NBC’s Savannah Guthrie on Monday sparred with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders over President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward special counsel Robert Mueller, asking several times whether the president owed him an apology.
Trump, for nearly two years, repeatedly bashed Mueller as a partisan hack and claimed he was conducting a “witch hunt” into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Mueller’s probe found no evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russian agents, Attorney General William Barr wrote in a letter to Congress on Sunday.
“For the last two years, the president has absolutely eviscerated Bob Mueller ― a lifelong public servant, a former Marine, a registered Republican, I might add,” Guthrie told Sanders. “Did Robert Mueller deserve better from the president than this kind of language and behavior?”
Sanders, engaging in her usual spin tactics, attempted to steer the conversation in another direction.
“Frankly, I think the American people deserved better,” she told Guthrie. “They didn’t deserve for the election of this president to try to be taken down ― ”
Guthrie interrupted, “Wait a minute, but the president’s rhetoric about a public servant doing a job ― ”
Sanders, growing visibly flustered, responded, “Are you kidding? The president’s rhetoric matches ― they are literally ― the media and Democrats have called the president an agent of a foreign government. That is an accusation equal to treason, which is punishable by death in this country.”
But Guthrie continued to press Sanders to address Trump’s attacks on Mueller.
“You have kids and you know that if you say, ‘Did you do this?’ the answer isn’t, ‘Yeah, but my brother did that,’” she told Sanders. “So let’s talk about the president’s behavior. … Does he owe Robert Mueller an apology for that kind of rhetoric?”
Sanders refused to directly answer the question. “I think Democrats and the liberal media owe the president and the American people an apology,” she said.
Guthrie also grilled Sanders over the president’s false claim that Mueller’s report, which the special counsel submitted to Barr on Friday, amounted to “a total exoneration” on accusations of Russian collusion and obstruction of justice.
Barr, nominated by Trump in November to head the Justice Department after Jeff Sessions’ ouster, wrote in his letter to Congress on Sunday that while the special counsel’s report did not produce evidence of conspiracy, it “does not exonerate him” from an obstruction of justice charge.
Asked Monday if she would acknowledge that it’s incorrect for Trump to call the report “a total exoneration,” Sanders told Guthrie “not at all.”
“It is a complete and total exoneration,” Sanders claimed. “And here’s why: because the special counsel, they said they couldn’t make a decision one way or another. The way the process works is they leave that up to the attorney general.”
Guthrie noted that the special counsel’s job is to make an independent legal judgment, but that Barr had stepped in to do so himself, despite his comments months ago claiming there wasn’t an obstruction of justice case against Trump.
“When the special counsel couldn’t make a final determination, they refer that to the attorney general to make that decision,” Sanders responded. “In the legal community, when you can’t convict somebody on something, you’re exonerating them ― legally exonerating them.”
Guthrie, who has a law degree from Georgetown University, pushed back on Sanders’ exoneration claim.
“Well, you’re not,” she said. “Just as a legal matter, to say that you can’t prosecute somebody because they don’t meet the elements of the statute, it’s not an exoneration.”
At one point, Sanders suggested Americans “look at Bob Mueller’s report” to determine whether Trump was “exonerated.” But only Barr’s determination of key findings from the special counsel’s report ― not the report itself ― has been released to the public.
Trump told reporters at the White House last week that he wouldn’t mind if the public sees Mueller’s report. “Let it come out,” he said.
But Sanders said Monday that only Barr could decide whether the full report would be released to the American people.
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Sanders.