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Did Trump Obstruct Justice? That's A Complicated Question


Since coming to office, President Trump has maintained that no one in his campaign colluded or conspired with Russia to help him win the election. Now the special counsel investigation appears to have proven him right. Robert Mueller released his findings to Attorney General William Barr on Friday. After reading its conclusions, Barr then summarized them in a four-page letter to Congress.

While the report says there was no collusion, it left the question of whether the President obstructed the investigation unanswered. The attorney general answered that question, concluding after reading the report that there is not enough evidence of obstruction to prosecute. The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Doug Collins, said this is good news for the country.


DOUG COLLINS: Good news to know that there was no collusion, good news to know that there was no obstruction and that their president, who has been working hard for them, is continuing to do that - that's the concerning part, but that's the good part also for America today.

MARTIN: Democrats are now calling for the entire Mueller report to be released to the public. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us now.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Is this vindication for President Trump?

JOHNSON: It's some level of vindication. We do not have the full report from the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as you noted. Instead, what we do have are some brief conclusions written by the attorney general, Bill Barr. There's a quote from Mueller - a partial quote - in Barr's letter, "the investigation did not establish members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities." So in other words, no American tied the Trump campaign knowingly coordinated or conspired with the Russian government even though, Rachel, Russians had dozens of contacts with Trump aides and advisers in 2016 and beyond.

MARTIN: The president, though, says this is complete exoneration, using that word specifically. But on the issue of obstruction, the Mueller report says exactly the opposite. Right? Can you explain that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Bill Barr, the attorney general, quotes part of the Mueller report that says, "while this report does not conclude the president committed a crime" - obstruction - "it also does not exonerate him." The attorney general says the special counsel did not make a call one way or another about whether the president should be charged with wrongdoing for obstructing justice.

And I'm hearing from a Justice Department official that Mueller's decision to not reach a conclusion on obstruction was entirely his. But here's the question - did Mueller intend for Congress to answer this question? If so, the attorney general, Bill Barr, and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, basically opened the door and then shut it, answering the question for themselves - saying, no, the evidence was insufficient to charge the president with obstruction of justice as a crime because most of what the president did was out in the open. And in their view, he did not commit the underlying crime of collusion or conspiracy with Russian officials.

MARTIN: So that would seemingly close the book on any legal questions surrounding obstruction. But Congress is still able to investigate that. Right?

JOHNSON: Yes. In fact, Congress, namely Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler in the House, wants this full report. He cited yesterday what he perceives to be discrepancies in the Barr letter and what he calls political conclusions that he wants to penetrate.

MARTIN: We should note, six people close to President Trump have been charged with crimes by the special counsel. Any chance now, Carrie, that they could get pardons?

JOHNSON: It's certainly possible. President Trump has been very negative toward his former fixer Michael Cohen. He's made positive statements about his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Remember the Iran-Contra scandal, the arms for hostages scandal, ended with several pardons by President George H.W. Bush. The attorney general at that time, Rachel, was none other than William Barr, the attorney general again today.

MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Johnson for us this morning. Carrie, thank you.

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

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