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Week In Politics: The Mueller Investigation And The Next Attorney General


Carrie, stay with us. We're going to turn now to Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor correspondent. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you both.

SIMON: Federal prosecutors say the president of the United States broke the law when he told Michael Cohen to make payoffs to two women and denied it. There also seem to be contacts between, as Carrie explained, the Trump Organization and campaign and Russia during the presidential campaign. What is the impact? What are the implications of these charges?

ELVING: It feels less like the impact of a hammer and more like the tightening of a vise, Scott. That's been Mueller's method all along - a steady progression of charges and denials, of course, from those charged, followed by trials and convictions or by plea agreements to avoid trial, so all the while accompanied by White House denunciations and counteraccusations and tweets of the kind we saw last night and this morning from the president, who, as Carrie has said, we know to be Individual 1.

SIMON: So I've got to ask. Reports of payoffs to women, conducting business while running for president, contacts with Russia during the campaign. Do you expect a Democratic Congress is going to bring impeachment to the floor?

ELVING: They are going to be sorely tempted, Scott. And it's still not certain based on what we've seen so far, but you notice much has been redacted in these preliminary documents filed with various courts. It means that Robert Mueller has more - much more - including an investigation we didn't even know about before. So we shouldn't prejudge the question of what exactly they would be taking to the House floor. But it's increasingly clear that if they really want to, they can.

It's still not at all certain it would be politically wise. Worked out in the Nixon case, not so well in the Clinton case, where it backfired, at least in the short term. The Senate refused to remove Bill Clinton from office, and his poll numbers went up.

SIMON: Carrie, let me turn to you again. These revelations are fascinating. But can the president of the United States really be prosecuted for anything that's been charged?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: You know, there's a long-standing interpretation at the Justice Department that you cannot indict a sitting president. You have to wait until he's out of office. Now, Leon Jaworski and Ken Starr both disputed that interpretation, but they decided to wait anyway, just to be careful. Their solution was that we have a political problem, and it should be handled by the political system, which is to say impeachment.

Depending on what Robert Mueller ultimately finds or prosecutors in New York ultimately find, the statute of limitations could extend beyond Donald Trump's term in office, or not. But it seems as if DOJ and Mueller are going to consider this a political problem, not a legal one.

SIMON: And, Ron, back to you. The president nominated William Barr for attorney general this week. The president has been openly annoyed that his - the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, didn't inhibit or even block the Mueller investigation. Mr. Barr was attorney general during George H.W. Bush's administration. He might be in a sensitive position now.

ELVING: Yes, that is right. He - it appeared for a while the president might be content with his acting attorney general, a man with a relatively thin resume but a lot of proven affinity with the president, including on the subject of the Mueller investigation. But look. Barr is eminently confirmable by the Senate. He has impeccable credentials with the establishment. He's a deep-dyed Republican who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. And he's since been a corporate attorney for Verizon and some other major clients. There's little sign that he would have any great love shown for him on the Democratic side, but that doesn't matter because the Senate is Republican at this time.

SIMON: Ron, remember Congress?

ELVING: I do, indeed.

SIMON: OK. Well, there are several days (laughter) - a few days left for a lame-duck session of Congress. Some key members have been trying to pass a justice reform bill. President Trump actually supports it. There - this is the one major piece of bipartisan legislation, potentially, I can think of. But will the government still be doing business after December 21?

ELVING: Well, that's when, theoretically, funding runs out. A shutdown does seem unlikely now because no one wants a shutdown for Christmas. So this lame-duck session of Congress may just limp off into oblivion having done little or nothing.

There is not, perhaps, enough consensus, enough compromise on that justice reform bill. It is an interesting coalition of left and right support, to be sure, but it would probably take a concerted effort by the president to put it over the top. And the president is distracted on many fronts.

SIMON: Carrie Johnson and Ron Elving, wonderful to have both of you. Thanks very much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Matthew Whitaker is mistakenly referred to as Mark Whitaker in one instance. In addition, William Barr is incorrectly referred to as president in the George H.W. Bush administration. He was attorney general under President Bush.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 8, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
In the audio version of this story, Matthew Whitaker is mistakenly referred to as Mark Whitaker in one instance. In addition, William Barr is incorrectly referred to as president in the George H.W. Bush administration. He was attorney general under President Bush.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.