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What Changes At The Justice Department Will Mean For The Russia Investigation


President Trump's choice to be attorney general was on Capitol Hill today. He met with senators who will preside over his confirmation hearing next week. William Barr is getting ready to lead the Justice Department, just as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is preparing to exit. To talk through the changes at Justice and what they mean for the Russia investigation, NPR's Carrie Johnson's here in the studio with us. Hey, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: What kind of reception did William Barr get from senators today?

JOHNSON: Mostly a warm one. Bill Barr met with Republican lawmakers, including Lindsey Graham, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Lindsey Graham told reporters he asked Barr a lot of questions about the Russia investigation and the man leading it, Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Barr and Mueller are apparently good friends. Mueller attended the weddings of Barr's children. And Lindsey Graham says Barr told him Mueller is not on a witch hunt, and Barr said he would make sure Mueller can finish the job. And according to Graham, Barr also said he would, quote, "lean on the side of transparency" in terms of releasing any public report that Mueller prepares. All this new information may be coming out now to make Barr's nomination more attractive to Democrats.

SHAPIRO: OK. So it's clear what the central tension point in this confirmation fight will be, given that the Justice Department is changing leaders in the middle of this contentious investigation. Will his confirmation really be that easy?

JOHNSON: You know, there are a few complicating factors here. Whether or not these guys socialize with each other, Barr has been critical of some parts of this Russia probe. Democrats have been asking Bill Barr to recuse himself from overseeing it. That's because he wrote a memo last year to the Justice Department arguing that obstruction of justice should be out of bounds when it comes to Trump's firing of former FBI director Jim Comey. In that memo, Bill Barr essentially said the firing was within the president's power, not a crime.

But Barr has not agreed to recuse himself. In fact, it's hard to imagine why he would do that and take this job. Remember, President Trump had a vendetta against the guy who used to be attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself and leaving the Russia probe in the hands of the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

SHAPIRO: And there is news about Rod Rosenstein's future today. Tell us the latest there.

JOHNSON: NPR's confirmed Rosenstein plans to leave the Justice Department sometime after Bill Barr is confirmed. By that time, Rosenstein will have been on the job nearly two years. That's a long tenure for a deputy AG. It's probably the hardest job in the department in normal times. These are not normal times.


JOHNSON: I'm told Rosenstein's leaving on his own terms. He's not being pushed, even though the writing's kind of been on the wall since the New York Times reported last year at one point he had discussed wiring President Trump. Rosenstein says he was being sarcastic. They never went ahead with that idea.

SHAPIRO: As long as you're in the studio, I want to ask you about a development in the case against President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. This looks like some self-inflicted damage perpetrated by his own legal team.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Paul Manafort's lawyers filed papers in court this week, but the parts they tried to redact were visible if you cut and pasted them into a new document. And guess what? A lot of people did.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I did it (laughter).

JOHNSON: (Laughter) Yeah. Those parts told us prosecutors suspect that Paul Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data during the campaign with a business associate of his. The special counsel has linked that man, that business associate, to Russian intelligence. Manafort also allegedly lied to prosecutors about a meeting he had with that business associate in Madrid where these two men supposedly discussed a peace plan for Ukraine, which has interests relevant to Russia.

The bottom line is Manafort may have lied about his contacts with a figure linked to Russian intelligence both during the campaign and after the election. That's a pretty big fact for people investigating whether anyone in the Trump inner circle coordinated with Russia. What we don't know right now, Ari, is what candidate Donald Trump knew about all this at the time, what was in his head, his intent.

SHAPIRO: NPR Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.