for impeachment. And Jerry Nadler, who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said this on many occasions that not all crimes are impeachable offenses. And not all impeachable offenses are crimes.
INSKEEP: Does this also raise a question for Robert Mueller when he testifies, as we now have been told that he has been invited to do in May before Congress. A question about that language that I just read - did you, Robert Mueller, intend for William Barr to just clear the president? Or did you actually intend to throw it to Congress when you explicitly referred to Congress being the body that would decide if the president was above the law?
DAVIS: I do think that this language that you highlight specifically will only fuel those requests from Congress to see all of the fully unredacted report and all of the underlying evidence because of the questions that will raise. Is there something more for Congress to do here from an oversight perspective that was not a question to be answered by Robert Mueller?
LIASSON: And that's why this report does not completely put an end to the debate inside the Democratic Party in Congress about whether you should impeach or not.
INSKEEP: Scott Detrow.
DETROW: And to both of those points - the realm of the political now and the fact that, even if the legal challenge is gone, there are political and just, headline-wise, embarrassing details for Trump - here's one example, just one example of what we were talking about before, that there were instances where Trump asked people to do things that they simply ignored.
This is, again, something that had been written about - that shortly after Michael Flynn was fired, President Trump is having lunch with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie - of course, a longtime prosecutor. Trump tells Christie, now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over. Christie responds - no way. This Russia thing is far from over. And he tells him that there's a lot of ways to extend an investigation, not many ways to make it shorter.
According to the report, President Trump then asked Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, to call Jim Comey and tell him that the president really likes Comey; he's part of the team, repeats that request.
And here's the report. (Reading) Christie had no intention of complying with the president's request that he contact Comey. He thought the president's request was nonsensical and that Christie did not want to put Comey in the position of having to receive such a phone call.
So again, these are examples - many of which we've known already - of how the president may have been trying to influence events but, according to the Department of Justice, does not rise to the level of obstruction.
INSKEEP: I guess we're also finding out that Chris Christie cooperated with federal investigators because if it's a private lunch - we know the president didn't answer questions to that effect. And we hear about Chris Christie's intent. So although the source is not named, I presume, we find out that the investigators went and talked to Christie as, naturally perhaps, they would.
I want to play a bit of tape here because we did hear earlier today from William Barr, the attorney general, explaining his reasoning. And by the way, part of Barr's reasoning that he has offered for not going forward with an obstruction of justice charge is the conclusion that there was no underlying crime. And let's listen to some of what Barr had to say about that.
(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: Sue Davis, what do you hear when you hear that statement by the attorney general?
DAVIS: You know, I think that there's going to be a lot of parsing between. And I've already seen it in the initial early reactions to - the level of suspicion that Democrats have of any interpretation Barr has or of what Mueller concluded, that they are already moving past what he said at his press conference and are digging in specifically to the report and want to hear from Robert Mueller specifically.
What I do think is interesting - and there had been this question of - we knew that Democrats were going to ask for Robert Mueller to come and testify. There have been an increasing number of Republicans who have also added their name to that list that now, especially as they see what they see as an exoneration of the president, are also eager to hear from Robert Mueller because they believe that will only further cement the White House's case that the president did nothing wrong here.
INSKEEP: Even though we haven't finished reading this document, it is clear that Robert Mueller did not find a slam-dunk case because we would presume that if he had found a slam-dunk case of an American who could be found guilty of collaborating with Russia, we would know about that.
DAVIS: Well, here's the other point - and Mara has alluded to this, too - so much of what the president has done and so much of his conduct that has been questioned in the course of this investigation happened in public. And this is a point that the intelligence chairman, Adam Schiff, has made, who had made many accusations about the White House over the course of these two years of investigations.
The president has already raised so many questions of conduct. Is it OK to welcome the Russians to interfere in your election? Is it OK to say, please, WikiLeaks, help me? Is it OK to fire an FBI director in the course of an investigation?
INSKEEP: Is it OK to constantly promote and support Vladimir Putin's denials of doing anything in the face of overwhelming evidence?
DAVIS: Precisely. And there had been a question lingering over this White House and this presidency - was any of that conduct criminal? We now have the conclusion from the special counsel investigation that they did not see it as criminal conduct - or at least prosecutable criminal conduct. And now it goes to the question of Congress.
LIASSON: Right. And also, it goes to the question...
INSKEEP: Mara, go. Then, we're going to hear from David.
LIASSON: ...Of the mystery of - if it wasn't criminal, why did he do that? Why be so solicitous of Vladimir Putin? Why, over and over again, did you lie or dissemble about your contacts - you and your campaign officials' contacts with the Russians. Those are things Congress might still want to investigate even if they have no plans to impeach him.
And you know, what's so interesting, I'm - we will eventually, I suppose, hear Bob Mueller say this out loud. But he said - if we had confidence, after a thorough investigation of the facts, that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. But we didn't.
In other words, we could not state that we know he did not commit obstruction of justice. All we can say is, this is really for Congress to decide.
DAVIS: One thing I will also note is that we are getting very early reactions to this from Capitol Hill. But the overwhelming reaction from Republicans - and this is important here - is, if you were going to show any chinks in the armor of the support for the president, it would have to come from their side of the aisle.
Overwhelmingly, they are taking this report as a political victory for the president. Tom Emmer, who is the House Republican who oversees their 2020 campaign effort, put out a one-line statement that just said, it's time for the emotional socialist Democrats to knock it off with their childish temper tantrums, accept reality and get back to work.
That is not the sound of a party that's changing their mind about their president.
GREENE: We're all reading through this report. It's more than 400 pages long. It's the - it says, I'm looking at the title page right now, Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. The table of contents themselves are about 10 pages long, if that gives you an idea of what we're dealing with here. Among our many colleagues who are poring over this is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who is on the line with us from the Department of Justice.
Carrie, what are you learning so far?
JOHNSON: You know, David, it appears that the call about obstruction of justice and President Trump was a tough one even though the special counsel team ultimately decided not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. They say, the evidence we obtained about the president's actions and intent presented difficult issues. And they certainly did not exonerate him. We also got some new detail in this report about episodes that were previously unknown.
For instance, after the president had leaned on FBI Director Jim Comey with respect to the investigation of then national security adviser Michael Flynn, the president directed another person in the White House to draft a letter kind of covering the president's tracks. And we now know that that person declined because she said she didn't know whether that was true.
We've also heard some new detail from notes taken by a senior aide to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about what President Trump did when he found out that a special counsel had been appointed in 2017. We're told when Sessions told the president that Bob Mueller had been appointed, the president slumped back in his chair and said, oh, my God, this is terrible. This is the end of my presidency.
Well, nearly two years later, we can now say it wasn't the end of his presidency. But it does seem like certain investigations, especially those in New York and Virginia, are continuing.
GREENE: Well, I'm looking at the conclusion, I think was where you were reading from. Mueller said, we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. We did not draw ultimate conclusions about the president's conduct. But then the attorney general did seem to draw an ultimate conclusion, saying that he is not going to prosecute based on what Robert Mueller found and even though Robert Mueller did not himself exonerate the president.
So is that the end? I mean, does the Attorney General William Barr, who, you know, is the ultimate lawyer for the country, but someone who Democrats are criticizing intensely, does he have the final word here?
JOHNSON: Well, Bill Barr, the attorney general, certainly thinks he does. He said the Justice Department doesn't just gather evidence and then fling it out into the public. They prosecute crimes or they don't prosecute things that they don't believe are provable crimes in a court of law. And Bill Barr told reporters at his news conference this morning it was his call to make and he made it.
That said, there's a passage in part of this report - I've not read the full report yet, David, I'm reading parts of it now to this moment - that said that the special counsel determined that even though the Justice Department says you cannot indict or charge a sitting president, they decided to do this investigation at a time when memories of witnesses were fresh and evidence was still fresh.
So this body of evidence exists, and the question is whether Congress is going to do something with it, whether the House Judiciary Committee is going to take this ball and run with it in that forum.
GREENE: You said it was a tough call for Robert Mueller when it comes to obstruction of justice. What sort of things made it a tough call, do we think?
JOHNSON: Well, one of the things that they had tried to do, David, for over a year is try to get the president's voluntary testimony, to try to get the president of the United States to sit for an interview with his own Justice Department and FBI. The president thwarted those attempts at nearly every turn.
And the special counsel wrote that even though they think they have the authority and the justification to get a grand jury subpoena for the president's testimony, they decided not to in part because it might have taken years of litigation to get through that, and also because they had a bunch of other evidence they felt they could use to understand events and make assessments about the president's - without the president's testimony.
Also, David, the special counsel wrote in its report that the president's conduct, with respect to alleged obstruction, occurred in two phases. One is when the Flynn investigation was ongoing, the investigation into the national security adviser Michael Flynn, and then the president's behavior - the special counsel says even his motives may have changed after the president determined that he himself was under investigation for obstructing justice. Some tantalizing hints there into the president's motivation.
INSKEEP: I'd like to read a little bit more from this report on the question of obstruction of justice. We have heard, in our coverage earlier in this hour, that there were occasions in which the president ordered aides to do things that might well have amounted to obstruction of justice. And the only thing, perhaps, that might have saved the president is that his aides refused to conduct those acts.
And let's do a little reading here if we can. This is in Volume 2, Page 88. It's Page 300 of the overall PDF for those who may be at home. We're reading this as well. A threshold question is whether the president, in fact, directed Don McGahn, his White House counsel, to have Robert Mueller removed.
So the question here is, did President Trump try to fire the special counsel, which would sound like obstructing justice? Substantial evidence, writes the special counsel's office, substantial evidence supports the conclusion that the president, in fact, directed McGahn to call Rod Rosenstein and have the special counsel removed.
McGahn's clear recollection was that the president directed him to tell Rosenstein not only that conflicts existed, but also that, quote, "Mueller has to go," and the special counsel finds that McGahn is a credible witness with no motive to lie or exaggerate. And there are more quotes here from the president of the United States that we really can't read on the radio that the president had asked McGahn - McGahn told people that the president had asked him to do crazy stuff, let us say, and inform the president - and informed people in the White House that he was going to resign rather than do that.
Ultimately, of course, the firing was not made. Robert Mueller was not fired at that time. But that, Carrie Johnson, I guess, is one of the instances we're hearing about in which the president gave orders that might have been illegal had they been followed through.
JOHNSON: You know, Steve, one of the remarkable things about this report, as much as I've read so far, is the number of times and the number of different aides in and outside of the White House who were directed or ordered to do things by President Trump who just didn't do them. Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, is perhaps the most prominent example.
But we also know from this report that the president was trying to send a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions via one of the president's former campaign aides, Corey Lewandowski. And Corey Lewandowski wrote down the message, but he didn't want to deliver it so he tried to pawn off that responsibility on some other person in the White House who also said no.
So there was a pattern here of officials inside the White House recognizing that bells and whistles were going off with respect to some of the president's conduct. They simply didn't follow their marching orders from the president.
Another thing with respect to obstruction that really stuck out at me was that even deep into this investigation, after it became clear that the former national security adviser Michael Flynn was going to withdraw from his legal defense agreement and cooperate with the special counsel, this report says Donald Trump's personal lawyer left a message for Flynn's lawyers reminding them that the president had really warm feelings about Michael Flynn and asking for a heads-up if Flynn knew any information that implicated the president.
There are some other allegations in here about dangling of pardons for people who would stay loyal to the president. There is a lot of conduct listed in this report that goes to the question of potential obstruction of justice.
GREENE: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. We're going to let you get back to work reading into this. Thank you so much for your time. She is over at DOJ as we speak. Carrie, thanks.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
GREENE: Mara Liasson, you've been reading more into - or learning more.
LIASSON: Yeah. Well, one of the things that really struck me, just about the stories that just - that Carrie just told us, in the ongoing stress test on democratic institutions that Donald Trump is applying every day, there were a lot of guardrails. There were a lot of people inside the White House and inside the administration who understood that, in a democracy with separation of powers and coequal branches, you just don't do certain things. And they...
GREENE: Although they may have saved the president...
LIASSON: Yes. They saved...
GREENE: ...If they declined to do something he was asking them to...
LIASSON: That's exactly right.
GREENE: ...Do that they were not comfortable with, that may have actually saved him.
LIASSON: Right. And they might have actually saved him from actually committing obstruction of justice, but they didn't. So I think that's really interesting. A lot of those people are gone, but they performed a service. They actually acted in accordance to what they believed was their job to uphold the Constitution, and they prevented him from doing certain things.
The other thing that I think is interesting is, in this whole fight over whether Donald Trump would sit down for an interview or not and Bob Mueller's decision not to test the theory of whether or not you could subpoena a president, perhaps with years of litigation, I think that that - the takeaway from that for the White House is going to be that this is a strategy that works.
And I think you're - one, you're going to see Congress ask him for all sorts of documents. You've already seen the White House basically say nope across the board. They're not going to cooperate. They're not going to provide information. They're not going to, even in some cases, honor subpoenas. And I think that that's what you're going to see going forward as the White House and Congress fight about this.
GREENE: Well, speaking of going forward, I mean, just the reaction from the two parties in Congress. And, Sue Davis, let me ask you about this. You have Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats demanding that Robert Mueller testify before Congress. The attorney general said that he would not stop that from happening, which would carry this story forward, obviously, with a lot of questions for Mueller directly coming from Democrats. You have Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, saying it's time to move on. I mean, the part - where does this go from here in terms of what Congress will or will not do?
DAVIS: We are obviously still working our way through this report. But one of the questions we had going into today was, would there be anything in here that fundamentally changes the assumptions or the rules of the game as they have existed? So far, no. And to that point, and to your point about Kevin McCarthy, the response from Republicans has been nothing - there's nothing to see here, there's nothing new here. Sure, we'll have some hearings. Sure, we'll bring up William Barr and Robert Mueller to talk to us.
But the bottom line is they are standing behind the president, that he, they - he has not been accused of a crime. They do not believe he did anything wrong and are - many of them are rather enthusiastically parroting his no collusion line.
So from the political perspective, I think that this is something that has - being celebrated among Republicans on Capitol Hill as a vindication for the president, an effort to lift a cloud that has, frankly, dogged his presidency from Day 1.
GREENE: All right. We have so much to cover here, a lot of pages to read, a lot of the president's own behavior to dig into and see how Congress reacts, and also the fact that a foreign government intervened in an election in the United States. This is Special Coverage of the Mueller report from MORNING EDITION and NPR News. And please stay tuned to your local NPR station for continuing coverage of this redacted report that we're seeing this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.