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Barbershop: Republicans On The Mueller Report


And finally, today, we're going to take today's lead story about Robert Mueller's report into the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Now, we don't know what is in the Mueller report, but we do know it is finished. And that represents in itself an inflection point of sorts because it's been a long two years. So we wanted to take a moment to think about that as well as to consider as best we can how this news might be playing to people outside of Washington, D.C., where people frankly are obsessed with it.

So we've called Salena Zito. She's a reporter for the Washington Examiner and a columnist for the New York Post, covering national politics. She's known within our field for doing most of her reporting by driving, not flying and taking the side roads, not the interstates, to get at what people in the smaller towns and cities are talking about. She's with us from Pittsburgh. Salena, welcome back.

SALENA ZITO: Hey, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: It's good to hear your voice. Joining us from Milwaukee is Charlie Sykes. For three decades, he hosted a conservative political talk show in Wisconsin. Now he's editor-in-chief of The Bulwark and an MSNBC analyst. Charlie, welcome back to you as well.

CHARLIE SYKES: Good to be here.

MARTIN: And finally, here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios is Puneet Ahluwalia. He is a businessman, and he's on the central committee of the State Republican Party in Virginia. Puneet, welcome back to you as well. Thank you for coming.

PUNEET AHLUWALIA: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: All right, Salena. I'm going to start with you because your work takes you all over the country, talking to people about, you know, just like we do, what's on their minds. And I understand that you were out reporting...

ZITO: Right.

MARTIN: ...Last night when the news broke about the Mueller report. I guess you were in the Pittsburgh area.

ZITO: Yes. I was in my hometown. I was at a fish fry at the Elks.

MARTIN: OK. What did people say?

ZITO: Oh, you know, (laughter) now, when I say this, don't take this the wrong way. It's not that people don't care about it. They do, but they're not obsessed with it. And, you know, I understand Washington is a company town, and this is - what we're supposed to do is cover this in great detail. But I think people in the large part, whether they did or did not vote for Donald Trump, have taken an attitude in that, you know, look, we'll see what happens. And then, we'll make a decision about whether - either we still support him or if it confirms what we thought about him from the very beginning. And that's largely what I heard people say when I asked them.

Mostly people were talking about the March Madness. They were talking about the Penguins, how they'll make the playoffs. And they were talking about their families. And I think that that's what you call normal, you know? The last time we had an impeachment process in - with Bill Clinton and/or Nixon, remember, there were only, really, three main news sources, right? And so now that I think people - one person said to me, sometimes, I feel as though news is coming at me from all angles, and I kind of need a break from it. It's not that I'm not educated on it. I just can't dwell on it all day, every day.

MARTIN: You know, Puneet, that kind of tracks with something that you've been talking about. We've spoken to you in the Barbershop a couple of times. And I remember, when we last spoke about a year ago, you were adamant that voters cared more about taxes and economic growth and policies like that, you know? If you care about the Supreme Court...

ZITO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Then that was pre-eminent. So, Puneet, is that still the case? I mean, we've had indictments, and we've had guilty pleas...

ZITO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...From people in the Trump orbit since - I'm going to Puneet on this now. Is that still true?

AHLUWALIA: I think it's very true. But I'm so glad that the - Hillary's hoax is over after 675 days, 25 million. Can we finally go and run the country and support President Trump on helping to increase the GDP from 3.1 to higher, cut down taxes on American public, help to rejuvenate the economy and, most importantly, fight the terrorists who are really being supported by rogue states, like Pakistan and others...

MARTIN: OK. I have to go - hoax. What do you mean by that? How do you know it's a hoax?

AHLUWALIA: Well, what has happened after so many days? Nothing has come out...

MARTIN: We don't know.

AHLUWALIA: ...There's no collusion. There is nothing that ties his...

MARTIN: How do you know this? We haven't seen the report, unless you have a secret copy. And if so, can I have it?

AHLUWALIA: Well, I - look. I heard what the president had to say. And when president said, you believe your president for that reason, why you support him, why you vote him. And when Hillary called us all deplorable, does that make us all racist, deplorable? That's what the Democrats call us.

MARTIN: What does that have to do with whether or not the president committed these acts or not?

AHLUWALIA: You trust your president. You support your president, and that's reason. When he says there's no collusion, there was no obstruction, we stand by him, and we support him.

MARTIN: OK. Charlie Sykes, now, what do you have to say about all this?

SYKES: Well, I - you made the point several times. We simply do not know what is in that report. And so, you know, every time I've talked about the Mueller investigation, I always start off by saying we don't know what Bob Mueller knows. We don't know the evidence he has, and we don't know that as of right now. So, you know, what I noticed was - and, by the way, you know, Salena was absolutely right. Most people are following March Madness. They're living their lives. They're not hanging on all of this.

But it did strike me last night that you had a lot of premature spiking the football by, you know, Trump supporters, who believe that, somehow, this vindicates the president. There was a lot of handwringing I think among the Trump critics because there were no more indictments. And, you know, what - my reaction was, everybody take a deep breath because we're not going to know for days and maybe even weeks all of the information that is in that report.

And I know that everybody feels the need to, you know, rally around your tribe or come to an immediate hot take. But the reality is that this investigation has been going on for some time with some of the most professional honorable investigators in the country. It is not a hoax. It has never been a witch hunt. And we have to figure out what Bob Mueller has to do. And I would also make a couple of other points that - number one that simply because something is not an indictable crime does not mean it is not a potential scandal or something that we really ought to be concerned about as a nation.

MARTIN: I'm going to go back and talk about that point. Salena, you heard our media correspondent David Folkenflik earlier say that the pace of the news cycle is such that it may be hard to even absorb all the events that have occurred so far. I mean, there have been - what? - some - more than 200 criminal charges, 38 indictments or pleas. There have been five prison sentences so far. Does this penetrate, you know?

I recognize that people aren't obsessed with it in other places as people are who get paid to be obsessed with it are or who just happen to be interested in are. But, Salena, does the sort of the body of results so far - is that something people are talking about? Salena?

ZITO: Right. Well, I think - yeah, I'm here. I think people are informed, but I don't think they don't - you know, all 200, you know, different criminal allegations or whatever the list is. But, you know, I think that they're informed. I think that it's important that they understand what happened.

Generally, I've found people on both sides of the aisle to have respect for Mueller and expect him to handle it, correctly. And I think Charlie is right. We don't know what we don't know until we do know it. So anybody that's running around saying this is, you know, this is definitely this and/or that, I think they're wrong. And I think we need to wait till all the information is out.

MARTIN: Charlie, let me ask you this, though. Do you think this report is dispositive one way or the other? Because the fact is there are still 17 ongoing investigations on the Hill, and there are other investigations going on in U.S. attorney's offices elsewhere in the country. I get the impression that there are a lot of Democrats who already feel that this president is unfit. They've already decided that he's unfit for office.

So for them - and then, on the Republican side, as I think you've heard a lot of people say, they've already made up their minds, that this is already - this is a made-up story, not really relevant. So, Charlie, I guess the question is - is this Mueller report really as significant a development in terms of public opinion as we may think that it is?

SYKES: Yeah. It's very important. It's not necessarily going to move the needle for the reasons you just said because people have already made up their mind. But it is going to be a major, you know, advance in our understanding. However, you know, it is not dispositive because it was a very narrowly focused question, investigation of whether or not there were indictable criminal offenses. Now, that does not mean that there were not, you know, very, very - there was questionable behavior. There were things that might have violated fundamental norms, values of American politics.

And, as you point out, the, you know, Southern District of New York is continuing to investigate. Bob Mueller actually farmed out much of his investigation to other departments, so you have that investigation going on. A main justice may be conducting investigations. There are investigations in the state of New York. And, of course, Congress is a co-equal branch of government, and they are just really beginning their investigation.

But one of the points you made before - imagine if we did not have a year-and-a-half worth of information and stories trickling out, if we didn't have the president, you know, speaking about this on Twitter? What if we found about all of that stuff all at once, all of the 30-plus indictments, all of the crimes that were alleged, you know? All of the attempts, perhaps, to influence this investigation would be a bombshell.

But, really, we have been like the frog in the boiling pot. Maybe we've become numb to the scope of all the things that have already been revealed and all the charges that have been issued.

MARTIN: My - our science correspondents insist that that actually doesn't really happen. I just feel - I feel compelled to tell you that that actually - they are adamant that that doesn't really happen. So I just thought I have to throw that out there. Puneet, what about you, you know?

For some people, this really is a matter of first principles. They feel that, you know, norms of politics, norms of civility are being violated, and they think - whatever the policies are that really matters to them. Do you just don't buy that, or you just feel that the policy prescriptions that this president espouses are so important to you that you don't care about that other stuff?

AHLUWALIA: Well, I - this is what I feel. There are people who hate President Trump, and there are people who really respect and support President Trump. Our country unfortunately is divided. Rather than focusing on the American people, I can see that the democratic machinery's going to keep this narrative going on, that he's unfit and as - he's not capable and going to find always to puncture his success or the nation's success.

MARTIN: OK. But I - forgive me. I feel compelled to say I think, from the standpoint of others who don't necessarily have to be hard-line Democrats, the president is the divider-in-chief. I mean, he is the person who keeps, like, lambasting John McCain, for example, unbidden. Nobody made him do that. Nobody made him criticize a deceased war hero.

AHLUWALIA: Well, again, that's president's...

MARTIN: That's a Republican, by the way.

AHLUWALIA: Yeah, I understand. And thanks, President Trump, for honoring Senator McCain during his passing on, and thanks to Senator McCain's service to our great nation. But it's more important that, unfortunately, there is within our own party - that we all have to come together and support President Trump at this point because what it is is that the Democrats are trying to take away his narrative of making America truly great again. And that's - the problem is that we have to get on the page and focus on the American people.

MARTIN: Why do you have to?

AHLUWALIA: Well, we have to for the American people. That's the reason why these people get elected every two years or six years. That's the reason why...

MARTIN: I know, but a lot of the people criticizing him were elected, too.

AHLUWALIA: Well, that's true. But, at the same time, I'll talk about one thing - Obamacare. For small-, medium-sized businesses, it's so tough because you don't get the service. You don't get the coverage. You can't really afford it.

So there is - let's focus on the issues that matter to the American people. Let's focus on issues that doesn't take away the American way of life. And if President Trump is working on fulfilling those commitments, let's get behind him. And we can have our disagreement. We can have respectful disagreement. And...

MARTIN: OK. Salena, I'm going to give you the final word here. What about that? Is that something that you hear? Do you hear people - I guess the question would be - who do you hear people holding responsible for the state of division that we all agree we have in this country?

ZITO: Oh, I think people - you know? It's like I wrote in my book. The sit and start with Trump - he's just sort of the result of it. It's - this division has been going on I would suspect - I would pin it all the way back to the impeachment process of President Bill Clinton. I think that's when things really started to fall apart, and we started to put our team jerseys on every morning. And it sort of has escalated.

We had a pause after 9/11, but it went right back into it by 2004. And we really - it only gets worse every year. And that's sort of the result of populism, and it's something - populism is something that both parties feel right now, just not Republicans.

MARTIN: All right. I appreciate all of you. Thank you. That was Salena Zito...

ZITO: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...Of the Washington Examiner, Republican Party activist Puneet Ahluwalia of Virginia and Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark. Thank you all so much for joining us and having a civil conversation as we always do. We appreciate that.

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