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Former Congressional Investigator Justin Rood On DOJ's Criminal Referrals

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Three years, more than a million documents, hundreds of witness interviews and the consensus from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Intelligence Committee is that Russia aggressively tried to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, and the Trump campaign was happy to accept Russian help. They said so in a thousand-page report this week. The committee also reportedly made criminal referrals to federal prosecutors, believing a number of people have lied or made contradictory statements to investigators.

We're going to turn now to Justin Rood. He's a former Congressional investigator, now director at the Project on Government Oversight. Thanks so much for being with us.

JUSTIN ROOD: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: According to officials who spoke with the LA Times, The Washington Post and NBC News, the Intelligence Committee told the Department of Justice that Steve Bannon, Erik Prince, Sam Clovis - all Trump associates - appeared to have made false statements to the committee and that Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner had made statements that were contradicted by other testimony. How often does a congressional committee make a referral like that?

ROOD: Scott, they're not common, but I would say they're not infrequent. It's hard to say for sure because sometimes these referrals are made publicly, sometimes they're made privately. These, obviously, were made privately. So it's hard to have a clear account. But it's not uncommon, especially at the end of a lengthy investigation like this one, to have examples of witnesses who you feel may not have been fully forthcoming and, as a matter, almost housecleaning (ph) to refer that to Department of Justice and ask them to look into it a little further.

SIMON: Would you have any concern based on what we do know now that the Justice Department is ignoring Congress or slowing down the process?

ROOD: This is not a normal year. This is not a normal administration, for sure. And so it makes it difficult to see inside a black box of a situation like this. Certainly, there are concerns around politicization at the Department of Justice. But I would also say that, historically speaking, when Congress makes referrals to the Department of Justice for anything, but particularly around these obstruction or false statements types of concerns, if the figures or the subjects of those referrals are connected to the administration or administration officials, regardless of whether they're Democrat or Republican, the Department of Justice rarely picks those cases up. It's - frequently, these referrals are much more successful if they target a private individual.

SIMON: Well, what a tradition. Why don't they traditionally pick them up?

ROOD: Well, it's old-fashioned politics. It's hard to convince the Department of Justice to go after a member of their own administration. And while I think false statements is a serious charge - and certainly any federal investigator would tell you that it is...

SIMON: I mean, there are people who've gone to prison for lying to Congress, right?

ROOD: Oh, absolutely, and in recent history as well. So I think that we should probably point to that evidence as well. You've got Michael Cohen, who pled guilty to a charge of lying to Congress. You had Roger Stone, who was convicted of making false statements. No, but those were coming through the Mueller team, the special prosecutor's team. And these referrals are going to the U.S. attorney's office here in D.C., which I think has a little bit of a spottier record. I think Congress just heard from members of that office in June, I believe, about concerns around politicization there in the cases of Michael Flynn and - excuse me - and the Roger Stone sentencing. So...

SIMON: Yeah.

ROOD: So it's tough to read whether or not this is going to move forward. I would say that while the Department of Justice does get these referrals from Congress, from committees and from members - 'cause it's just a letter. Any member of Congress or a committee can write one of these letters.

I think they tend to give credence to these referrals that come as this one does, from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is to say, first, it's being made on a bipartisan basis by the chair and the vice chair of the committee. It's coming at the end of an extensive and detailed investigation. This isn't just one person's opinion kind of popping up. They, you assume, have a decent body of records to refer to. And the third one is they didn't publicize. They didn't try to politicize this. And so that...

SIMON: Yeah.

ROOD: ...I think, for a lot of watchers gives these credence and some real gravity.

SIMON: Well, thanks very much for being with us. Justin Rood directs the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight. We're very grateful for your time. Thank you, sir.

ROOD: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.