Washington Wednesday: The Mueller report

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 24th of April, 2019. 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 month, special counsel Robert Mueller finished his report on potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It first went to the Department of Justice. Two days later, Attorney General Bill Barr released summary findings to Congress and the public.

And last week, the Justice Department released the full Mueller report, with redactions required by law. It’s been the talk of Washington since then, so joining me now to discuss the latest is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s also a columnist for The Washington Post.

Henry, good morning.

OLSEN: Good morning!

EICHER: OK, the last time we talked, Attorney General Bill Barr had just released the summary of the Mueller report. The big takeaway there: no collusion.

But you said the White House celebration might be premature, as the full report might include embarrassing details. That report—with redactions—is now public… What was the biggest surprise in your mind?

OLSEN: I think what’s been getting the most play is how many times people ignored orders from the president in the early days of the investigation—to shut down the investigation itself.

If you’ve been around the administration, the fact that high-level aides don’t do what Trump tells them to do on first blush isn’t surprising, but if you’re not, I think it probably is and the fact that that apparently happened many times in the early stage of the investigation is probably the most surprising aspect of the report.

EICHER: And I wonder, this is obviously going to call for speculation on your part and do with it what you will, Henry, but it seems unusual that anyone would disregard a president’s specific directions, but do you think that maybe Trump has built a culture where aides sort of say, well, he really shoots from the hip, so you kind of have to wait to see whether he’s serious. I mean, how do you read that?

OLSEN: I think that’s the charitable way of reading it, that he will say things that you don’t know how serious he is. And particularly on things of high import or high risk like that, you wait to see whether he follows up.

Now, the fact is for whatever reason it’s quite clear that he did not follow it up. There’s nothing there that prevented him from firing the special investigator or the special prosecutor, had he wanted to do so.

He apparently was quite upset at the initial institution. He told many people to try to do something about it. But the fact is this went on, and I suspect that after the first month or so, if you look, that he stopped doing that. So something talked him out of it.

EICHER: Now that the White House and many Republicans have said it’s time to move on, I wonder how much of this story you think is actually behind us. We’ve got congressional Democrats engaged in several investigations. Is the president right if he truly believes that the worst is behind him?

OLSEN: Well, I don’t think the story is behind us because the congressional Democrats won’t let the story be behind him. Whether the worst is behind him or not depends on whether the investigations turn up anything that is more troublesome.

The worst would be something that would begin to convince Republican voters that something happened that deserves some sort of impeachment. And for all the Democrats’ crying, that’s clearly not likely to be the case from what was in the report, and I suspect it would be pretty unlikely to happen.

But we should never say never. So I would say the worst is probably behind him, but one should never discount the possibility of new evidence coming out.

EICHER: Now we need to talk about politics and over the weekend Senator Elizabeth Warren called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings. She is, of course, the Democrat from Massachusetts who is running for president.

But it was telling—I’m interested to know what you think—that we heard mostly nothing from the other—oh, I think it’s up to 20 now—Democratic presidential candidates. Some of them are clearly trying to sidestep the impeachment question.

So, I’d like to get your thoughts. How difficult is the position that presidential Democrats are in right now, making the distinction between those running for president and those in Congress?

OLSEN: Yeah, well, it’s a very difficult position, and it’s been quite clear throughout the presidency of Donald Trump that super majorities of Democratic voters want the president impeached and a majority of Americans do not.

So, somebody like Senator Warren, who’s trailing badly in the polls, makes sense that she would try and be the person who forces the other Democrats to follow suit and forces them to make the harder decision…

But for anyone who wants to be serious about winning the general election, and that includes, certainly Vice President [Joe] Biden, Senator [Bernie] Sanders, Senator [Kamala] Harris, the people who are closer to the top, that’s a very difficult decision to make and the idea of delaying it is likely to be the course that they will take, unless and until they see that it is bleeding them support within the Democratic primary.

EICHER: And then making the distinction with the congressional Democrats. I mean, I’m thinking about Nancy Pelosi right now having to run a caucus of Democrats. Do you think that she’s in a particularly difficult position with respect to the impeachment question?

OLSEN: Well, they have the same thing just in a different way, which is that anyone in a safe Democratic seat playing only to Democratic voters can easily, as Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has already done, come out in favor of impeachment, because that’s where their voters are.

Nancy Pelosi is trying to maintain a majority while most of her caucus is trying to forestall primary challenges. And those different political calculi are inherently incompatible as if the Democratic primary voter is intent and not merely interested in seeing impeachment. If they’re intent about it, at some point the pendulum has to move in the favor of the Democratic primary voter because that’s the bulk of the people who make up the caucus in the House.

EICHER: Before I let you go, Henry, let me ask you to put on a presidential adviser hat. Suppose you were advising President Trump here. What would you suggest that he do now to move forward from this?

OLSEN: Well, the president needs to stop making the focus the opposition’s main arguments. I think the president needs to have an agenda that appeals to the center. I think that the president should be talking about healing the country rather than dividing the country. And I think the president should be trying to be the person who rises above it all.

Instead, the president focuses on immigration, which is an important issue, but is not the only issue. He does it in ways that appeal to his base but not to the center.

And he seems to want to continue to play tit for tat with the Democrats over who’s right or who’s wrong on the special counsel and that just holds him back from appealing to the center of the country that really would like to have a president for all the people and doesn’t see that being the case right now.

EICHER: I always enjoy our conversations. Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Also a Washington Post columnist. Henry, thanks so much. Have a great day!

OLSEN: Thanks so much!

(AP Photo/Jon Elswick) Special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. 

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