Attorney General Barr Says Trump Did Not Commit An Obstruction-Of-Justice Offense
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
At his press conference this morning, before releasing the redacted special counsel report on the 2016 election, Attorney General William Barr addressed whether or not the president obstructed justice.
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WILLIAM BARR: After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report and in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other department lawyers, the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense.
CHANG: Well, to hear more about what the report does have to say on the question of obstruction, we turn now to NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi, there.
CHANG: So the special counsel intentionally left the question open about whether the president obstructed justice. What did we learn about Mueller's reasoning there?
LUCAS: Well, it appears that Mulder's team really wrestled with this issue. And ultimately, as you said, they didn't make a decision one way or the other on obstruction. But what the report makes clear is that if the special counsel was confident that the president clearly did not obstruct justice, it would say so. And it goes on to say that based on the facts and the legal standards, they certainly cannot say that. The evidence about the president's actions and intent, it says, presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred.
There are a number of issues here. One of the difficult issues is that Justice Department guidelines say that a sitting president can't be charged with a crime while in office. Mueller's team spells out a couple of reasons why this is not a typical obstruction of justice case. For one, it involves the president.
LUCAS: The report says that some of the president's actions, such as firing FBI Director James Comey - that falls firmly within the president's constitutional authority. Also, the investigation did not establish that Trump was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian interference - not necessary for an obstruction case but it does affect, the report said, analysis of the president's actions and his intent. And then a lot of the acts took place in public.
Bottom line - the report doesn't conclude that Trump obstructed justice, but it pointedly also does not exonerate him.
CHANG: Does not exonerate him. So what incidents were at the heart of Mueller's inquiry into the obstruction question?
LUCAS: Well, there are at least 10 episodes detailed in the report. Most of these are things that are, at least in the broad brushstrokes, publicly known. Many of these were things that the president did in one-on-one meetings in which the report says he used his official powers in what it says were unusual ways. That includes the president's, for example, leaning on James Comey to go easy on Trump's first national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was under investigation by the FBI; Trump's directing White House counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller from the special counsel's office...
CHANG: A request that Don McGahn refused.
LUCAS: He did not act on.
The president's attempts to have Attorney General Jeff Sessions unrecuse himself from the investigation - take over and basically limit the scope of the investigation. Then there's this big public event that stands out, which we've talked a lot about. That's Trump's decision to fire Comey as FBI director.
Mueller's team says that Trump's actions on obstruction shifted after he became aware that he was under investigation after Comey's firing. The report says that at that point, the president began publicly attacking the investigation and tried to publicly and privately encourage witnesses not to cooperate.
CHANG: Now, there are instances detailed in this report in which the president asks administration officials or associates to do things that could have interfered with the Russia investigation; you've just suggested that in your previous answer. So what can you tell us about how those instances actually unfolded here?
LUCAS: This was a really interesting part of the report. And what it says is that the investigation found multiple acts by the president that could influence law enforcement investigations. But it says those efforts were mostly unsuccessful in large part because the people around the president refused to carry out his orders.
Comey, for example, did not end the investigation into Flynn. Don McGahn, the White House counsel, did not pass on a directive from Trump to the man overseeing the Russian investigation, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that Mueller should be removed. Others, including onetime campaign chairman - campaign manager Corey Lewandowski didn't deliver a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he should rein in the investigation. There are a number of instances.
CHANG: And really quickly - you have heard this report in your hands for much of the day. Can you just describe what it looks like?
LUCAS: It's a big ole hefty tome. It's 400-plus pages. There are exhibits, appendices. There were concerns about how much of this would be blacked out. It turns out we can actually see most of the report. You can get a sense of what Mueller's team found.
CHANG: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.
LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.