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CNN TONIGHT

Department of Justice Says Mueller Report Did Not Find President Trump Conspired with Russia; Interview with Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) on the Mueller Report; Aired 11-12a ET

Aired March 24, 2019 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[23:01:37] DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN TONIGHT. I am Don Lemon.

A feeling of relief at the White House tonight. The Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his report to the attorney general saying that his investigation found no evidence that President Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia on the 2016 election. But the Attorney General William Barr in his letter to Congress about Mueller's report quotes the special counsel as saying that, while he did not conclude that the president obstructed justice, the report does not exonerate President Trump either.

Tonight Democrats on Capitol Hill calling for Mueller's full report to be released to the public. And the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee says he will soon call the attorney general to testify. So here we go.

Joining me now, Shimon Prokupecz, Ryan Lizza, Juliette Kayyem, Jon Sale.

Good evening. Shimon, let's start with you. You've covered every twist and turn of this investigation for the last two years. I know it seems like longer. What's your biggest question that remains for you tonight?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: I think it's what everyone is talking about. It's this exoneration line in the report, in what Bill Barr ultimately gave to members of Congress. It's a big question as to why did he choose to go there? Why did he explain it in such a way? He could have simply just said, you know, we found -- we found no evidence of collusion, and we found no evidence of obstruction, and therefore this investigation is now over.

He went into a lot more detail than any of us certainly expected today when he filed this letter with members of Congress. And the big question is, why did he leave this wiggle room here? You know, it's very clear on the collusion side that there's no collusion and that they essentially cleared him there. But then they left the door open on possibly this obstruction issue, though the Department of Justice, when you think about it, did clear the president on that issue. They still left this wording in there concerning the exoneration.

LEMON: Jon, you are a former assistant special Watergate prosecutor, a major question tonight is, why did Mueller not come to this conclusion on obstruction himself?

JON SALE, FORMER ASSISTANT SPECIAL WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: Don, first I think we should celebrate that the special counsel found no collusion because that's a very serious crime. And thank goodness it didn't happen.

To get to your question, I'm puzzled as to why Barr -- I'm sorry, why Mueller used two different methodologies. Why on the collusion issue did he come to a conclusion and why did he then use a different methodology and not come to a conclusion on obstruction?

We in Watergate, we took the bull by the horns and the Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski recommended to the grand jury and the grand jury named the president as a co-conspirator in obstruction. So that's a major difference. But I'll tell you what troubles me. There's so many questions that are going to remain unanswered that the American people want answered. And I think they're not going to get those answers.

I think there are a number of reasons why transparency is illusory and we're not going to find those answers. And the difference between Watergate, for example, Attorney General Barr's letter refers to Rule 6-E, grand jury material. And he's deferring to Mueller now to go back and sort that out. Well, the law does not allow the release of grand jury material.

[23:05:04] In Watergate we went to the court and we asked the grand jury material be released to the House Judiciary Committee. And strangely enough, the White House did not oppose it. And a court order permitted that transmission.

Here, apparently, the Department of Justice isn't going to do that, so we'll never see that. We're not going to see things pertaining to active investigations. And then there's going to be executive privilege. So for all those reasons, I regret to say, I doubt we're going to see very much.

LEMON: Yes. Interesting. OK. I want to get this before I move on to the other panelists from you, Jon, because this is what Barr wrote about obstruction. OK. He says, "In making the determination we know that the special counsel recognized the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in any underlying crime related to Russian election interference, and that while not determinative the absence of such evidence bears upon the president's intent with respect to obstruction."

Does that reasoning make sense to you?

SALE: It does, totally. That although you need a corrupt intent, if you're going to look at the statute, you have to look at the fact that if there's no underlying crime, what are you obstructing? In Watergate there was an underlying crime, burglary. Here, what's the underlying crime? There was no evidence of collusion. But remember, you know what nobody's saying? The letter specifically says, Rod Rosenstein and I concluded. So he's bringing Rosenstein into it to show that Rosenstein agreed there was no obstruction -- LEMON: To give a little cover.

SALE: And this is -- but this is the man who was talking about wearing a wire against the president. So if Rosenstein agrees with it, it gives him a lot of cover.

LEMON: OK. Ryan, it's important to remember that Barr, who made the case before he was nominated by Trump, that if there's no collusion, and Jon was just speaking of that, there's no obstruction, at least basically saying, if there's no underlying crime, then there's no obstruction. Do you think that's significant?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. Look, he clearly telegraphed his view on what is a complicated legal issue, as Mueller apparently said in the report, according to Barr's characterization. But it's no mystery that Barr believes if there's no underlying crime, there can be no corrupt intent and therefore no obstruction. He said that, he said that in a letter that he sent unprompted to -- I think it was Rosenstein at the Justice Department, and he said that in his congressional testimony during his confirmation hearing.

That was before he knew any of the facts of the case. But I think the interesting thing is, Mueller, of course, knew he said that. So Mueller in kicking it to Barr kind of knew which way Barr was going to come down on this question. So maybe not totally taking the bull by the horns but kicking it to Barr to make that determination. And, you know, I think an interesting question for Mueller as to why he did that.

I also think Mueller is kicking this to Congress. Right? At the end of the day, it's Congress' job to decide whether a -- the president did something that was so bad that there should be consequences.

LEMON: Yes.

LIZZA: Impeachment being one of them, right? And that's where this is now headed. Congress, I think if you look at most of the congressional statements, they're basically accepting the determination on Russia and collusion, but they have a lot of questions about obstruction of justice.

LEMON: OK. Juliette, so many questions. You're last for a reason. OK. Last but not least. OK. So in my open, I said his investigation found no evidence of President Trump or his campaign conspired. Now in the full report, that may show that. But that is not exactly what Barr said. So I just want to correct myself in real time and have you explain that. Because the report actually says the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with Russian government in its election interference activities.

Is that parsing of words or is that important? I think we should be very specific with exactly what Barr, his interpretation of this.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the "does not establish" is just clear, that basically you had the Trump campaign not stopping the Russians, and maybe even, you know, supporting it vocally as we saw publicly. You had the Russians doing their counterintelligence and anti-democratic campaign. And those were aligned in goal, but not aligned in process. That's the way to think about it, or at least Mueller couldn't prove it.

And I think, you know, this idea that, you know, who won, who lost today, I'll let political people debate that. I think what we're forgetting is that Barr said in the memo of the Mueller report that the Russians worked actively to elect Donald Trump. That's a narrative Donald Trump has never wanted. And I think when you say, what are the unanswered questions that I have now, accepting that there wasn't collusion, how do I explain Donald Trump's behavior towards Putin since he's been president?

[23:10:08] That's a political question, I get it, not a legal one. But I think we should not forget that as a legal matter, the attorney general of the United States has now said the extent to which the Russians -- you know, took active measures, not to quote the movie, to elect Donald Trump. And that's bad.

I mean, let's just put it -- that's bad. And I am glad that we could get bipartisan support to get out of this collusion or bust debate, which no one's going to ever settle, and get to the question of, what the heck are we going to do in 2020, and why isn't our president caring about it? That is the key takeaway for me right now.

LEMON: Let me ask you another question. So the special counsel states that while this report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him. And people are wondering, well, what on earth does that mean? The president is saying it's complete -- you know, he's completely exonerated. Alice Stewart, who is a supporter of the president, was just on, saying it completely exonerated.

When the -- and this is in quotation marks. Right? So that means that Mueller, according to Barr, said this in his report. So then why would the president say that?

KAYYEM: I mean, I think, you know, the president would have -- look, the president would have said that if collusion were found, right?

(LAUGHTER)

KAYYEM: You know, I mean, in other words, his narrative is going to always be, I'm completely exonerated until -- you know, until we're all dead, right? But I think the important thing here is, you know, on this exoneration question, and I think the thing that's sort of shocking to people like me in terms of who believe in the rule of law and who support Mueller's findings, or to the extent we're going to see them, is really the extent to which behavior can be disruptive to our democracy.

Lies, supporting a foreign power, whatever. And not rise to the level of criminal culpability, but not exonerate you from your duties as president of the United States. And that is -- but as I've been saying all along, that's a political question. And it was really interesting to see McConnell, of all people, I was praising him on Twitter today, really come out forcefully on this finding by Barr about Russia's continuing and dangerous aggression against our democracy.

People don't like -- I get it, the left does not like him, does not like him being complimented. But if that can be the narrative out of what we now know, I think then maybe we actually can protect ourselves in 2020.

LEMON: Interesting. Jon, I've got to ask you because in Barr's entire four-page letter, there's just one sentence, when I read it, and a couple of words, that actually quote from Mueller's report. What does that say to you?

SALE: Well, it says that -- I don't think it's intentional by the attorney general, but it shows where -- he's selectively quoting, it shows all the more reason why we want to see the underlying report. And I think that's going to be the frustration. I mean, I hope I'm wrong. But as I said earlier, I don't think we're going to see very much of it.

LEMON: Yes. I wonder, Jon, what Robert Mueller thinks about the attorney general's -- Attorney General Barr's letter. Is he thinking, yes, that reflects exactly what I said in my report, or not? Or he'll likely be called to testify in Congress. Maybe we'll find out then. But what do you think?

SALE: Well, when he -- with all due respect -- passed the buck on obstruction to the attorney general, he has to live with it. And we're sort of saying, well, the Mueller report, Mueller didn't find collusion. OK, we accept that. But here, what about obstruction? The attorney general of the United States is Mueller's boss. And if the attorney general said, under the law and the facts there's no obstruction, Rod Rosenstein agrees, that's the final word. We can disagree but that's the final word.

LEMON: It's the final word. Right on.

LIZZA: It won't be the final word, right? I mean, just look at the Hillary Clinton --

LEMON: The final word on this. It doesn't mean that it doesn't continue. Right? The final word on this report. But go on.

LIZZA: Obviously they'll look --

SALE: But we can't keep prosecuting our political enemies, we're not a third world country.

LEMON: Yes.

LIZZA: Well, what I mean by that is that Congress will have to weigh in, right, the proper forum for presidential bad behavior, right? High crimes and misdemeanors, is Congress. The House of Representatives needs to look at this report comprehensively and see if they come to a different conclusion. They might come to a conclusion that -- there are facts in the Russia portion of the report that don't rise to a crime, but they decide are impeachable offenses. I'm not saying that's going to happen but that's a possibility.

They may decide that on obstruction of justice, it does rise to an impeachable offense. Barr in his letter said that Mueller found evidence both for and against obstruction of justice. So this is -- when we're dealing with the president, correct me if I'm wrong, Jon, but it's an inherently political process. And this report now has to go through the Democrats in the House, and they'll render a judgment on whether this rises to something more serious than what Mueller and Barr came to -- decided.

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: I don't think that's third world --

[23:15:08] SALE: Well, under our Constitution --

LIZZA: I don't think that's third world --

SALE: Yes, under the Constitution -- I'm sorry.

LIZZA: Yes, go ahead.

SALE: Under the Constitution, of course the Congress has the obligation to determine impeachment. But the speaker has taken that off the table. So I think the president's conduct is going to be judged by people in the election --

LIZZA: No. No, no, no, the speaker --

SALE: In the election.

LIZZA: I'm not trying --

SALE: Listen, the --

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: Yes.

SALE: The Republican control of the Senate means there's not going to be any impeachment. There's not going to be a conviction.

LIZZA: Nancy Pelosi did take impeachment off the table before the report came out, but her statement tonight raised a lot of questions about the obstruction of justice. And they're obviously going to take a hard look at that.

SALE: But what caused Richard Nixon to resign was that the Republicans decided they weren't going to support him.

LEMON: Yes.

SALE: As long as Donald Trump has Republican support in the Senate, he has job security. LEMON: Let's talk about what everyone agrees on besides the

president, and that's in the letter that the attorney general also describes these multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign. What do you think he's referring to there, Juliette?

KAYYEM: I think we know a lot of what we're talking about. And this is why getting some substance of the report is absolutely necessary. So I read the Barr letter to say that we probably already know a lot of this. This would be the meetings, what we've at least heard of in some of these other cases of phone calls or interactions between people aligned with the Trump campaign, and then of course the indictments against various Russian entities that were trying to get access to data or the campaign.

Once again I think, you know, if you define collusion as essentially a partnership, an LLC, to get to the -- you know, with a common goal, right, then they didn't find it. I think that might be -- I mean, I accept that, right? I have to read Mueller's report but I accept that Mueller said that. But if you think, and this is, as I said, once again the worst of it, there's all sorts of activity that had been done that was not -- I don't know, I guess the words I want to use are sort of, you know, befitting our democracy.

Sort of that -- you know, that the Trump people never, after having been warned by the FBI, never told the FBI that they've lied consistently since then that Trump has tried to undermine the Mueller campaign, that, you know, the Helsinki moment which I, you know, as a national security person still to this day, you know, it's just -- still scary, sort of odd. You know, all of those things are going to be relevant for the political process. And I bet you a lot of those are mentioned in the Mueller -- once we get to read the Mueller report.

LEMON: Yes. Thank you. I've got to go. But, Shimon, just quickly if you can, do you think all of this is going to be a justification for pardons? Is that what we're going to hear next?

PROKUPECZ: I think we're heading in that direction certainly if you heard quickly just what the president said today, you know, just paraphrasing, the bad things that have been done to people as a result.

LEMON: So many people. Yes.

PROKUPECZ: So I do think we're going to head in that direction at some point. And I think that could happen, you know. At some point he was waiting for Mueller to be done. Everyone around him was waiting for Mueller to be done. But certainly for Paul Manafort, I think, people close to Paul Manafort think he's been treated unfairly here. The president thinks he's been treated unfairly here. And so he's setting it up.

LEMON: All right. Thank you, everyone. I really appreciate it. Fascinating conversation, thanks again.

Joining me now, Congressman Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat and a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Good morning, sir. Thank you so much. I appreciate you joining us.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D), MARYLAND: Delighted to be with you, Don.

LEMON: Are you willing to accept the findings of the special counsel that there was no coordination or conspiracy, what's become known as collusion, between the Trump campaign and Russia?

RASKIN: Well, as soon as I get to read them. You know, what we need is the complete report turned over to Congress so we can read exactly what the special counsel is saying. And then we want to see the underlying evidence. But you know, I'm willing to accept them exactly for what they are as soon as we get to see them. All we've gotten now is, you know, a few paragraphs of characterization which seem more and more opaque and inscrutable and vexing when you really look into them. So --

LEMON: Do you think if they were that far off on their summary of what Mueller found, that he would be responding to it now?

RASKIN: Well, look at the question of obstruction of justice, for example, where according to Attorney General Barr, Mueller said that there was apparently substantial evidence, enough evidence where there could have been an indictment, but on the other hand, he felt that there was also evidence weighing in the other direction.

But that evidence, as far as we know, may have just been the special counsel saying, we know that the Department of Justice takes the position that the president of the United States should not be indicted, or maybe he's simply mirroring back to Attorney General Barr, Barr's position that he spelled out in the lengthy memo before he got appointed attorney general, that the president by definition could not be guilty of obstruction of justice when it comes to federal prosecutors because he's their boss, and he's got the unitary executive right to tell them to do whatever he wants them to do.

[23:20:10] LEMON: OK. All right. You say that, but let me just read something, OK? When he talked about applying the principles of federal prosecution, the guy in charge of the decisions, he said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense. Our determination was made without regard to and is not based on the constitutional considerations that surround the indictment and criminal prosecution of a sitting president.

It seems like they took that into account and said they didn't --

RASKIN: Well, what they took into account was one legal argument. They said, what we're going to set aside for the second hour doubts about whether or not the Department of Justice should indict the president. But it doesn't deal at all with the completely separate legal theory advanced by Attorney General Barr, which is that the president cannot be guilty of obstructing justice when he interferes in an ongoing law enforcement investigation, including one related to him, because he's their boss. That's a completely different legal theory. And so we shouldn't be confused by that little sleight of hand there in the memo.

LEMON: So not being able to -- the special counsel not being able to come up with some sort of conclusion about obstruction of justice, wasn't that part of their job?

RASKIN: Well, part of whose job?

LEMON: Part of the special counsel's job.

RASKIN: Yes. And we don't know what the special counsel said. I mean, the memo might say, we think that there's enough evidence to go forward with a prosecution, but we're going to leave it up to the Department of Justice to decide what to do because we know that there are a lot of legal questions around this. One of those legal questions is the one that's been injected by Attorney General Barr himself in what turns out to be a kind of job application, this memo where he said that the president never can be held for obstruction of justice when he interferes in an ongoing law enforcement investigation because of the unitary executive theory, which just means the president is always the boss and he's in charge of the Department of Justice and all of the lawyers and prosecutors in it.

So look, here's the thing. The president is already running around saying that he's received a complete and total exoneration from Special Counsel Mueller and the Department of Justice. If that's true, nobody should be afraid of following what the Congress in an overwhelming 420-0 vote asked for, which is for the whole report to be made public so we can see what it says. And then everybody can have their victory parades and take their laps and so on.

But really this should not be based on a couple of paragraphs of recitation of what the attorney general thinks the conclusions are of this two-year investigation.

LEMON: I know it says that -- you know, the special counsel says that while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him. And then it goes on to say that they're leaving that decision up to the attorney general to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.

RASKIN: Yes.

LEMON: So isn't that -- is that part of Congress' job? Is he leaving it up to Congress to decide if that rises to the level of impeachment or what?

RASKIN: Well, in a final analysis, of course it is Congress that's got to decide about presidential misconduct. But there's another sleight of hand which is taking place in that memo which is, I think that the attorney general is confusing an apparent statement, although we haven't read it, so w don't know, but an apparent statement by the special counsel that there was not sufficient evidence found to determine that there was conspiracy, he's confusing that with a statement that the special counsel found that there was no conspiracy, or there was enough evidence to find there was not a conspiracy.

That's very different from finding that there wasn't enough evidence, there wasn't a sufficient quantum of evidence to show it. Obviously prosecutors are looking for a lot of evidence, enough to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody committed a crime. And if they're being scrupulous about that, there might be a lot of evidence, including enough evidence to convince the ordinary person that something took place, but not enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court.

That's not the standard, of course, that Congress is using. So look, the bottom line is, we shouldn't have to be squinting at this document and trying to read between the lines. All we need is the report that the special counsel produced. It's what Congress unanimously asked for. It's what the president said he wanted, at least before all of this started. So before everybody starts running 500 victory laps about how everything's fine, let's turn over the report so we can treat this as a serious matter of law enforcement.

LEMON: OK.

RASKIN: Not take it, you know, for what it is. We've got to weigh it in context of everything that the special counsel's doing and everything we're doing.

LEMON: I've got a lot to ask you in a lightning round you give me quickly. Do you want Barr to testify? Are you going to call on him to testify?

RASKIN: I think that Barr has interjected himself in this investigation by making the final call about whether there's obstruction of justice. That was a very opaque and inscrutable statement. I've got to see --

LEMON: So what are you going to ask him?

[23:25:03] RASKIN: So, yes, I would like to see him explain exactly how he arrived at that conclusion.

LEMON: All right. Do you want Mueller to testify?

RASKIN: Well, we want to see the Mueller report. Obviously we may have questions. But I think we read the Mueller report and then we see whether we need Mueller to testify.

LEMON: Rosenstein?

RASKIN: Rosenstein to the extent that he's been implicated in the decision-making process by the attorney general maybe should come back.

LEMON: OK. So your committee launched a massive investigation into the Trump administration requesting documents from 81 individuals and entities. In light of Mueller's findings, will the scope of your investigation change now? RASKIN: Well, remember some of those investigations or most of those

investigations have already taken place at other levels of government and other federal investigations or state investigations. So those documents are easily available. And I think tens of thousands of them have already come in. So we're hoping that the Mueller report, once we read it, helps us to focus our investigations into things like abuse of the security clearance process.

What exactly did take place in terms of the president trying to negotiate a deal with the Russians during the course of the campaign? Was the White House involved in Michael Cohen's false statements to Congress?

LEMON: OK.

RASKIN: You know, did they influence him to make those false statements? And so on. So we want to get very specific about all of the corruption and lawlessness that has been taking place. Remember, for two years in the last Congress, none of this stuff was investigated by the House and that's why there was this backlog of requests.

LEMON: OK.

RASKIN: That the committee chair have sent in.

LEMON: Congressman Raskin, thank you for your time, I appreciate it.

RASKIN: Totally my pleasure to be with you.

LEMON: And not that we need to explain ourselves but in the interest of transparency I should point out that we asked well over a dozen Republican lawmakers, a dozen, over a dozen, to join us tonight to react to Mueller's findings. None of them said yes, though you would think that they'd want to talk about this.

Next we're going to dig into what the president said tonight about Mueller's findings, what he got right and what he didn't.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[23:30:42] LEMON: So Robert Mueller did not establish that Donald Trump or his campaign conspired with the Russian government, but while the president is touting that, he's simultaneously and falsely slamming the investigation as illegal, not to mention falsely claiming that the report totally exonerated him on obstruction.

I want to bring in now Elie Honig, Jennifer Rodgers and Michael D'Antonio. Michael is the author of "The Truth About Trump."

So good evening.

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening.

LEMON: So as we get started let me just play the president's statements, the president's statement, bit by bit. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was just announced there was no collusion with Russia. The most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. There was no collusion with Russia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: For all intents and purposes, the president is right about that finding.

D'ANTONIO: He is. And it's a very good day for the president. I think it's a good day for the United States since we now know that one of our major party candidates did not conspire with the Russians to swing the election. So that's -- it's a good day for everybody.

LEMON: Let me -- so, Jennifer, let me ask you about this. We know that Manafort gave an associate with ties to Russian intelligence campaign polling data. We know that -- how Stone reached out to WikiLeaks through an intermediary. Don Jr. said that he'd love any information from the Russian lawyer claiming to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. The campaign did not alert the FBI when approached by Russians offering help.

So presumably the Mueller report addresses all of these, but we don't know, right? We don't know the context of any of it.

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, we don't know the contents of the Mueller report yet and that's obviously going to be something that Congress is going to want to see and that the American people want to see. You know, there are all sorts of things --

LEMON: When I say context, we don't know in what context it was or -- and we don't know the contents of the Mueller report. You're right.

RODGERS: No, we don't know -- we don't know any of that and there's more, too. I mean, why did all these people lie about their contacts and communications with Russia if there was no conspiracy?

LEMON: Right.

RODGERS: So there are a lot of unanswered questions. It's definitely a good thing for the president that no one is going to be charged with conspiracy here, but there's still a lot to get to.

LEMON: All right. Jennifer, one more time, let's listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: There was no obstruction and none whatsoever. And it was a complete and total exoneration.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: OK, Jennifer. So to be clear -- and everyone is laughing. (LAUGHTER)

LEMON: The section on obstruction in Barr's letter reads this way, "While the report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." That is the opposite of what the president is claiming.

RODGERS: Yes, I mean, listen, it's still on balance good for the president. The report it sounds like does not say he committed obstruction, he should be charged with obstruction, or he should be but we can't charge him, nothing like that. So it's at least a wash, according to the Mueller report, if you believe Barr's letter.

What's strange to me, though, is why Mueller punted on this in the first place. I don't quite understand why he wouldn't make that decision. That was really the whole reason that he was appointed.

LEMON: Right.

RODGERS: Because he has the independence and no one knew the facts of the Mueller investigation better than Robert Mueller. So why he didn't make that call as to whether the facts constituted legal obstruction here is something that I don't understand. And I hope someone will ask Robert Mueller that question.

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I agree. I was really surprised to see Mueller punt that. I mean, first of all, he's the special counsel. The whole point of special counsel is to take the crucial decision-making out of the line of command that goes up to the president. And he threw it right back into that line of command, number one. Number two, this is what prosecutors do every day. We sit in rooms, Jennifer and I have been in rooms together, where you're looking at evidence, and it's a really tough call. But you make the call.

Robert Mueller is not an indecisive person by any stretch. So I'm very surprised that he punted this. Once he punted it to Barr, game over. Right? I mean, William Barr has already made his views very well known. He wrote that unsolicited memo in 2018 before he was A.G. to the Department of Justice slamming what he believed was Mueller's obstruction theory. He said it was fatally flawed, he said in a separate interview, he said it was asinine. That was what he said to "The Hill," what Barr said to "The Hill." So once Mueller punted to Barr, he had to know what the outcome would be.

LEMON: But is there a method to why he did -- is there some -- maybe he knows something that we don't?

[23:35:02] HONIG: The only thing I can think of is the way the regs work is if Mueller wanted to take a certain action and then he was overruled by the A.G., that has to come out, that has to get reported to Congress. And perhaps this is some sort of softer compromise, right, to -- because that would have been calamitous for a lot of people. Perhaps this was some way of sort of softly avoiding that scenario. That's all I can think of.

LEMON: Well, Barr said that he had not been denied anything that he had asked for. That's what Mueller says.

HONIG: Right. And that doing it this way may have allowed Barr to say, I didn't have to overrule on anything versus, can you imagine if Mueller had recommended obstruction and then Barr had overruled him and had to report that to Congress? This would have been a completely different story.

RODGERS: I agree, but at the same time that's not the Mueller that we've all kind of been led to believe was running this investigation. The Mueller that we've gotten to know through people who have said things about the him, who have worked closely with him, calls it like it is, right? And if he thought that it was obstruction, then I would have expected that his report identify it as obstruction.

LEMON: That seems to be the question on the whole thing, about why he didn't make some sort of judgment on obstruction. Even from people who had been supportive of the president, at least people in the legal profession don't understand that because they believe that is exactly what a prosecutor is supposed to do.

OK. The president one more time.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: It's a shame that our country had to go through this. To be honest, it's a shame that your president has had to go through this for before I even got elected, it began.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Not surprising, vintage Trump.

D'ANTONIO: Vintage Trump. And we went through this because he had fired James Comey and then told everybody it was because of Russia. So, you know, this was brought on by the president himself. It was brought on by his denial that there had been Russian interference in the election in the first place. Remember when he said, well, some 400-pound guy on a sofa in New Jersey? This is all on him, it's not on the Democrats, it's not on Hillary Clinton. This all emerged because Jeff Sessions recognized that he had a conflict, he stepped back from it, and we got the special counsel. And the country went through this nightmare solely because of Donald Trump.

LEMON: So, OK, and speaking of the country, what's interesting, the first thing when I read the report, I was actually in a diner.

(LAUGHTER)

HONIG: You spit your coffee out?

LEMON: No, no. I mean, that's pretty American, right? I was actually sitting in a diner eating a very late breakfast, having like steak and eggs. And I'm sitting there and I'm reading it, and I'm texting with my producer, and we're like, what is -- OK, so there's no collusion, but obstruction? But no -- but he's not completely exonerated? What does that mean? It's almost like when Hillary Clinton, when Comey came out and said, well, there's no -- we're not going to prosecute her, it's nothing illegal, but they acted recklessly. And you're like, what does that mean? What does it mean?

RODGERS: Well, it certainly means that no one's going to be charged with this. Not now and not ever. He's not going be charged --

LEMON: But it gives -- you know, so you're saying there's a chance? To Democrats, right? And then to Republicans, it's like, you know, well, we can't say completely that he's exonerated. We can say it but then we know we won't be -- they know they're not telling the truth. So then -- I feel like we're back to where we were before this.

RODGERS: Sort of. Right? I mean, criminal law has very high standards, right? You have to meet beyond a reasonable doubt to go to trial. And yes, you only need probable cause to indict, but we all know they're thinking about the higher standard --

LEMON: So didn't meet the legal bar on some --

RODGERS: Didn't meet the legal bar. That is not the same bar for Congress. Right? They get to choose themselves whether obstruction of justice constitutes --

HONIG: Yes, and I agree. And I wonder if there's some signaling here. But remember, beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest burden of proof known to our legal system, right. And you can get pretty darn sure without getting to beyond a reasonable doubt, and again that's an experience that every prosecutor has had. And I wonder if the maybe not so hidden message here is, Congress, your turn.

LEMON: OK. And then there's this from the president. The president couldn't help but attack the Mueller investigation even though he celebrated its findings. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: And hopefully somebody's going to look at the other side. This was an illegal takedown that failed. And hopefully somebody's going to be looking at the other side. So it's complete exoneration. No collusion. No obstruction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Elie, an illegal takedown that failed?

HONIG: Yes, that's a little frightening, that kind of language. And look, it's consistent with what we've seen from Donald Trump from day one here. Attack the Department of Justice. Attack the independents. But this idea that now that we've had an investigation that's not yielded criminal charges there needs to be retribution and the other side -- I don't even know who he means by the other side. Does he mean DOJ? Does he mean Hillary Clinton? Does he mean somebody else? It's so dangerous to DOJ's independence.

[23:40:02] It's also not good for Donald Trump. Wouldn't it have been much more effective if from day he said, I'm going to respect DOJ, I'm going to let them do their job, we'll see what they come up with, and that will be that. And then today happens, then he looks even better.

LEMON: Well, it's tough to do that, someone you've been saying, you know, this is all illegal takedown, Mueller's trying to get -- he can't praise the -- you know, Mueller and say good things about him after he has been demonizing --

HONIG: Right. That's what I'm saying, from day one.

LEMON: From day one.

HONIG: Yes.

LEMON: When you talk about illegal takedown, I said this earlier in the show. His appointment authorizes actions, Mueller's appointment authorizes an action, were upheld by seven federal court decisions. The rulings made by judges appointed by both political parties, and even one appointed by the president.

RODGERS: Yes, he's lost at every turn. I mean, there is no single victory he can point to when he talks about this being an illegal investigation, illegal takedown, or whatever. There's nothing there. But that has never stopped him before. Right? He's been saying no collusion, he's been saying witch hunt, he's been saying all of these things the entire time. And you know, he's not really tethered to the facts here.

LEMON: What does this say about the president even on a day that brings him some political victory? Right? What does that say about the president that he has to -- he insists on investigating his political opponents, investigating the investigators and his political opponents?

D'ANTONIO: Well., there are a couple of things to say about this. One is they had that whole plane ride from Florida to Washington and all they could come up with was that? He couldn't walk out and actually become the president of all the American people and say --

LEMON: Come on, Mike.

D'ANTONIO: -- thanks for the good work? Let's bring this country --

LEMON: He's going to gloat for another five years.

D'ANTONIO: He's going to gloat, but also the certain thing that has happened through all of this is that the stress has revealed Donald Trump's character. We may not all agree on the legal issues. We may not understand Barr's memo entirely until we see the Mueller report. But the stress of this, under stress, people's character emerges. And this stress has shown Donald Trump to be the person who he is. He's solely interested in himself. He lies reflexively. And he lied today when he said I've been fully exonerated. He has not been. But he's going back to who he is.

LEMON: This is why I said, it feels a lot like what we were before this even happened, before this reporting came out. The Mueller investigation is over. But then there are still so many other investigations left. There's the SDNY is looking into campaign finance crimes involving the Trump Organization, as well as looking into the Trump Inaugural Committee. And those investigations still pose serious legal trouble for this president.

RODGERS: Yes, they absolutely do. I mean, this was the biggest one. This was the thing that, if it were proven, this was the worst conduct that he's been accused of committing. Right? But that doesn't mean he's out of the woods. They're going to be digging into a lot of stuff including I think Trump Organization activities, including some things, you know, dealing with his kids. So it's certainly not over for him.

I think we have a long way to go. We even have a long way to go with the Mueller report itself because there are going to be a lot of details and facts in there that are really bad for him, even though the conclusions ultimately were not.

LEMON: I was saying -- they said the report is out, I'm like, oh, this is over. And then I read it, and I'm, oh, it's not over.

(LAUGHTER)

HONIG: It's not over.

LEMON: It's not over. Thank you, guys. I really appreciate it.

A Trump adviser telling CNN that there are concerns that the president could, quote, "overreach" and say something that could get him in trouble after the release of William Barr's letter. We're going to discuss what Robert Mueller's report means for the rest of the Trump presidency. That's next.

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[23:47:16] LEMON: The news that Robert Mueller's investigation found no evidence the Trump campaign conspired with Russia has the president claiming vindication even though on the subject of obstruction Mueller said, quote, "While this report does not conclude the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him."

Let's bring in Douglas Brinkley. Douglas is the author of the upcoming book, "American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race." And Timothy Naftali is the author of "Impeachment in American History."

Good evening, gentlemen. Thank you so much for joining us.

So, Doug, here we go. The cloud over Russia hung over the White House since the president took office. Has that cloud lifted tonight, do you think?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Boy, it's lifted considerably. I don't think it's time for Donald Trump to spike the football and declare grand victory quite yet. But this has to be the first time that he feels like he has a future that may not have dark clouds over it. It's been a rough two years for Donald Trump. The threat of Mueller

has been there. And now it's all basically lifted. Trump is able now to reset his agenda and put the Democrats on the defense. He's going to be blaming this as being a witch hunt and a hoax. He's going to beat up on the media more. And most importantly, Don, it allows him to consolidate the Republican Party.

There have been maybe eight, 10 major Republican leaders that have been starting to drift from some of Trump's agenda. Now it's clear that he is the maverick head of the GOP and won't probably have a serious challenger to get re-nominated in the 2020 campaign.

LEMON: So basically when it comes to this president's response, it's business as usual. Everything you were saying, he's already been doing.

Considering that, Tim, considering that Donald Trump is claiming this is full exoneration, do you think that he and Republicans, do you think they'll support the full release of Mueller's report?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, I don't see the interest that they have in a full release because we know that there are sections of the report, just from reading Barr's summary, that will be critical of the president's conduct. What we know is that Mueller's team, Mueller and his team, decided not to suggest an indictment of the president for obstruction of justice.

We know that they left that decision to Barr and the deputy attorney general, Rosenstein. So there must be something in the report about questionable conduct on the part of the president regarding the investigation.

LEMON: But, Douglas, you have said that this report gives Trump some inoculation for the next time there's a major charge against him. But say his administration has still been marked with significant scandal. Like what?

[23:50:03] BRINKLEY: Well, you know, right now -- I mean, nothing's changed. Donald Trump is a president that's just besieged by scandal all around him. Who knows what's going to happen next. But he's going to be able to say the next time Democrats charge him with something it's another Mueller. Another Russia gate.

It just allows him now to say that this has been a political take down attempt on him. And it's going to be a little harder for the public to kind of wave on the next criticism of Trump if it's not one that can be immediately provable. I think there's plenty of room now for Democrats to focus on beating up Trump on U.S.-Mexican border, on ignoring climate change. You know, on not really bringing back the jobs to the Midwest that he promised. To possibly wanting to do away with aspects of Medicaid and Medicare.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: But, Doug, as you say that, a number of his associates have already been indicted. It's not, I mean, a complete -- BRINKLEY: Yes.

LEMON: You think?

BRINKLEY: Yes, and so he's running-- I mean, you're still -- Democrats are going to still run against Donald Trump. He's scandal plagued. Not much has changed in that regard. But it's just going to be harder for stuff to stick to Trump after this. There's a Velcro effect. You know, it seemed to be a lot sticking to Trump and now suddenly he's escaped the noose yet again. He's a professional Houdini.

(LAUGHTER)

LEMON: That is interesting. So listen, Trump called the new probe today -- that investigators all for a new probe. One that investigates Mueller. The Mueller investigation. And here's what you tweeted. You said, "President goes to war against system that exonerates his campaign of collusion with Russia."

Do you think it would be a bit more prudent for President Trump to just move on?

NAFTALI: Hey, talk about prudence. Look, if President Trump knew that he was going to be exonerated for collusion, how does one explain his behavior with regard to the Mueller investigation? So of course it would be more prudent for him to say the system works. The institution works. But for some reason this president insists on never tacking and never shifting. He continues to attack Mueller even though Mueller today has said there is no reason to believe there was collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.

That's a psychological issue for the president. It's not a legal one anymore. But by the way, I want to make one point, it's very important. Mueller did establish that Russia did intervene and did try to big foot our 2016 election. And that means that we don't want that to happen in 2020. Let's not forget that the investigation found witches.

LEMON: Douglas, earlier today the president L.A. lamented that so many people being badly hurt by this. Do you think he'll use the report's findings as a valid way to pardon those people? Or to pardon some of them?

BRINKLEY: He very well might. You know, some of these -- you know, he's not going to do anything like that before 2020. But if he got reelected, he might try to paint a broad brush that this was all phony political take dawn and hence they became victims and give them a shorter prison term. But I'm just speculating on that.

The bottom line is, out of all of this the person that amazes me is Bob Mueller. I mean, we are in an age of celebrity where everything is known. Washington is filled with leaks. Mueller didn't have leaks. He's doing no TV shows, there's no press conference. He's kind of disappearing into the history pages leaving this report behind. And we'll have to see when we read it what's written between the lines.

The devil maybe in the details. There may be loose wires in the report that are going to cause trouble for Donald Trump down the line. But this is certainly the best day of the last 48 hours I think are the best time he's had in his presidency thus far.

LEMON: I'm wondering, he's inextricably I think, you can tell me what you think, Douglas, linked to Trump. When you think of Trump, are you going to think of Mueller? When you think of Mueller, you'll probably think of Trump.

BRINKLEY: Yes.

LEMON: But I don't think we'll hear from Mueller, you know, maybe he'll do some interviews but I doubt it. But if he is actually subpoenaed and asked to testify in front of Congress, then we'll actually hear what he thinks about the summary of this report from Rosenstein and specifically Barr.

BRINKLEY: Exactly. And we'll have to see if that moment happens or not. But Mueller is not going to be rushing to book out. He's not looking to give his autograph to people. He's not looking to be on Facebook. And for the Democrats who started this year with, you know, the collusion and impeachment, and Trump is about to go away, that's over now. I mean, for people like Tom Steyer, with the impeachment crusade. Now the balloon is losing its helium.

[23:55:02] The Democrats have to refashion themselves as representing, you know, the American people and jobs, about the economy, about rebuilding of America. But I think if it will be a mistake if all the Democrats do for the next three months is continue hitting the Russia bell. Because the country is kind of fatigued, exhausted after two years of this.

LEMON: Well, Tim, Douglas mentioned impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said long before the report's contents were known that she didn't support impeachment. And we -- you know, I've talked a lot in the past about the parallels, the differences between President Trump and President Nixon, and the question of impeachment. How do you see this?

NAFTALI: Well, I agree with Doug. I mean, I always felt it was going to be very hard. Depending on whatever Mueller found. For you to have a bipartisan consensus for impeachment. One of the things we learned from the Nixon era was that a successful impeachment, that means a process that people believe in, is only possible if you have a bipartisan consensus that it should go forward.

So that was going to be hard to happen anyway. And now I think it's virtually impossible because Republicans can point to the Mueller report and say look, there's no underlying crime here, which means there's no collusion. So why would you have an obstruction of justice if there was no crime to obstruct the investigation of?

Now I know you can have obstruction of justice when there isn't an underlying crime, but the politics are now so muddy and so helpful I think to the president's defenders that I can't see how impeachment could happen.

LEMON: Yes. The legal terms would be conspiracy or conspiring. Not necessarily collusion. That has just been something that has been sort of immediate and a term that the president has been using.

Thank you, gentlemen, I appreciate it.

I want to remind you that I will be hosting a town hall with Democratic presidential candidate and senator, Cory Booker. That's Wednesday night right here on CNN, 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

Our coverage continues.

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