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White House Is Addressing 2020 Election Security Concerns, Groves Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

From the minute that former special counsel Robert Mueller released his 448-page report, the conclusions of that two-year investigation have served as a kind of Rorschach test. A day after Mueller testified before House lawmakers, that is still the case. Democrats see obstruction on the part of the president. Republicans see exoneration. Some Democrats want to talk about impeachment. Many Republicans see a witch hunt.

President Trump talked to reporters yesterday after Mueller's testimony, and here's what he said.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This has been a very bad thing for our country. And despite everything we've been through, it's been an incredible 2 1/2 years for our country. The administration, our president - me - we've done a great job.

KING: For more on where the Trump administration stands, we've got Steven Groves on the line. He's deputy White House secretary. Good morning, Mr. Groves.

STEVEN GROVES: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

KING: We're happy to have you. So we can break up yesterday's testimony into two big parts. One was about the question of whether the president obstructed justice. But the other - the other was about Russian interference into the 2016 election. I wanted to talk about that. Robert Mueller said it was sweeping and systemic. Here he is talking yesterday.

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ROBERT MUELLER: It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.

KING: How does the White House interpret that, Mr. Groves? Is the president concerned about interference in the 2020 election?

GROVES: The president's concerned. He's addressed it on multiple occasions. He's had his Department of Homeland Security really take the lead on election interference since he came into office. And I think almost from the beginning, by way of executive orders and other actions, the Department of Homeland Security has reached out to state and local election officials. The FBI is engaged. They are on the watch. They were tracking things during the midterms last year. And there's going to be a whole government approach in 2020. The president is concerned.

I do wish that maybe President Obama had been a little bit more concerned back in 2016 when these things were coming out and let the American people know about it. They made a decision to not make announcements about Russian interference in our election for their own reasons...

KING: I wonder if you could give us any specifics on what...

GROVES: ...So we're going to be prepared in 2020...

KING: Ah, yes. Let's talk about the specifics. How are you preparing for 2020? - because you mention the midterms. Those are localized elections. 2020 is a different situation. Can you give us some insight into what you are doing to protect against - what the White House is doing to protect against foreign interference?

GROVES: Well, 2020 is not going to be any different from...

KING: No?

GROVES: ...2018. It's still the same polling places. It's still the same election officials. You know, the ballot will have presidential candidates on it. But the systems and protections that are designed to prevent interference are still going to be in place. Remember; the Russian interference back in '16, when it came to the actual polling, was limited. It was about - I think they hacked into some voter databases and so forth. But there was no - there's no indication that any single vote was changed by this activity...

KING: Right. No, absolutely. They hacked into - well, they hacked into Democratic emails. And they, you know, they interfered or...

GROVES: No, I'm talking about something different.

KING: Go ahead.

GROVES: Even the part where they - where they tried to, like, find out voter rolls in various precincts, it doesn't look like that was, you know, resulted in - like, they didn't go into voting machines and try to change votes...

KING: Right, right.

GROVES: The interference that Mueller was going into was social media and the hacks into the DNC to get embarrassing emails and publish them through WikiLeaks. You know, we have to...

KING: Very real interference, nonetheless. Let me ask you, though - there have been several elections security bills that have been put forward relatively recently. None of them have passed, and it often comes down to partisan differences. Do you worry that election security for 2020 is becoming a partisan issue?

GROVES: I hope not. It shouldn't be. I mean, every American will want to go to the poll and know that their vote counts, that it's been cast for the person that they support. And it should be on a completely bipartisan basis. The problem is - is that election - elections are very decentralized. And I don't know if that's, you know, a problem. That's kind of a feature of our system. We've got 50 states, and everyone kind of does it their own way - some through paper ballots, some through machines. And there's no uniform way to do it. So it's elusive...

KING: It's tough, yeah.

GROVES: ...To find the federal legislation that would be kind of a fix that would be nationwide. So it really...

KING: Mr. Groves...

GROVES: ...Shouldn't be a partisan issue.

KING: ...I want to turn to the second part of yesterday's testimony. Robert Mueller said yesterday that his report had not exonerated the president for obstruction. Here's a quick exchange he had with Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

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MUELLER: Well, the finding indicates that the president was not - that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.

JERRY NADLER: In fact, you were talking about incidents, quote, "in which the president sought to use his official power outside of usual channels," unquote, to exert undue influence over your investigations. Is that right?

MUELLER: That's correct.

KING: Sir, just briefly, is the president still saying that the report exonerated him?

GROVES: Well, he is well within his rights to saying that the report exonerated him, though I don't think that we - the discussion about the report should rise and fall on the term exonerate. I mean, when you've been investigated and no charges are brought against you, you can rightfully feel exonerated. But exonerated, like collusion, doesn't have any real meaning under the law. And it's sad that we are kind of boiling - exoneration is the collusion of 2019...

KING: I hear you...

GROVES: ...You know?

KING: ...I hear you. Deputy White House...

GROVES: And we shouldn't get tied up on it, yeah.

KING: ...Press Secretary Steven Groves. Yeah. OK.

Thanks so much for joining us. And I want to turn now to NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who's been listening in. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey.

KING: So what struck you about what we just heard about obstruction? This is the same argument we've been hearing. Right?

KEITH: Well - President Trump is the one who used the term exonerated...

KING: Yeah.

KEITH: ...When the report came out. Of course, the - Robert Mueller, in his report and in his testimony, said that the president couldn't be exonerated. But the reality is the president can't be prosecuted while he is a sitting president of the United States under Justice Department guidance. And the attorney general determined that the president shouldn't be prosecuted for obstruction of justice. That does not affect what Congress does. That is another matter entirely, but there are also political calculations there.

KING: And Tam, in the seconds we have left, is there concern that election interference is becoming a partisan issue?

KEITH: Absolutely, there is a concern. In fact, though, much of this legislation that you talked about has been bipartisan legislation, but there's been pushback. And Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has been someone who's been resistant to bringing those measures to the floor in the Senate.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.