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Mueller Vs. Barr: Parsing Party Line Reactions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to the story that's consumed official Washington for the past few weeks now, and maybe it's even months or years. We're talking about the Mueller report. The fallout continues. This week, Attorney General William Barr declined to appear for a hearing Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee because the parties couldn't agree on the rules for questioning. The Democrats demanded that Barr comply with a subpoena for the full Mueller report and its underlying evidence or face contempt of Congress proceedings. And some called for Barr to resign.

Here's Congressman Eric Swalwell. He's a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a Democratic presidential primary contender speaking with NPR earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ERIC SWALWELL: You can't even have a discussion, I don't believe, about impeaching Donald Trump until you see all the documents you would need. And this attorney general is seeking to block us to get those. That's why I think he has to go.

MARTIN: And some Democrats were further outraged when the White House reported that President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had an hour-long discussion Friday in which they both derided the special counsel's investigation and didn't discuss Russian campaign meddling. Meanwhile, many Republicans echo the president's view that it is time to move on. Here's Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn, also on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARSHA BLACKBURN: The American people and Tennesseans by and large will say, look - let's get to work on some issues. Let's make certain that government is accountable. And then let's move on to dealing with transportation, with health care, with keeping the economy going. They like to talk about brighter futures.

MARTIN: We wanted to get a better sense of what is driving these differences, especially at a time when the polls show that most Americans accept the Mueller report as fair. So we've called on Ben Domenech. He's the founder and publisher of The Federalist, a conservative online magazine. He's with us from our studios in New York.

Ben, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

BEN DOMENECH: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: And here in studio with us in Washington, D.C., is Josh Wolf. He's a partner with AL Media. That's a political consulting firm that works with Democratic candidates.

Josh, welcome to you. Thank you for coming.

JOSH WOLF: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: OK, so let me set the table. A number of polls taken out since the Mueller report came out said that both Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to say the report was fair. But there's real disagreement about what the findings actually show and what should happen next. And you can hear that reflected in the clips that we just played. So, just briefly, I want to ask both of you - and, Ben, I'll start with you - why do you think that is?

DOMENECH: Well, I think it's clear that the overall report showed that the main central story that we've been told about the collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign was - ended up not being what it was cracked up to be. And that was the major takeaway that I think the Republicans and those who support the president have. You know, you mentioned a number of polls.

I think that from the perspective of Republicans, the polls that matter the most are the ones that came out this week showing the president at his highest level of approval since he got into office from Gallup - and, frankly, the reports that came out regarding the job numbers on Friday. They want to focus on those aspects of things and move away from what has been an investigation that has dogged him for years.

MARTIN: OK. Josh, what about you?

WOLF: Well, as far as I can tell, the Mueller report showed that there was a massive attack on our nation by the Russian government, an attempt to interfere with our elections. And so we should have the expectation that our leaders can work on health care, can work on the economy and also protect us from this kind of attack.

And to point to the president's approval ratings or anything like that takes away from the broader question, which is not a political question. It's not a partisan question. It's simply the fact that we have to keep our nation safe, and we have a ton of evidence that's saying that an adversarial nation worked to interfere with our elections.

MARTIN: OK. So the report, as you said, detailed descriptions of Russian efforts to interfere with the election. But I think you would probably agree that if you talk to most Republican voters, they would say that may be true, but there were no Russians in the voting booth with them, and they chose who they chose. And, you know, that's how it is, and that people should accept that. They also say, look - the investigation yielded no charging recommendations. So answer the Republicans that Ben is talking about when they say, why don't the Democrats just move on?

WOLF: Well, again, the Democrats can work on all these other issues and continue to delve into this investigation. Now, the DOJ, it appears, is working on a principle that the president would not be indicted by the Department of Justice in virtually any circumstance. They left it up to Congress to hold the president accountable, and that's a founding principle of our nation - that there's three equal branches of the federal government and that Congress should hold him accountable.

But we do not believe that the president is a king. The president has to follow the same laws that you and I do and that Ben does and all the voters do. So it is Congress's job to continue to look into this investigation to do things like hoping to see the unredacted version of this report so that we can get all the facts - first and foremost, to make sure that an attack like this doesn't happen again, which there's been no attempt to do - and then find out if the president broke the law and obstructed justice.

MARTIN: So, Ben, here's another question for you. And this is what, you know, I hear Democrats saying. Look, Republicans in recent years - really, in the post-war era - have given tremendous deference to law enforcement. They see themselves as the party of national security. Democrats say, why don't Republicans seem more concerned about findings that show that even though no laws may have been broken that was because there was either incompetence or insubordination? And why don't the Republicans give Robert Mueller, a lifelong Republican's, findings greater weight? So what's your answer to Democrats who feel that way?

DOMENECH: I think the level of distrust for the law and order system that we see on the right is actually a huge boon, in a lot of ways, to those of us who have said that those entities deserved a lot more questioning for a long time. Our intelligence field and those who came out of it who for, you know, more than a year and a half were intoning darkly that there were going to be new findings about this president that ultimately were not in this report I think gave a lot of support to those Republicans who've had skepticism about the way that this investigation was begun, something that Attorney General Barr is going to continue to look into.

As it relates to the issue that is brought up about Russian interference, I absolutely can see the Russians attempted to interfere in the last election in a lot of different ways. Some of those ways were kind of silly because they were - involved memes and bots and things like that, though you can argue that those matter. I think the far more - far greater aspect of what they did, obviously, was hacking into, phishing into the emails that were acquired and released during the Democratic National Convention. Those are the things that need to be hardened up as targets going into 2020 so that we do not see them succeed at doing those types of hacks again.

MARTIN: So I just only have time to ask Josh this, if you don't mind. So, Ben, you started it, so I'll let Josh finish it. Is there something you wish that Republicans understood about Democrats that you wish you could persuade them on?

WOLF: Sure. Yeah, look...

MARTIN: And next time, I'll ask Ben the same question.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK, Josh.

WOLF: This is not a political issue. If it were a political issue, Democrats are better off talking about health care, talking about the economy. This is simply about defending the core of democracy. Ben talks about that there are actual concerning parts of this problem. But you've seen Republicans cut funding to prevent hacking by Russians. You've seen no real attempt to address this issue.

MARTIN: All right. Well, Ben, you'll get the last word next time. That's Josh Wolf of AL Media, Ben Domenech of The Federalist.

Both - thank you both so much for talking to us.

DOMENECH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.