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Week In Politics: Mueller Delivers His Russia Investigation Report To Attorney General

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

So the moment has finally arrived. After nearly two years, special counsel Robert Mueller has wrapped up his investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. We know it has reached President Trump's inner circle, but we don't know what the report says quite yet. It is now in the hands of Attorney General William Barr. Barr has told Congress that he's reviewing the report, and he may be able to advise lawmakers of the major findings as soon as this weekend. All right, so first, let's bring in Jeffrey Rosen. He's president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. Thanks for being here.

JEFFREY ROSEN: Great to be here.

CHANG: So we don't know what's in the report. We have no idea whether this report is one page, a thousand pages; we have no clue as to the length. How do you read today's development? Let's just start there.

ROSEN: The big news that we know, from what we don't know so far, is that Mueller does not recommend any further indictments. And that tells us very little about President Trump's legal exposure because Mueller, like the Justice Department, assumes that the president cannot be indicted while he's in office. Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. Some are trying to dispute it. But it's part of Justice Department regulations. Mueller has clearly followed those regulations, as evidenced by the fact that Barr and Rosenstein have not rejected any of his recommendations, and therefore, we know that he's not going to recommend Trump would be indicted, but we knew that really before he issued the report.

CHANG: OK. So in other words, are you saying that - we may not know the extent of his legal exposure. Do we know anything in particular of President Trump's chances of undergoing some sort of impeachment process?

ROSEN: No, and we will not know that until we read the report, and of course, that's the hugely significant aspect of the report. The report could lay out a series of factual allegations that people might conclude rise to the level of an indictable offence after he leaves office, which would certainly be the grounds for impeachment while he leaves office, or it could lead to nothing of the kind. It's unlikely to be a clear exoneration or indictment for these questions because the legal issues of collusion and obstruction are close, and because he's not allowed to make a formal indictment, it's likely to be a set of facts which both sides may well construe in very different ways.

CHANG: All right, I'm going to bring in now two more folks to discuss the political implications of this report. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Susan Shelley of The Orange County Register. Welcome to both of you.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SUSAN SHELLEY: Thank you.

CHANG: So E.J., when Democrats get these major findings, what do you think they'll be looking for?

DIONNE: Well, the first thing is that the big issue is what will go out in public, and already we've had the first sort of pre-fight joined. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, issued a joint statement saying that they want the whole report public, and they want all of its underlying documentation turned over to Congress. And there is, as the academics like to say, a hermeneutic of suspicion about Bill Barr. And they wonder...

CHANG: Whoa, what's the phrase right there? (Laughter).

DIONNE: Yeah, which is a fancy way of saying a lot of them don't trust the guy. And they are going to watch him very carefully to see what he redacts. Does he go for executive privilege? The second thing is, whatever Democrats do, there are ongoing investigations. This doesn't end things. The Southern District of New York is investigating Trump's business dealings, his inaugural committee, other things. So that stuff is going to go on.

CHANG: Right.

DIONNE: Congress will continue to investigate. And lastly, you made a really good point at the beginning - we don't know what this looks like. If it's a long narrative that provides a lot of information on Trump and gets into obstruction and all the meetings Trump advisers had with Russians - Jonathan Chait of New York has said that there are 17 campaign advisers who had a hundred contacts with Russians among them. If he lays all that out, it becomes a really powerful political document. If he doesn't go that route, then it's not clear what impact it's going to have.

CHANG: Susan, what might be considered a win for President Trump here?

SHELLEY: Well, it certainly looks like there was no crime. Right from the beginning, this investigation was in search of a crime. And now we see, with all this talk about, oh, it's the cover up, we see in Attorney General Barr's letter today that Mueller was not stopped from investigating anything. There were no inappropriate, unwarranted practices that should not be pursued, according to the DOJ. So he looked at everything that he chose to look at, and he had a very wide mandate.

CHANG: OK.

SHELLEY: So at this point, if there are no indictments, I think, politically, the Congress continues to investigate and look for things that might happen in the future. As Adam Schiff said in a recent interview, we're looking to see if the president is planning to build something in Moscow after he leaves office, and he might be making deals right now for that. Well, that's complete speculation. And at a certain point, the economy is rolling along, unemployment is low - at a certain point, there's a fundamental fairness issue that the American people will (inaudible) against these constant investigations.

CHANG: Jeffrey Rosen, I want to bring you back in. You had something to say?

ROSEN: I think it's too soon to say that there's no crime. We need to read the report. It's possible the report might conclude that there is enough facts to support charges of the crimes of obstruction or collusion but not bring an indictment. It's also possible the special counsel may have concluded that President Trump was dishonest or lied to his investigators, which would be an independent crime of itself and, although not indictable, would be the grounds for impeachment.

CHANG: In other...

ROSEN: So really we need to read the report until we make a conclusion like that.

CHANG: In other words, there may be a conclusion that there was some criminal activity by the president, but the special counsel believes that the president shouldn't be indicted while being a sitting president. So the fact that he's not going to be indicted does not mean he's not guilty of a crime, necessarily.

ROSEN: That's absolutely right, and then it would be up to the House to decide whether or not he is guilty of a crime and, therefore, should be impeached. And the House could also use its subpoena power to follow up on all of the leads in the report and conclude that it wanted more information, and the report could or perhaps could not provide grounds for an impeachment.

CHANG: E.J.?

DIONNE: Right, and we already have a lot of indictments for crimes connected to this, and the president is Individual 1 in that report, that - in the Cohen indictment connected to a campaign finance violation that Cohen pleaded guilty to. So I think I agree with Jeff; it's too early to conclude that there's no crime. But the issue also for an impeachment argument is not just about crimes that can be charged but whether the president has done things that meet Congress' definition of high crimes...

CHANG: High crimes and misdemeanors.

DIONNE: ...And misdemeanors. And I think the real issue in terms of how impeachment goes forward is, is there stuff here that bothers leading Republicans? Because the House could vote to impeach, but the Senate would - might not convict. I think the reaction of Republicans to this is going to be very important.

CHANG: What are the political consequences for Attorney General William Barr of revealing too little? I'm going to give that question to Susan.

SHELLEY: Revealing too little - well, if there's something in there that has a national security secrecy component involving allies or intelligence, he's not going to be able to release it, and that will certainly feed speculation. If there's anything in there that they won't tell us, it's going to end up being like a UFO kind of report, where people just make up stories, which I think is what we're hearing.

CHANG: (Laughter) Do you think...

SHELLEY: We're making up stories of what might happen, what might have happened. This is very different from Watergate. This is very different from Whitewater. There was no crime. This is pure speculation.

CHANG: E.J.?

DIONNE: I just think we don't know that there's no crime yet, and I'll wait and see what Mueller says.

CHANG: All right, that's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, Susan Shelley of The Orange County Register and Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center. Thank you to all three of you.

ROSEN: Thank you.

SHELLEY: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ HARRISON'S "CANDLELIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.