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Former U.S. Attorney Weighs In On Where The Mueller Investigation Stands

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's take a closer look now at where the Mueller investigation stands. We're joined by former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. She's now a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Welcome.

BARBARA MCQUADE: Thanks very much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that tape from the Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker yesterday where he described the state of the Mueller probe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT WHITAKER: The investigation is I think close to being completed and I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller soon as we - as possible.

SHAPIRO: Is it safe to say that Whitaker knows how close Mueller is to being done with his work?

MCQUADE: I think he likely does know how close Mueller is to being done with his work. You know, unlike Jeff Sessions, he's not recused, even if he has Rod Rosenstein or others handling more of the day to day oversight. No doubt he has been briefed. He said he was and knows what's happening.

SHAPIRO: Rod Rosenstein is the deputy attorney general who had been serving as acting attorney general overseeing the Mueller investigation. And how do you interpret those words close to being completed?

MCQUADE: Well, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. You know, you hear him hesitate a little bit. He clearly wasn't ready for the question. So I don't know that it was planned. And he hedges a little bit. But it does sound like Robert Mueller is in the closing phases at least of this case. You know, there a number of loose ends. They just did these search warrants at Roger Stone's residences. There is this sealed matter involving a company owned by a foreign nation.

The sentencing of Richard Gates has been extended until March. So there's some loose ends up there that would cause one to think that he's not really ready to be done. But I suppose it is possible that Robert Mueller could write a report about the core aspect of his investigation - that is links between Russia and the Trump campaign - and then have other prosecutors finish up these loose ends. That may be a way to square those two somewhat incompatible theories.

SHAPIRO: The list of people charged so far in this investigation includes a lot of former top aides to President Trump - a former campaign manager, national security adviser, a personal lawyer and fixer. Do you think this list will grow before the investigation is over?

MCQUADE: I don't know but I'm sure there's some other people who are still under scrutiny. For example I have to believe that Robert Mueller is looking at the transcripts from the testimony of a number of people who testified before Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project now that Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying about the timing of those negotiations. They would only have asked him to plead guilty to that crime when he was already facing eight other felonies that carried with them substantial prison time if they thought they needed it to lay the groundwork for him to testify about those matters later.

And so I think it is quite possible, if not likely, that additional people could be charged with that. You know, people in the Trump organization like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Junior were certainly people who have testified in Mueller's sentencing memorandum. He did talk about one of the areas where Michael Cohen was particularly useful was providing information about circulating his testimony with others before testifying before Congress. And so I think there's some hints there that that's an area that they're very closely looking at.

SHAPIRO: Does it make sense to you that a prosecutor would wait until the final stages of an investigation to charge the people who are most close to this president?

MCQUADE: I do. It actually makes a lot of sense that you sort of work your way up, that you talk to all of the peripheral players first and the more egregious offenders last so that you have all the information to try to determine what that person's culpability was.

SHAPIRO: Among the various crimes related to Russia, nobody yet has been specifically charged with conspiracy to influence the election. Do you think prosecutors are holding their ammunition there or do you think we have seen most of the picture at this point?

MCQUADE: Well, again, hard to say but I do think that they have laid the groundwork if they can find the evidence for bringing those charges. There's a charge, an indictment against the 12 Russian intelligence officers, for hacking. And that indictment I think you could expand that conspiracy. It was a conspiracy to defraud the United States by interfering with the fair administration of elections.

And what was really interesting about the way that's defined is it is not limited solely to stealing and hacking emails. It also includes the dissemination of those emails as part of that conspiracy. And so I can imagine if you had some American or other person who was involved in providing advice as to the content or the timing or coordinating the messaging about those things then those people could be added in a superseding indictment under the very same theory.

SHAPIRO: That is Barbara McQuade, who was a U.S. attorney in Michigan under the Obama administration. Thank you so much.

MCQUADE: Thanks very much, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.