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Trump Asserts Executive Privilege Over Unredacted Mueller Report

May 8, 2019
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NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump is asserting executive privilege to block the House Judiciary Committee from getting the full, unredacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller. This is the latest move in an escalating confrontation between congressional Democrats and the administration. NPR's political reporter Tim Mak is with me in studio.

Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: All right, so what is executive privilege? What does it mean exactly?

MAK: So executive privilege - it's a concept laid out more by the courts than by statutes of the law. It's this idea that the president has to be able to have candid conversations with his staff and other people in the executive branch, and that if you release those documents that memorialize those conversations, it could chill frank conversations that any president really does need to have, right? And so the courts, over time, they've peeled back little layers of what executive privilege involves - for example, executive privilege couldn't stop the Nixon tapes from being released during the Watergate scandal.

But it really does have to do with this idea of confidential communications between the president, his staff and other folks in the executive branch. And so what we're seeing now is trying to use that privilege to throw up a roadblock against the House Judiciary Committee trying to obtain the full, unredacted Mueller report.

KING: And this, we should note, is the first time that the president has exerted - asserted executive privilege. What do we make about the statements from the White House and the Justice Department about the president's decision?

MAK: You know, what's really interesting is that we've seen a steady deterioration in the relationship between the House Judiciary Committee and both the Department of Justice and the White House over the last few weeks. You know, the Judiciary Committee has really been interested in oversight both on the Mueller report and on other issues. They've been asking for documents over the last few months, ever since Democrats came to control the House of Representatives. But this is really the lowest point it has gotten so far.

Here's how we got here. The House Judiciary Committee asked last month for a copy of the unredacted and full Mueller report, without any of the information that had been hidden, and they wanted to review a copy of that, and they subpoenaed it. And what's happening now is, because they had not received what they believed to be a lawful - documents responsive to a lawful subpoena, they're holding the attorney general in contempt for not responding to what they say they need in order to do their oversight and legislative duties.

KING: In fact, we learned this news just as the House Judiciary Committee was convening to vote on whether to hold the AG in contempt of Congress for not handing over the full report. Here's a clip from committee chair Jerry Nadler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY NADLER: To those who consider the matter case-closed, in the words of some of our leaders, and who urge us to simply move on, I would say that to do so is to announce, loud and clear, that such a course of action has the effect of aiding and abetting in the administration's campaign of total blanket and unprecedented obstruction.

KING: Tim, were the committee Democrats prepared for this move?

MAK: Well, they were negotiating with the Justice Department until late last evening and perhaps even early this morning. But what ultimately happened is a letter was sent from the assistant attorney general to the chairman of the committee, Jerry Nadler, saying, this morning, the president has asserted executive privilege. And it doesn't prevent the Judiciary Committee from taking further action, doesn't take - prevent the committee from considering a contempt resolution, as they're doing. But what it does is it creates a roadblock and may prevent - may present legal challenges down the line.

KING: All right, I want to hear from another voice on the committee. Congressman Doug Collins is the top Republican. He weighed in this morning. Here's part of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG COLLINS: Despite the attorney general's good faith offer, Mr. Chairman, it did not have to be this way. We could have postponed today's vote and accepted the attorney general's offer. Instead, by not honoring the Constitution's charge to seek accommodations when possible, the prestige of this committee has been diminished. As a result, that should concern us all.

KING: Do you think Republicans are unified in backing the White House on this move?

MAK: It really does seem that Republicans are rallying behind this cause. I think their argument has been, look - the economy is doing great. We've got all these other issues that we need to deal with, like Chinese intellectual property theft, real problems that they want to work - they say they want to work with Democrats on. And their essential argument is, why are we fighting on little bits of redactions in the Mueller report? Remember, the redactions are about 8% of the full Mueller report. Why are we fighting about this when there are so many other things that the Judiciary Committee could be working on at this moment?

KING: NPR political reporter Tim Mak.

Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.