McConnell Says He Supports Mueller Investigation

May 25, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 8:09 pm

Updated at 6:31 p.m. ET

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told NPR in an interview that he continues to support the Mueller Russia investigation — and that nothing in Thursday's hotly anticipated secret briefing on the Russia probe to congressional leaders changed his mind.

"The two investigations going on that I think will give us the answers to the questions that you raise — the [inspector general] investigation in the Justice Department and the Mueller investigation," McConnell said. "I support both of them, and I don't really have anything to add to this subject based upon the Gang of Eight briefing that we had today, which was classified."

McConnell spoke with NPR immediately following a classified intelligence briefing from law enforcement and intelligence officials. The Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group of the four top congressional leaders and the four bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees — met with representatives from the Department of Justice and the FBI to discuss materials regarding a confidential FBI source who met with Trump campaign officials.

McConnell has remained the most prominent congressional Republican to defend Mueller and his investigation amid a concerted effort by Trump and conservative supporters to discredit that investigation.

The president has accused the investigation of being a partisan "witch hunt" and the investigators of being "conflicted." There is a hashtag devoted to what the president and his allies are calling "SPYGATE" that the president himself is using. Trump boasted that it "could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!"

The briefing and the intense conservative scrutiny of the FBI comes as lawmakers are leaving Washington for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. Members up for re-election typically use the break to campaign on the legislative successes of the first half of the year. But the Russia investigation threatens to overshadow many of those victories.

McConnell touted those successes amid fears that Republicans are at risk of losing their majorities in the House and the Senate. And he would like Trump's help selling that to voters.

"If you are a right-of-center person, there hasn't been a better period than this in at least three decades," McConnell said. "Obviously we'd like to see him talking about what we're sitting here talking about more of the time. And I think many of us have urged him to do that and we hope he will."

Also in the NPR interview, McConnell expressed confidence in Trump's decision to cancel the North Korea summit.

"I think the president did exactly the right thing," McConnell said, "because they were playing with us."

He called it a "pattern of that over the last couple of decades."

On immigration, McConnell made clear he will not push for immigration legislation. He put the ball in the House's court instead, saying, "If the House passes a bill that the president would sign, I'd be open to it."

But, he added, he is not going to allow for another open amendment process that produced no discernible results on immigration, like he did in February.

"I'm not going to do that again, I can tell you that," McConnell said.

McConnell noted that filling out federal judicial appointments is his top priority and that if a Supreme Court vacancy came up this year, he would act — despite this being an election year.

In 2016, McConnell took a very different position, refusing to bring Judge Merrick Garland's appointment to the Senate floor or even give him a hearing. He said that the new president should decide who is on the Supreme Court.

When asked if someone could argue that he should wait to make an appointment so whoever controls the Senate can make the decision — setting hearings, vetting nominees, laying out timetables — he said that would be a "foolish argument."

He did not see irony in his stance given his position on Garland because Justice Antonin Scalia died in a presidential election year.

"The presidential election is in 2020," McConnell said. "If we get a vacancy on the court this year, we'll deal with it."

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Today began with the news that President Trump was canceling his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. A couple of hours later, congressional leaders sat down with senior intelligence and Justice Department officials for classified briefings. The White House set up these meetings so lawmakers could see documents related to a confidential FBI source who met with Trump campaign officials early on in the Russia investigation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was in that briefing. And as soon as he left, McConnell sat down with NPR's congressional team, Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell, for an interview. Here's some of what McConnell had to say.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, thank you for sitting down with us today.


DAVIS: First, obviously, we want to start with the meeting you just had with Justice Department officials and whether anything you learned today at the briefing has led you to question your stated existing confidence in both the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

MCCONNELL: Well, as you know before I tell you, it was a classified briefing, and consequently I don't really have any observations to make about it.

DAVIS: So there's nothing coming out of that that has changed your past statements?

MCCONNELL: I don't have anything new to say on that subject.

DAVIS: On North Korea, the other news of the day, does the administration's sort of whiplash decision-making when it comes to North Korea do you think in any way undermines the U.S.'s ability to negotiate a longer-term peace deal to denuclearize Korea?

MCCONNELL: I don't see any whiplash here. I think the president did exactly the right thing because they were playing with us. And there's been a pattern of that going back a couple of generations. So the president did exactly the right thing in canceling the meeting.

DAVIS: What happens next?

MCCONNELL: That will be up to the North Koreans.

DAVIS: You don't see any role for Congress here?

MCCONNELL: No, I don't. This is all a negotiation handled by the executive branch. I think the administration's handling it positively. And, you know, we've seen this North Korean act, as I said, through two generations. And I think the president's right. The ball is in the North Koreans' court, and we'll see what happens next.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: To move things back to this building here in Congress, the House is going to try again - or if they are going to try again to pass an immigration bill in June and they can pass something, would that revive your interest in doing something in immigration here in the Senate?

MCCONNELL: Well, as you may recall, we went to the floor for a whole week, wide open for amendments, back in February and were unable to pass anything here in the Senate. If the House were able to pass an immigration bill that the president indicated he would sign and we would actually potentially make a law, I'd be open to considering it. But I'm not interested in just having another wide-open debate that leads to nothing. So we'll have to wait and see what the House does.

SNELL: That's a fairly high bar. The president has spoken about this several times saying that he needs money for the wall, that he needs certain border security measures and a number of things that likely couldn't pass here in the Senate with Democrat support. Is that - I mean, are you effectively ruling out the possibility of doing a bipartisan immigration bill?

MCCONNELL: I'm not ruling anything in or out. I'm telling you that if the House passes a bill that the president indicates he would sign, then I'd be willing to consider it again even though I gave the Senate every opportunity without any restrictions, wide open for amendment, and we couldn't pass anything. So I'm not going to do that again. I can tell you that.

DAVIS: I have to make one more attempt at this because I just have to. I know that you can't talk about classified information or briefings, and I'm not asking you to. But there is a real question about, can the public continue to have faith that the Justice Department is acting honorably and within the law, particularly when people including the president of the United States is suggesting that there is real malfeasance here inside the FBI?

MCCONNELL: The two investigations going on that I think will give us the answers to the questions that you raised - the IG investigation in the Justice Department and the Mueller investigation - I support both of them. And I don't really have anything to add to this subject based upon the Gang of Eight briefing that we had today, which was classified.

SNELL: Thank you, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Thank you for your time.

MCCONNELL: OK, thank you.

SHAPIRO: That was Senator Mitch McConnell speaking with NPR's Susan Davis and Kelsey Snell. And Kelsey's with us now from the Capitol. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: How important is it that McConnell told you he supports both the Mueller investigation and the inspector general?

SNELL: That is pretty important. And we should be clear that McConnell really has never shared the skepticism of some conservatives about these investigations. And that sometimes leaves him in an uncomfortably lonely place on this. He is the most prominent Republican in Congress supporting Mueller at a time when conservatives are making aggressive efforts to undermine the FBI, Mueller and the DOJ. And that is a really politically risky place sometimes because Trump's very engaged and fervent base is at odds with McConnell on this position.

And McConnell needs those people to show up and vote in the midterm elections because something else we talked about later in the interview is that McConnell's trying to keep control of the Senate for Republicans. And he needs those voters, those Trump voters, to come and help that happen.

SHAPIRO: I know you sat down with Senator McConnell for about 15 minutes. We heard a few minutes of it there. What else did you discuss?

SNELL: Well, we talked about a wide-ranging thing because this is kind of a common thing that McConnell does. He does these interviews at the end of the spring term when he's heading out into summer to talk about his big victories. And it's clear that he has had a lot of victories here. They have approved a lot of judges, a lot of conservative judges. The president is signing bills that they are passing on deregulation and veterans. But a lot of those are, you know, significant, real victories for conservatives but things that keep getting overshadowed by Russia and the Russian investigation. And that is clearly frustrating for McConnell. You could hear it in that interview there.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. He also discussed immigration, as we heard, which has come up as something that maybe Congress could take up again before November. But he set a pretty high bar there. Do you think that makes it less likely that Congress would vote on immigration this summer?

SNELL: To kind of remind people about where we are right now, the House is in a bind. There are conservatives who want a conservative bill to be voted on, and there are moderates who are circulating a petition that would force votes on some more, you know, bipartisan solutions. Now, they haven't gotten to that point yet. But if something were to pass the House that is more bipartisan, what McConnell is essentially saying there is that it couldn't pass in the Senate, and he wouldn't bring it up because he wants the president's support. And the president isn't going to support the kind of bipartisan bill that would, you know, give protections to DACA recipients without funding the wall. It's a complicated situation where this is as close as we're going to get to a flat no from McConnell on immigration.

SHAPIRO: So here we are in a midterm year, and there's been a lot of analysis from people about whether Republicans can hold onto their Senate majority. Did you get a sense that McConnell expects to be the majority leader in the next Congress?

SNELL: McConnell said - and he has said this a lot before - that he is - he fears that the Senate might be in play. But he said that they're going to go out there, and they're going to do a lot of campaigning. And they're hoping that the president will help them with that. That's something that we talked about a lot, is that his hope is that the president will do more to help campaign and promote those victories we talked about earlier.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Kelsey Snell speaking about her sit-down with NPR's Susan Davis interviewing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Thanks so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.