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Former AG Alberto Gonzales On Summarized Mueller Report


This is Special Coverage of the Mueller report from NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Martin.

Attorney General William Barr has delivered his conclusions to Congress. In a letter, he lays out the main findings from the special counsel's investigation. Here in the studio with us, Phil Ewing, our national security editor. Carrie Johnson is with us, our national justice correspondent, and joining us now, Alberto Gonzales. We've called him to help us understand the legal issues mentioned in Attorney General William Barr's letter.

Alberto Gonzales served as attorney general under George W. Bush. And he's with us now from Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Attorney General, thank you so much for joining us once again.

ALBERTO GONZALES: Glad to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Any initial reactions to the summary?

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GONZALES: It's pretty conclusive, I'd say, in terms of good news for the White House, for the president, for The Trump Organization. So, you know, I'm sure that Giuliani and Sekulow and the president's lawyers are very, very pleased with what's come out today, you know? The fact that - the only negative thing I would say - that one could say is, you know, the president has been somewhat equivocal about whether or not Russia interfered, you know? Mueller concludes that they did interfere. So if the president's going to accept the rest of the conclusions from the Mueller report, I think that's something he's got to accept as well.

And, obviously, no collusion, no coordination with the Trump campaign. And as for the obstruction, you know, it's a pretty big issue. And for - the special counsel made the decision not to make a call on that. One could say that, perhaps, he felt it was too big, maybe not sure. It would not be unusual in a very high-profile case for main Justice to overrule a lower-level prosecutor in terms of this kind of call. And I've been very consistent in supporting the department, generally, with respect to this investigation. I've got a great deal of faith in Mueller. I've got faith in Rosenstein. I've got faith in Will Barr.

And, you know, I know the Democrats are probably unhappy, but I'd certainly take Will Barr's judgment, Rod Rosenstein's judgment on prosecutions over those people in Congress, many of those people in Congress. I mean, Barr and Rosenstein did their job as prosecutors. That's what we expect them to do. And, you know, I - we'll just have to wait to see what happens now, with respect to the Congress.

MARTIN: Let me clarify the point that you just made for people who may not have read the letter yet or aren't familiar with exactly what you're talking about. The letter states that the special counsel's decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the attorney general to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime. Could you just amplify for us why you think Robert Mueller left this to the attorney general?

GONZALES: Well, it really may have been a tough call. Quite frankly, it's a tough standard to meet, corrupt intent. The fact that you've got - I mean, the charge would've been that you obstructed possible wrongdoing and the - there was no underlying crime here. And that was a point that I heard Rudy Giuliani make, forcefully, on some other media outlet. But, you know, I just think that this is something that Bob, for whatever reason, made the decision. And we may find out why. I made the decision not to make a call here. And I think it would've been perfectly - it would be perfectly appropriate to leave that up to the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, particularly, on a issue this important.

Both Barr and Rosenstein are going to have access to information that the special counsel may not have, that may have an effect on the ultimate conclusion here. And, you know, this is a job - particularly, when it involves the president of the United States, this is a call that should rightly be made by the attorney general or the - and/or the deputy attorney general in my judgment.

MARTIN: Could you just give us some further sense of why you say that is? And I do want to note here that the attorney general, in his letter, says that the 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. And, notably, he says that 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.

And I take from that to mean that he felt that they would come to the same conclusion apart from the fact that many people have debated whether a sitting president can be prosecuted or not. And the conclusion of most people at Main Justice seems to be that he cannot be. And they're saying that that's a separate issue not relevant here. But could you just tell us why you think, again, it's appropriate for this decision to be left to the attorney general? Because, as you can imagine, the reaction from a number of other people is that it shouldn't be.

GONZALES: Well, one of the main reasons, of course, is that Bob Mueller chose not to make that call, apparently. Again, I'm assuming he wasn't instructed not to make that call, but it appears to me that based on the evidence, he wasn't sure and therefore was going to leave it up to the attorney general and the deputy attorney general.

So if he's not able to make that call, then, obviously, someone has to make that call. And there's only two people left, and that's the attorney general and the deputy attorney general. And so - and, at the end of the day, you know, there's no one else above them unless you go to the president. And so, you know, it fell to the attorney general to make the call, and he made the call.

MARTIN: Carrie Johnson has a question for you, Mr. Attorney General.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yeah. I just wonder, General Gonzales, whether you think that perhaps Mueller may have left this call to Congress, and the DOJ leadership, instead, decided to weigh in and shut the door before it got to lawmakers on Capitol Hill?

GONZALES: Again, knowing Bob Mueller, I think he would've been quite comfortable in sort of the chain of command and knowing that, at the end of the day, it's the attorney general within the executive branch who makes the final call with respect to prosecutions. I don't think this - because the standards are different.

Congress will not be looking with respect to prosecution of a crime. What Congress is going to be looking at is whether or not this is an impeachable offense. And so I think for Bob Mueller, my own sense is that what he's thinking about is whether or not - has a crime been committed here that can be prosecuted? And so I don't think this is a situation where he was thinking, I'm going to leave this for Congress to decide.

MARTIN: Very briefly, General Gonzales - Dean Gonzales, as well, because you're dean of the law school at Belmont University. The president says he's been exonerated. Has he been, in your view?

GONZALES: I think with respect to the collusion and cooperation, he certainly has. And, you know, whether you call it exonerate or what, I mean, I think the main objective here is that he's not to be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. So, you know, I think we're, you know, trying to make a point of whether - what words to use here. He's very happy with the outcome, and I think he should be happy with the outcome. I would be happy with this outcome if I were in his shoes.

So, yes, I think, you know, getting in the semantics of, well, is this - you know, has he been exonerated? Look, he's not going to be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. That's - you know, that's the most important thing.

MARTIN: And, finally...

GONZALES: As far as he's concerned, I'm sure...

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, how - what's your view of how Attorney General Barr has handled this so far?

GONZALES: I think that I admire him. I admire the fact that he got it out so quickly. Obviously, this is a matter of great importance, and he was able to act quickly. I think he was probably helped by a very, very complete report. I think it was - the reason he was able to move so quickly is because of him having total confidence in Bob Mueller and the work of his team. And I think, you know, Mueller made it easy for him to reach this conclusion and to move forward.

MARTIN: That's the former attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. He served under President George W. Bush. He's now dean of the law school at Belmont University. Dean Gonzales, former attorney general, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

GONZALES: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.