Washington Wednesday: Takeaways from the Mueller report

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 27th of March. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, Washington Wednesday.

Last Friday, right about 5 pm Eastern Time, special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his nearly two-year-long investigation.

It included 28-hundred subpoenas, 5-hundred executed search warrants, and 13 foreign governments. The cost was about $25 million in taxpayer dollars.

On Sunday Attorney General Bill Barr delivered summary findings to Congress. Bottom line: No evidence of collusion between President Trump or his campaign and the Russians who did offer to collaborate.

So what does all this mean and where does the process go from here?

Joining me now to talk about just that is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a Washington Post columnist.

Henry, good morning.

OLSEN: Good morning!

EICHER: Well, the report is finally here. We haven’t seen the whole thing, but we’ve seen the summary, so let’s talk first about what we do know. Now I read your Washington Post piece the other day, and I’ll ask you to analyze it as a lawyer in just a minute. But as a political analyst, what were the big takeaways here for you?

OLSEN: Well, as a political analyst it’s a big win for the president, because Mueller, despite two years of effort and prodding and egging on by virtually every source in the media, did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump or members of his campaign colluded with the Russian government. And that is an earth-shaking finding that basically removes any collusion narrative from the body politic and should redound to Trump’s benefit.

EICHER: OK, I mentioned you also read the Barr letter as a lawyer would read the Barr letter, so tell me what you saw reading between the lines, Henry. What do we still not know, based on this summary letter?

OLSEN: Well, we don’t know very much at all. And what Barr’s letter implies is that there is a lot of information, evidence—particularly regarding the potential charge that the president personally obstructed justice—that could very well see the light of day.

If you read the letter carefully, it seems to be that the attorney general wants to release most of the report. He cannot, according to law, release certain pieces of evidence that would either implicate ongoing investigations that came out of the matter or which arose before the grand jury investigation.

And when you’re talking about looking down the source or the implications of every piece of evidence, that’s going to take time. But what it suggests is we’re going to find out a lot from this report and what the American people are likely to find out is a lot of the evidence on either side of the obstruction question that led the special counsel to punt the decision about indicting or calling for an indictment of the president to the attorney general himself.

EICHER: Well, let me dig into this obstruction question, because I think a lot of people have the same question: If the underlying question of collusion is answered — and answered firmly ‘no’ — isn’t that the end of it? Wasn’t justice served? I mean, in other words, how do you obstruct justice in a probe that found no wrongdoing on the underlying claim?

OLSEN: Well, that ultimately was the fact that led the attorney general to decide that he would have been unlikely to have demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt — it’s a high standard — that the president intended to obstruct justice with various things that he said, did, or ordered. Because the president could not have acted with an intent to obstruct something that he didn’t do, or an investigation of something he didn’t do.

Obstruction exists as a process crime in order to provide the maximum power for investigators to find proof of the underlying crime. And, consequently, people say that it’s not always the crime, it’s the cover-up. Obstruction is a par—example par excellence of a cover-up crime, because it is designed to get people who are trying to cover-up what investigators are trying to dig up.

EICHER: Now, President Trump is saying he wants the report released. Do you think that’s a good idea? Do you think it will help him politically?

OLSEN: I don’t think it’ll sink him politically, but I suspect that what you will find is not just the legal conclusion, but you’ll find individual pieces of evidence that will be played up in the media and opposition politicians for days and weeks. And that will help keep this alive and transfer the narrative from Russia to obstruction, which is not something the president should want.

I noted in my Washington Post column that the attorney general twice mentioned that the Mueller report was confidential to the attorney general, which should imply that the president and his lawyers have not seen the report, which means he’s asking people to release something, the contents of which he has no idea about. That can bite him.

EICHER: Well, this week Politico reported on a few private conversations with Democrats. Some of them seem to see themselves in a tough spot. They don’t want to overreach. How likely do you think it is that they will fall prey to that temptation? How likely do you think they’ll overplay their hand here?

OLSEN: Well, I think there will be people who are so blinded by their hatred of President Trump that they will engage in acts of unintentional self-immolation in order to catch the object of their fury. There are other Democrats who will say, hey, maybe it’s really not a good idea to launch that nuclear bomb on us because it may take out the president. And it’ll be a balance back and forth.

It’ll be very interesting to see how the eventual nominees handle this, because as Democrats go forward with their investigations, that will keep the information alive before an inflamed Democratic voter base and, presumably, people will be given questions about this. And we’ll see where they come down—whether they are on the “pursue the man unto his death even if it costs me my own life,” or whether they are of the more prudent variety.

EICHER: Henry, you have said that the Mueller report is clearly the “end of the beginning” not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. How would you advise Democrats to pivot from here? And then, how would you advise Republicans?

OLSEN: Well, Democrats are not going to stop investigating the president. What they should not do is appear to be an inspector Javert from Les Miserables who was more interested in the prosecution of petty crimes than in the question of justice. So I would avoid statements that suggest that you have made your conclusion before you’ve seen the evidence, and I would be careful and say things as you develop that exonerate the president to preserve that image. I think it’ll be difficult for them to do that, given what many have said going in, but that would be my advice for that.

For Republicans, I think what you need to do is, first, never give up on the “they said he was a traitor and he’s not.” Unless and until evidence emerges that is more conclusive, that matter has now been sent to bed. And I think that they should run that for the next two years because that casts aspersions on anything else that comes up.

But you also have to be fair, which is to say that if you find that evidence is uncovered that suggests the president did things that are problematic, the natural temptation is to defend, defend, defend, but you also have to be fair. You have to be more like Howard Baker in the Watergate hearings, which is be cautiously defensive of the president, but go where the evidence leads you, rather than mindlessly defensive.

EICHER: Henry Olsen is senior fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Also a columnist for the Washington Post. Henry, thanks so much. Good to talk with you and we’ll talk again soon, okay?

OLSEN: Great! Thanks for having me back.

(AP Photo/Jon Elswick) A copy of a letter from Attorney General William Barr advising Congress of the principal conclusions reached by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is shown Sunday, March 24, 2019 in Washington. 

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