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David: The impeachment of Donald Trump was just six months ago, not six years, not six decades. Pretty much the only thing that might have made us forget the Mueller investigation and the drama of impeachment was the worst global pandemic in a century. It hit us just weeks after the Senate voted to acquit and the nation just moved on to other crises.
Jeffrey Toobin asked us to pause and consider the details and the outrages of that prolonged period in his new book True Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's a thorough account of this astonishing piece of political history. Jeff Toobin is a longtime staff writer and a legal analyst for CNN and relevant to the matter at hand, before his career in journalism, Toobin was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. Jeffrey, you start your book with a scene, the first and only meeting that we know of between Donald Trump and Robert Mueller. Why start there and what was it like?
Jeffrey Toobin: Well, I found that face-off irresistible both journalistically and substantively. May 16, 2017, the week after James Comey was fired by the president as FBI director. As with so much, this meeting became a subject of controversy. Donald Trump has repeatedly said that Mueller came to the White House to lobby to become the FBI Director again, to beg for his job back as Trump tweeted. That, of course, is a total, total lie. That to me is a good metaphor for the nature of the difference between Mueller and Trump.
David: What was Mueller actually there for?
Jeffrey: Mueller was there because Rod Rosenstein, who was the deputy attorney general, had sought him out for advice on who the next FBI Director should be and what qualities the president should be looking for. Mueller could not even have served as FBI Director even if he wanted to because there is a federal law that limits the tenure of FBI directors. He got an extension for two years, but that had expired. The notion that Mueller wanted or even could get his job back was preposterous, but that never stopped Trump from making this claim. Mueller was there bewildered by the encounter because Trump didn't even really seem to know why he was there.
As is the case with most meetings with Donald Trump, as I have heard, as many of us have heard, Trump did almost all the talking. He talked about his victory over Hillary Clinton and how popular he was. Mueller said very little. He did say, "I think you should pick someone from outside the bureau." That was the one piece of advice he should get. He should pick an outsider. I thought this confrontation in the Oval Office was a revealing window into the characters of the two people who would wind up as the protagonists of my book.
David: What's so amazing about the book's portrayal of Mueller and his team is that if you think back a couple of years ago and if you were to watch MSNBC or something, or even CNN, you would watch this incredible valorization of Robert Mueller, American action hero, a political truth-teller, nothing-but-the-facts man. He was going to be the savior. When you look at the reality of it, the failure, the coming up short, and quite frankly, at the end Mueller's completely unimpressive public face, it's really astonishing.
Jeffrey: There is an Emperor's New Clothes quality to it. I think people got Mueller wrong from the beginning though. I think the MSNBC people, the people with the Mueller time t-shirts, the people with the Robert Mueller action figures, they--
David: You're not going to include CNN on that?
Jeffrey: Well, certainly CNN had a diverse cast and there were certainly people on CNN who thought Mueller was going to be the avenging angel of truth and justice. Mueller saw himself and I think many prosecutors see themselves and I think this is something that people outside the legal system don't really get is that many prosecutors see themselves with very limited missions. Identify specific criminal acts, prosecute them, but if you don't do that shut up and go home. I don't want to overstate how familiar I am with Mueller's thinking, but I think every time, the media created him as someone who was going to bring down the president. That made him cling even more closely to his narrow mandate of identifying crimes but that's it.
David: Now, what did Mueller actually find? What were his concrete findings that in your view, and you make this very plain in the book, you think were incredibly damning?
Jeffrey: Let me go straight to the most important, which is Trump committed repeated acts of criminal obstruction of justice. The crimes that got Richard Nixon forced from office in light of certain impeachment and conviction. The crimes that got Bill Clinton impeached were less obvious, less dramatic, and less provable than the ones that are right there in the Mueller Report. His repeated attempts to get his White House counsel to fire Mueller. His attempts to get the White House counsel to lie about his interactions. His attempts to get James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. Those acts are classic obstruction of justice and A, Mueller should have said so, and B, Congress should have acted on them.
David: Yet he was accused of not drawing enough of a bright-line under these accusations and findings in the Report as he could have. Do you agree with that?
Jeffrey: Yes, I totally agree with that.
David: What could he have done otherwise?
Jeffrey: Basically, what Mueller said was, "In light of the justice department policy that says you can't indict a sitting president," a policy I happen to agree with, "I am not going to reach a firm conclusion about whether Trump committed a crime because Trump would not have the opportunity to reply in a courtroom." I think that was a completely bogus gift to Donald Trump because it gave him two benefits, A, he can't be indicted and B, you can't say whether he should be indicted. I thought it was a dereliction of duty, especially given the strength of the evidence against Trump. It allowed Bill Barr to gloss over and mislead the public about what Mueller really found.
David: In the aftermath of the Report, time and time again, Donald Trump would go to the microphones to say it was a hoax, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. Did Donald Trump, in fact, collude with Russia to win the 2016 election, or is he right?
Jeffrey: I have to say, I think he's more right than wrong about that. The argument that Donald Trump made a knowing agreement with Vladimir Putin I think is false. It just didn't happen. Now, what makes the story, frankly, more complicated, and more interesting is that Trump wanted to collude. He was happy that Putin was assisting. One of the things I lay out in the book, which I think people don't realize is just how extensive the Russian effort was, whether it was the social media campaign run out at the internet research agency in St. Petersburg or the hacking that went on through Russian military intelligence. There was this enormous effort on the part of Russia.
You had things like the meeting in Trump Tower in June of 2016 with a Russian lawyer hoping to get information. That meeting does not lead to anything further, but the idea that there might have been more extensive collusion than that was certainly plausible and certainly worthy of investigation and revealed unsavory behavior on the part of the president and his team, but there was no meeting of the minds. Collusion, if you're going to be fair, implies some sort of agreement and there was no agreement as far as I was aware.
David: Jeffrey, the Mueller Report dropped in April of 2019, and just a few months later, we were launched into yet another presidential scandal. One that eventually led to Trump's actual impeachment. Did Trump collude with Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election?
Jeffrey: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the pleasures of writing this book was to show how this was not two scandals, it was one scandal. It was not just an overlapping cast of characters. It was an overlapping MO collusion and obstruction, except this time there was collusion. The difference between Donald Trump in 2016 and Donald Trump in 2019 was that he was president of the United States and he had the power to collude. He had the power to lean on a foreign country to get him help.
David: What, if any, crimes did Donald Trump commit when it comes to Ukraine?
Jeffrey: I think he didn't commit a criminal offense. What he did commit was an impeachable offense. If you look at the history of impeachment, what the framers were most concerned about was not whether a president violated some specific federal statute, and largely because there were none at the time. What they cared about was abuse of power. That was the core issue that Hamilton, Madison, Jay, the Federalist Papers were all talking about.
If you look at what Trump did with regard to Ukraine, he took what is perhaps the most important power that a president has, which is the conduct of foreign policy. He put it to use entirely for the benefit of his re-election campaign. That, to me, was the definition of an impeachable offense.
David: Do you think that the Mueller Report or impeachment will have any effect whatsoever on the 2020 election?
Jeffrey: [chuckles] It's disappearing awful quickly, don't you think?
David: Yes. Let's be frank, Jeff, you've worked your head off on this book about a long investigation and series of events of enormous historical importance, and yet we can barely remember it through the haze of what we've been through in these last several months.
Jeffrey: I tell you, David. Occasionally, I have to pinch myself and say, "You know when Donald Trump was acquitted in the Senate?" In February. It's now August. It's not exactly like the War of the Roses. This is months ago. I follow the news. I participate in making the news. It strikes me that one thing you never hear from Joe Biden is, "Oh, by the way, the other guy, he was actually impeached." That's usually considered a big deal.
David: Why is this? Why isn't this more of an issue?
Jeffrey: I think one of the successes that Trump had and his lawyers had was turning this scandal, in particular, into just another thing Democrats and Republicans fight about. Just this entirely partisan affair. That it had no moral or legal content separate from everyday politics.
David: Jeffrey, what lasting meaning will the Mueller Report and the impeachment drama mean for future presidents?
Jeffrey: I think it really depends on the results of the election in November. If Donald Trump gets reelected, it means that the use of political power for entirely personal and political gain will be ratified and will be sanctioned and will be repeated. If he loses, I think it will mean that Trump's corruption and personal immorality and amorality were simply too much for this country. That's what's really on the ballot in November. I think the verdict here will not be rendered by me. It's wasn't rendered by the Senate and the House. The verdict will be rendered by the voters.
David: Jeffrey Toobin. Thank you so much. Jeffrey Toobin's new book is True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The investigation of Donald Trump. You can find all of Jeff's writings The New Yorker at newyorker.com.