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As WH Legal Team Undergoes Changes, Trump Intensifies His Attacks On Justice Department


I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Baltimore, where I'm giving a talk later and happy to be hosting the show today from our member station WYPR. Thanks to everybody here for the warm welcome. To today's news now, and word of another shake-up in the White House legal team.


Ty Cobb, who's been helping the president respond to the Russia investigation, will retire by the end of the month. The news comes as President Trump intensifies his attacks on the Justice Department. Here in the studio to talk more is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hey there, Carrie.


CORNISH: So a significant tweet from President Trump today that was actually aimed at his Justice Department. What's the latest?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The president tweeted this morning about what he called a rigged system. He had some complaints about the Justice Department's apparent failure, in his view, to turn over information to Republicans in Congress. And Trump concluded, at some point, I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the presidency and get involved.

What, get involved, means, no one knows. It might be aimed at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who, of course, is in charge of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors, either trying to get rid of Rosenstein or limit the investigation in some way.

CORNISH: And we rarely hear from Rosenstein, but yesterday, in rare public remarks, he said the Justice Department would not be extorted. And he was talking about demands from Republicans in the Congress. I understand they've actually responded as well.

JOHNSON: Yeah. We have some more information today about this back-and-forth. The House Freedom Caucus, a faction of conservative Republicans, has been demanding information from the Justice Department about ongoing investigations, including this Russia probe. They apparently wanted to see an unredacted version of what Robert Mueller and his team are investigating. Rod Rosenstein and DOJ said, no.

And Mark Meadows, one of the leading voices in the Freedom Caucus, says if Rod Rosenstein views that back-and-forth as extortion, maybe it's time to find a new deputy attorney general. That's a big threat from a lawmaker who's demanding secret information about the heartland of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, perhaps to help the president, Donald Trump.

Now Democrats on Capitol Hill say this could be sabotage to give Trump an excuse to fire Rosenstein and rein in this Russia probe.

CORNISH: To talk more about the investigation itself, there's a possibility that the special counsel might issue a subpoena for testimony from the president of the United States - from a sitting president.

JOHNSON: Yeah. A big deal, but that's always been on the table, and it could bring on a legal fight that would take a while. Most experts think after balancing the president's power and executive privilege against the investigators' need to know that the investigators would win that fight. There's a case from the Nixon era about this that involves documents and tapes - not testimony.

Remember though, criminal defense lawyers say President Trump, if he gets a subpoena, can always exercise his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That might be a little embarrassing since Trump has said in the past people who do that look guilty, even if they aren't.

CORNISH: And now about some of the news we mentioned at the top. One of the voices inside the White House who's been advising the president to cooperate with Mueller's on the way out.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Ty Cobb, one of the people who's been trying to ease the path for this special counsel probe, is now retiring at the end of the month. Meanwhile, another well-known Washington lawyer Emmet Flood is joining the White House. Emmet Flood defended President Bill Clinton during his impeachment, and he also advised the George W. Bush White House on how to deal with special counsels there.

Remember, just a couple of months ago, President Trump said he was really happy with his lawyers Ty Cobb, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow. Now only one of those lawyers has a job.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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