NBC's Savannah Guthrie grills Sarah Sanders: Does Trump owe Mueller an apology?

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. 

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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“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 in 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” of 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 article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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