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Week In Politics: Robert Mueller Hearing And Growing Concerns Over Russian Meddling


Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, spent six hours on Capitol Hill this week. Analysts and pundits did what they do, kind of predictably. And now three days later, despite shouting from both sides - on air, of course, we just speak in a tone of quiet contemplation - our own Ron Elving, senior Washington editor and correspondent, joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And before we speak of Mr. Mueller's appearance, let's note the Supreme Court handed President Trump at least a temporary victory last night.

ELVING: Yes. The court said the administration could begin using military funds to build certain portions of the president's wall on what are said to be drug-smuggling corridors on the Mexican border. Now, we should note that it was one of those 5-4 decisions and also one of those decisions based not on an issue but on the standing of the parties to bring the issue to court. The court did not address the underlying issue of the president's power to shift money in the budget for a purpose Congress has expressly refused to fund.

Now, there are still live lawsuits challenging the president's right to do this, arguing he's in defiance of the congressional spending authority. Those challenges will proceed. This decision was about what may go on in the meantime while those challenges proceed.

SIMON: All right. Robert Mueller. I am not going to use the word optics even once. What did Robert Mueller say that we should keep in mind today?

ELVING: He said Russia's interference in 2016 in our election was a systematic and widespread effort to disrupt and discredit American democracy. And he said the Russians are at it again, quote, "as we sit here," unquote. He said some people in the president's campaign had welcomed Russian help, and he detailed a number of ways that the president hindered, resisted and tried to undermine or delegitimize the Mueller investigation over the last two years. And he said that his report had not exonerated the president, despite what the president has said many times, and that he had been restrained from deciding whether to indict the president for a crime by a Justice Department policy that says you can't indict a sitting president.

SIMON: And yesterday a group of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee announced, quote, "we are in an impeachment investigation." Are those the right words for what's going on now? Is there growing support for actual impeachment in the House?

ELVING: There is growing support. Yesterday a handful of new commitments came in, bringing the total to just over a hundred, around a hundred. That's still less, though, than half of the entire Democratic caucus. Most of the Democratic caucus is still hesitant to go there, and they know that Republicans are not going to supply any votes in the House and that they won't convict the president in the Senate. So impeaching him in the House would be the end of it. And moreover, they know that the public is not really behind impeachment at this point.

So the Judiciary Committee and others are going forward with what might be called a pre-impeachment investigation. They have subpoenas out for the underlying evidence gathered by Mueller and for other people and other documents and records, and they want to continue to build a case that could become a formal impeachment proceeding.

SIMON: And impeachment will surely be posed at the Democratic presidential debates Tuesday and Wednesday. What else are you watching for?

ELVING: Health care. Of course, they're going to talk about different plans for expanding health care coverage and dealing with the costs. They're going to talk about criminal justice and the racial implications of past efforts to fight crime. And that issue's going to arise especially as people attack Joe Biden essentially for having been a moderate or centrist Democrat for much of his career.

SIMON: Speaking of real issues, the GDP grew at a slower rate this quarter. There is some expectation the Fed may cut rates. The economy, according to polls, course, has been President Trump's strongest issue. Will that hold if it softens? Will it make him more vulnerable to criticism from all quarters?

ELVING: We've learned now that growth was down to 2.1% in the second three months of this year. That's much slower than it had been. And we learned that growth was also weaker than previously thought in the last quarter of last year, meaning that growth for all of last year, the second year of the Trump presidency, after the tax cuts, was weaker than previously reported, About on a par with the later years of President Obama. So this will add pressure on the Federal Reserve. But whether the Fed cuts or not, we are approaching the end of a decade of economic expansion, and that winds up being, very possibly, the most important context for the election next year.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.