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News Brief: Robert Mueller Testifies, Puerto Rico Governor Resigns

Jul 25, 2019
Originally published on July 25, 2019 10:29 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

He came, he testified. So what now?

NOEL KING, HOST:

Former special counsel Robert Mueller took questions from Congress about his investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election and about whether President Trump obstructed justice. For the most part yesterday, Mueller's answers were short and direct. Again and again, he referred lawmakers to the 448-page report that his office issued earlier this year. And still, members of Congress pushed him to say what was in that report out loud.

Here's the Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler.

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JERRY NADLER: So the report did not conclude that he did not commit obstruction of justice. Is that correct?

ROBERT MUELLER: That is correct.

NADLER: And what about total exoneration? Did you actually totally exonerate the president?

MUELLER: No.

KING: So that was the first hearing. The second was before the House Intelligence Committee and focused specifically on Russian interference. Republican Will Hurd of Texas asked Mueller this.

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WILL HURD: In your investigation, did you think that this was a single attempt by the Russians to get involved in our election, or did you find evidence to suggest they'll try to do this again?

MUELLER: Oh, it wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.

MARTIN: OK. So what did we learn from all this? What does it change? We're going to ask NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas and NPR political reporter Tim Mak. They're both in our studios this morning. Hi, guys.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Ryan, I want to start with you. You were paying special attention to the judiciary hearing, which focused on the issue of obstruction. We heard that clip from Chairman Nadler there. What did Democrats want in this hearing?

LUCAS: Well, what they wanted to do was zero in on a handful of episodes in Mueller's report of the president trying to impede the investigation. Now, those include the president directing his then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller, the president directing McGahn to then deny that he had been directed to fire Mueller. Democrats knew that a lot of Americans didn't read Mueller's report. So what they wanted to do with this first hearing and the question of obstruction of justice was highlight these specific episodes and bring them to life for the American public.

MARTIN: But Robert Mueller wasn't having it. I mean, he wouldn't even read out loud his own report. So it ended up being this kind of awkward situation where the lawmakers themselves are forced to read it and then ask, was that right?

LUCAS: Right. It was - he was not a chatty witness.

MARTIN: No.

LUCAS: No one would accuse Mueller of that. He was definitely brief in his responses. That forced Democrats, as you said, to read from the report themselves. Democrats did get one big point on the record from Mueller, though, in that sort of exchange that we heard with Nadler that directly contradicts the mantra that we've heard from Trump of I was totally exonerated. Hearing Mueller say...

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: ...This was not a total exoneration was something that Democrats wanted to get. Interestingly enough, actually, one exchange that has caught the eye of a lot of people came with a Republican. That's Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado.

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KEN BUCK: Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?

MUELLER: Yes.

BUCK: You believe that he committed - you could charge the President of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office?

MUELLER: Yes.

LUCAS: Now, Mueller's report basically says as much, that if a president commits a crime, he can be charged once he has left office.

MARTIN: Right. And it's not specific. It's not - he wasn't saying President Trump - there is evidence enough to charge President Trump with this crime when he leaves office. He was talking generally.

LUCAS: Generally.

MARTIN: Yeah. All right. So what about other Republicans? I mean, we just mentioned Ken Buck. But more holistically, what was the Republican approach?

LUCAS: By and large, what they tried to do is what they did throughout the investigation - undermine it, sow doubt about the integrity of the investigation and the investigators, raise the same sort of allegations that we've heard for months - that Mueller's team was politically biased, that it was a witch hunt out to bring down Trump. Mueller knocked both of those down. He said political affiliations played zero role in his hiring decisions. He said he wanted people who could get the job done quickly and with integrity. And he flatly denied that this was a witch hunt in any way.

KING: All right. Tim Mak, let's turn this over to you. So the second hearings with the House Intelligence Committee, Mueller made it really clear in his report that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election. That has been established firmly. Did we learn anything new about that yesterday?

MAK: So Mueller was clear on how pressing an issue this was for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. As we heard a little bit earlier, he said that Russians were engaged in disinformation right now as we sit here. But he also added that other foreign actors are kind of spinning up their own operations and getting involved in this space. Disinformation is a low-cost method to spread a lot of mayhem in the American democratic process. And he says he fully expects the Russian government to take part in election interference again in 2020.

KING: In fact, he said they're doing it right now as we sit here, right? So members of Congress, what did they say to - what did they say about what Mueller had to say about election security?

MAK: So there's been a big push by Senate Democrats in recent days, and again after Mueller's testimony, to push Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow votes on bipartisan election security legislation. As we've reported a lot about here on NPR, election security is more than just ballot security. Right? So lawmakers have proposed things like mandatory disclosures of foreign political ad buyers, required reporting if a foreign actors offer political information to a campaign and automatic sanctions against any country that's determined to interfere with a U.S. election. But so far, McConnell has said that these measures are not necessary.

MARTIN: Why, Tim? I mean, what's the Republican resistance to something that both parties say, yes, Russia absolutely should not interfere in American elections?

MAK: Well, McConnell in particular has pointed to the 2018 midterms and said, oh, we did not see - we've stepped up our game since 2016. Law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community have the tools currently that they need to secure our elections. It's not necessary to take additional legislative measures.

MARTIN: So what else did you hear that struck you in the testimony, especially from Republicans, yesterday on this issue?

MAK: Well, Republicans reiterated that Mueller didn't find sufficient evidence to charge a conspiracy between members of the Trump campaign and Russia. Here's what House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes had to say about that.

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DEVIN NUNES: The Democrats have argued for nearly three years that evidence of collusion is hidden just around the corner. Like the Loch Ness Monster, they insist it's there even if no one can find it.

MAK: So Republicans even spent some time questioning the link between the Russian government and the Russian troll farms that spread disinformation during the 2016 campaign even though that's been a well-established fact affirmed by the intelligence community and members of the Trump administration.

MARTIN: So it was notable Robert Mueller didn't even say the word impeachment. But it was so huge, it was looming over everything yesterday. Did his testimony move that needle at all?

MAK: Well, I have to say, the Democrats probably were hoping for the Mueller testimony to land with more impact than it did yesterday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a press conference after Mueller's testimony and said there's still work to do before she's interested in going down the impeachment path. But the investigations on the Hill will continue. In fact, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler says he's going to go to court today to enforce subpoenas to obtain McGahn's testimony and obtain the Mueller grand jury materials.

MARTIN: So it's over, yet it goes on...

MAK: It continues.

MARTIN: ...Is what you're telling me. NPR's Tim Mak and Ryan Lucas. Thanks, you guys. We appreciate it.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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MARTIN: And we've got some breaking news from overnight. After 12 days of protests, the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, has resigned.

KING: That's right. Those demonstrations started after some really offensive texts that the governor exchanged with members of his inner circle were made public. Earlier this week, Rossello said he was going to stay in office but that he wouldn't seek reelection. That was not enough. The protests kept going. And then last night in a video statement on Facebook, the governor finally said, OK. Enough.

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RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: He said, "the call has been resounding, and I have received it with the highest degree of humility."

MARTIN: NPR's David Welna is in San Juan covering all this. So, David, what else was in that statement from Rossello?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, he said he had fully intended to serve out the two years that remain of his term. In fact, just a few days ago, he said he would do so but not seek reelection. But now he saw that all he's accomplished so far, he said, could be damaged if he remained in office. He did not mention the fact that Puerto Rico's Congress was planning to begin impeachment proceedings against him this afternoon if he did not resign or that he'd been served with a search warrant this week and that many of his cabinet members, as well as his chief of staff, had already stepped down.

As for just when the governor will actually leave, he said it will be next Friday, August 2. And it's not clear how that delay is going to go over with all the people demanding that he leave office immediately.

MARTIN: It was really remarkable, these protests and demonstrations. It didn't really have a leader, right? It was a really grassroots kind of movement. What's been the reaction among demonstrators?

WELNA: Well, they were victorious last night. And they rejoiced when the governor confirmed what had been rumored all day long yesterday, that he had had a change of heart and had decided to step down. There was a lot of anxiety earlier in the evening when Rossello failed to make a promised announcement late in the afternoon. And things looked like they could get nasty when squads of police in full riot gear appeared outside The Fortress, as the governor's palace is known.

But when it became official he's leaving, people danced in the street, and people honked car horns throughout the night - they're still honking them - celebrating what really was a grassroots-driven uprising that, as you said, had no clear leaders and no party affiliation either. This is the first time in modern Puerto Rico history that a governor has resigned. And had he stayed, it would have been the first impeachment undertaken by the island's Congress.

Things have been pretty tough here with tight austerity measures imposed to qualify for disaster assistance promised by the U.S. Congress to help rebuild from Hurricane Maria. And it just infuriated people to see their governor joking with his pals and insulting people in these online private chats that got leaked.

MARTIN: Right. So speaking of no clear leader - I mean, things are up in the air - right? - when it comes to who's going to succeed him?

WELNA: Yes, because Puerto Rico has no lieutenant governor. And the secretary of the interior is the next in line to replace Rossello. But that secretary resigned after those chats were leaked, and he has not been replaced. So the next in line is the secretary of Justice, Wanda Vazquez. And it would appear she'd fill this vacancy. But she's widely seen here as tainted by her association with the governor and could lack the legitimacy needed to do this job.

People here are still planning to go ahead with street demonstrations this morning, with more protests planned over the next few days. They'll be celebrating Rossello's resignation, but they're likely going to be demanding that someone else replace him.

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MARTIN: All right. NPR's David Welna reporting in San Juan. The governor there in Puerto Rico has announced his resignation. David, thanks. We appreciate it.

WELNA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.