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Morning News Brief: Robert Mueller As Special Counsel, New Google Products


And let's begin with a new job for a former FBI director.


Yeah, and we're not talking about James Comey. We are talking about his predecessor, Robert Mueller. You may remember he led the FBI under President George W. Bush, also President Obama. Yesterday, the Justice Department appointed Mueller as special counsel to lead an investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election. And for the most part, lawmakers of both parties seem pretty pleased with the announcement. Here's what Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa had to say.


RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Bob Mueller has the experience and expertise, the guts and backbone to assure the independence of this investigation.


DARRELL ISSA: We now have a focal point of somebody that we all trust.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, President Trump reacted to the news with a statement last night that said, quote, "a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know. There was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity."

GREENE: All right, let's bring in NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro and senior political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning to you both.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.


GREENE: So Domenico, we heard this word, special counsel, tossed around for weeks now. I don't think I ever really thought about what exactly it means. What is Mueller's role here? And - and who's he reporting to?

MONTANARO: Well, he's reporting to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who gained a lot of attention last week because of that memo that he wrote in talking about James Comey's conduct during the Hillary Clinton investigation and which the Trump White House initially used as a reason for his ouster.

GREENE: Right.

MONTANARO: Normally a special counsel would report to the attorney general. But in this case, because Trump's attorney general is Jeff Sessions and he's recused himself from matters related to the investigation into the Trump campaign's involvement with Russia, he's going to - Mueller will report to Rosenstein. So as a special counsel, Mueller will have lots of latitude. He has the power not only to investigate but to prosecute, which is important, and bring criminal charges. There is a catch, though. Unlike an independent prosecutor, the special counsel still reports to and can be fired by that chain of command within the Justice Department.

GREENE: Chain of command leading up to the president of United States.


GREENE: President Trump could, in theory, go to the Justice Department and say, I think you should fire this...

MONTANARO: Correct, so in a roundabout way, could be fired by the president because the president would have to, you know, talk to the attorney general and express his view to do that. But again, the Justice Department and the White House are supposed to be, in theory, independent.

GREENE: Mara, we have seen this before or things like this before. You covered, for example, the scandals surrounding President Clinton and the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr. But this is different, right?

LIASSON: Well, it's a little bit different because Kenneth Starr reported to a judicial panel. In other words, he was a little bit more independent. I think what's significant here is how these things are actually similar to the Clinton-era special counsels. This is a big blow to the White House. The White House resisted this. Donald Trump fired Jim Comey, and he got Bob Mueller. And now the White House is caught in this grinding process. The president said in his statement last night he wanted this investigation finished quickly. That is not going to happen. As we learned in the Clinton era, these investigations take a very long time.

And Mueller is known for being very thorough. And as Domenico just said, he has a broad latitude. But there is some good news for the White House here because if Mueller says there is no collusion, he has the credibility to make that conclusion really stick. And now that this is under a special counsel, the White House can legitimately refuse to talk about this as long as the investigation goes on. And they hope they now can focus on other matters that are important to voters, like taxes and health care and jobs.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean - well, I mean, so Donald Trump is sounding confident saying there was no collusion; this is going to be all fine. Domenico, Mara seems to be suggesting that the White House is probably pretty nervous.

MONTANARO: Well, look. It raises the stakes for the Trump administration. I mean, a lot of people around town are going to be watching for any kind of whiff of Trump trying to influence this investigation. In many ways, he brought this on himself given what, you know, we reported from sources close to Comey, that Trump asked him to let this go when it came to the Mike Flynn investigation. He's going to face a lot of pressure to stay out of this and let the investigation do its job.

But what if this drags out - you know, leaks continue, congressional hearings continue and they paint a shadowy picture of Trump's associates' ties to Russia? You know, even before, as Mara said, he - Bob Mueller comes up with this conclusive conclusion, let's say. You can imagine what those, you know, Up-First-time tweets might read like (laughter).

GREENE: Yeah, well, I mean, there's a lot of reaction on Capitol Hill already. Let's listen to one voice here. It's Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo talking about the new special counsel on MSNBC.


CARLOS CURBELO: This is a very positive development. It is evidence that this administration is taking this Russia probe seriously, that this is going to be a probe that is independent...

GREENE: Mara, this feels like a moment of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. Democrats wanted this, Republicans praising it. Does this mean that these investigations are going to get less partisan now?

LIASSON: Well, I think for the moment, yes. I think this decision by Rod Rosenstein really stabilized the issue on Capitol Hill. Don't forget, Democrats now have gotten their No. 1 demand. They were saying they were going to block the confirmation of the new FBI director unless there was a special counsel. So this does clear the way for a new FBI director. And I think Rod Rosenstein, by appointing Mueller, did something miraculous. He caused an outbreak of bipartisanship to occur...

GREENE: Outbreak (laughter).

LIASSON: ...On Capitol Hill. Who would have thought that could happen in 2017?

GREENE: Any lessons from previous investigations like this that we should - we should learn from?

LIASSON: Well, I think that the White House needs to compartmentalize this. That's what you hear from people who went through these investigations in both the Bush and Clinton White Houses - in other words, set up a separate communications staff or person to answer questions about this. Try not to let it totally consume the White House staff - because this is a grinding process. And it can sap your energy and your focus. And this already is a White House that has been accused of being undisciplined and disorganized.

MARTIN: Rod Rosenstein was someone who some people may have known of but not all of America. And now his name is right in the middle of all this. He's going to be on the Hill today, worth noting that. He's going to brief the Senate on the decision to fire James Comey. He'll do the same for the House on Friday. So that's something we should definitely track - and as well, looking at Rosenstein and his leadership of the department at this moment.

GREENE: Welcome to the spotlight, Rod Rosenstein.

MARTIN: Yeah, right.

GREENE: Mara Liasson, Domenico Montanaro, thanks to both of you, as always.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, Rachel, I fear the time has come. Google is creating computers that really aren't even devices. They're more like friends who are with us at all times.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Yeah, that doesn't sound like a good idea to me.


MARTIN: But I digress. OK, so the news story is this. Google is having its annual mega conference in Mountain View, Calif. And they were talking a lot about something called ambient computing.

GREENE: And I have no idea what that means.

MARTIN: You don't?

GREENE: But we called up someone...

MARTIN: I totally do.

GREENE: ...Who I think does. Do you?

MARTIN: No (laughter).

GREENE: OK, NPR's Aarti Shahani might. You there, Aarti?

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: I'm here, and I know.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's why we called you.

GREENE: Oh, good. Well, what is it? What is ambient computing?

SHAHANI: Well, if Google has its way, ambient computing will be a profound change in how we relate to computers, OK? We'll talk to them instead of type into them. And they will be all around us all the time but in the background, OK? So they were in the mobile era, right? Basically, the whole world bought smartphones. And now the leaders at Google are saying, oh, actually, that's no good because the relationship is too distracting. So it's time we just make things that are smart and connected to each other and follow you and study you and tell you what you need before you even ask.

GREENE: So how does this actually work if I'm not actually holding a device in my hand or sitting in front of a device but it's just there? What does this look like.

SHAHANI: Well, OK, so take Google Home. It's a computer that looks kind of like a big egg without any keyboard. And you talk to it like Amazon's Echo. Google just announced that over the next few months, your Home device will start combing through your Google Calendar and give you smart alerts, OK? So say I'm rushing to finish breakfast to make my 9 a.m. flight. Google Home could notice, oh, your flight's delayed. You've got more time. Or, oh...

GREENE: This egg is telling me that I have more time (laughter).

SHAHANI: (Laughter) Exactly - while you're eating your eggs. Or, oh, there's a bad accident and, you know, you've got to hustle now, either way. Something I find fascinating about this is that it supports multiple users because it can distinguish between voices, OK? So say you and your partner and your kids are all on it, and one you says, call mom. Well, it'll know who is talking. It'll go to that person's Google contacts. And it'll call the right mom. And it'll make the call for free, by the way, which is something I'm sure phone carriers are very happy about.

GREENE: Should I be a little freaked out by this?

SHAHANI: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Big brother, I mean, come on.


SHAHANI: You know, different people have different reactions. I think it's kind of seductive, OK? Basically, you know, Google demoed something else called Google Lens yesterday. And how this works is you hold a camera on your smartphone up to a restaurant, OK? And it'll display, on your screen right there, the ratings for the restaurant. Or say you're on a hike. You point the camera to some herb or wildflower, and it'll tell you, oh, you know, those are forget-me-nots.

GREENE: Or I could point it at you. And it would tell me you're my colleague, Aarti Shahani, something like that?

SHAHANI: Yeah, like, it'll give you my LinkedIn profile or something, right.


SHAHANI: So, you know, that feature, that relies on the same kind of technology - which is called machine learning - that's powering all these other big moves by Google. And basically, because Google can process way more data than ever before - the cost of computing's dropped - it's just easier and cheaper to have us surrounded.

GREENE: All right, well, here's to the day that we're...

MARTIN: Surrounded - we're surrounded.

GREENE: ...Becoming all totally surrounded. Aarti Shahani, I'm trying not to be too scared because you say this is going to be OK, and...

MARTIN: The future, David.

SHAHANI: I didn't quite say that.

GREENE: (Laughter) You didn't quite say that, OK. Aarti Shahani, thanks as always.

SHAHANI: Thanks.


Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.