Former Congresswoman Barbara Comstock sat down for an interview for the latest episode of “The Investigation," a new ABC News podcast. A transcript of Comstock's interview as it appears in this episode of the podcast follows here:
ABC NEWS' CHRIS VLASTO: Welcome back to “The Investigation.” I'm Chris Vlasto, senior executive producer here at ABC News and your podcast co-host. With me are Kyra Phillips, our investigative correspondent, and John Santucci, one of the senior reporters and producers here on the task force. This is a big week in Washington. Bill Barr is scheduled to be on the Hill on Wednesday with the Senate Judiciary Committee where he's going to be forced to defend his actions on the release of the Mueller report and why he did certain things. But the battle with Congress is going to continue for a while over the next two years and there's going to be a lot of investigations. Jerry Nadler and the House Judiciary Committee and Elijah Cummings of the Oversight Committee are going to be investigating every nook and cranny of this presidency. And we have with us a woman, Barbara Comstock, who I knew very well in the 1990s, was the lead investigator on the House Oversight Committee. So, she knows how to investigate a President. So we wanted her insights on what's going on here in Capitol Hill.
ABC NEWS' KYRA PHILLIPS: So, Barbara you've been back and forth publicly about how you feel about Donald Trump. How do you feel about him now that the Mueller report is out?
BARBARA COMSTOCK: I'd like to talk about how I feel about the Justice Department and Bob Mueller and Bill Barr, Rod Rosenstein, Chris Ray at the FBI. I think that they did their job as we'd - I had called for an independent counsel before Rod Rosenstein had named Mueller. I also said I trusted Mueller to do a fair job. People often forgot that, you know, when he got in there he was the one who took like Strzok and Page off the case. I talked about him a lot, but he was the one who removed them. And I think he did a fair job. And, you know, the report that Bill Barr turned over had very few redactions particularly on the obstruction front. So, you know Mueller said, you know, there wasn't a conspiracy and I didn't find anything on, you know, the original charge that they were given. And then when it came to the obstruction case they kind of gave it a jump ball and decided to leave it to Congress and to the Justice Department. Bill Barr turned it over warts and all. And you know they were before the report came out, they, you know, the Democrats and Congress were complaining, it's going to be redacted, we're not going to see anything. And now they've, you know that's not the argument anymore.
VLASTO: But do you, but Barbara, do you think Bill Barr spun it a little bit? Do you think he made a mistake by doing the two -- the letter first and then putting out the whole report a month later?
COMSTOCK: No I don't. And I think you know he did sit down and do this all with Rod Rosenstein. Remember Rod has been beaten up over the past few years by the Trump White House, by people on the outside. And he had Rod sit down with him go through it that first weekend and then he kept him on, which he didn't have to do, and had him go through that process. But even for someone who does think they don't like what Bill Barr said that doesn't matter now because you have the whole report – and Congress. It's no longer a legal matter. It's a political matter.
VLASTO: And do you think it's impeachable?
COMSTOCK: I think it's -- as we proved in the 90s with Clinton, it's going to be pointless to do it because he won't be convicted in the Senate. So, I guess it would be much like what was done with Clinton. They can impeach him in the House they have the votes if they want to. If they decide to engage on this but it will not -- there will not be a conviction in the Senate. So then what would be the point? And I think it's pretty clear that the Trump White House is not going to engage. I look at what Bob Mueller did, whoever you want to believe, but most of these guys were not Trump friendly prosecutors. They turned over everything, did everything they could, and they couldn't, they didn't get it to that bar.
VLASTO: But I saw from your long pause in answering that question. Was that you thinking that there is some basis to be disturbed - that you're disturbed by some of that on the obstruction of justice or no?
COMSTOCK: More that I think, I'm thinking about, politically what are they looking at? There's no Russia conspiracy case. So, that was the original case. So and I think how do you then indict on an obstruction of justice when you weren't obstructing an underlying crime? I think the concern that everyone should have been focused on all along including the president was the original case, which all of his national security and intelligence people say there was interference by Russia, but they weren't involved in it. So, I understand he felt he was wrongly accused of being involved in it. I think Dana Milbank wrote, you know, just they weren't capable. There wasn't a campaign there that was capable of a conspiracy. I would agree with that.
PHILLIPS: Do see anything that should be investigated right now? I mean you've looked at, you've gone through what's out there.
COMSTOCK: I did read through the report and I think the things that people found troubling or you look through these are things that are people not only already knew about the president, but they knew about before he was elected president. You know the temperament things. You know how, how he was dealing with people, what, what he was telling Don McGahn or whoever to do. And I do think the system worked here. I mean, I think you have the professional lawyers in the White House Counsel's Office, at the Justice Department, doing what they were supposed to do in granted, a difficult decision - situation with how this president operates in a very unorthodox manner. And obviously you know, by the discussion from Don McGahn, very challenging, but at the end of the day there wasn't an underlying conspiracy there. There was just, you know, a clown car of people who were involved in that original campaign. I mean nobody would have hired Paul Manafort in a real campaign. Nobody would have ever let any of these chuckleheads come in and work on your campaign. And it's interesting that those are the people, you know, whether it was a Michael Cohen who had long - you know - in whatever he muddled around with -
VLASTO: George Papadopoulos.
COMSTOCK: You know these people who were just kind of coming in off the street and saying hey I want to help you on foreign policy and these are people who didn't know anything about foreign policy. They just couldn't get on any other campaign. So, you really did have people who - and you know in fairness to Donald Trump, he didn't know the campaign world and it wasn't until September, October that he brought in people who had actually worked on real campaigns and those people were in any way -
VLASTO: What did Steve Bannon say? Steve Bannon said we couldn't collude with the local RNC chairmen’s. They didn't know how to do that.
COMSTOCK: Yeah well nobody would have cut -- I mean none of those guys would have ever sat down and met with those people and had that June meeting. So the people in the June meeting didn't know what they were doing. So, they weren't in a position to you know get engaged in a conspiracy. But I don't think you know it's been helpful for how, say, Rudy Giuliani has been talking about this or talking about, hey it was OK for them to do that. Nobody would have done that.
PHILLIPS: Would you be on board with any of the investigations that are going on right now or are Dems just wasting their time? Do you see anything that has legs right now with regard to investigating Trump, the Trump administration?
COMSTOCK: Well, I think everything was out there and a lot of what was in the report was what a lot of the things people kind of knew or had heard about sort of off the record before. So there's not a lot of new information there. And if the House, which is the only side that really can move forward, were to sit down and talk with their Senate Democrat counterparts, I would think they would tell them there's not a whole lot more here to go with. So if you want to impeach, you have the votes. If you, if you decide that's what you want to do politically.
PHILLIPS: Because it's a dangerous territory?
COMSTOCK: I'm not saying that's legally what they should do. They're making a political calculation now. And I think if they move - you know they've already said they're - the White House has already said they're not going to allow people to go up there, which is their right. And if they hold them in contempt, then it is the Obama administration, as well as the Bush administration that already established that, hey we're not going to prosecute these things when they come up and are political. So this has gotten so polarized, if they do a contempt report for them not coming up, they go to the floor they spend all this time, that's all this time they're not going to be doing infrastructure or health care or prescription drugs. And do they want to take that political cost?
PHILLIPS: So do you believe they're wasting time?
COMSTOCK: Well I think it won't it won't go anywhere ultimately. I mean there are some that have clearly said we want to do it. They will even go so far as to do inherent contempt, which most people aren't familiar with inherent contempt, but that's when you actually have the sergeant of arms go get the person. So, say if they want to go get Don McGahn, bring him in to the House floor, they try him at the bar it's called. So you would have to, like, stop Congress, have a trial on the House floor of him being in contempt, and then you have to decide if the, if the sergeant of arms can jail him somewhere either within -
VLASTO: Is there a jail in Congress?
COMSTOCK: This is inherent contempt. You can only do it during the Congress and imagine the uproar of doing that.
PHILLIPS: When's the last time we've seen something like that?
ABC NEWS' JOHN SANTUCCI: Yeah I was going to say that.
COMSTOCK: That's in the early 1900s or so. The Congressional Research Service has done reports on this. We used to joke about doing this in the '90s nobody ever considered doing it. If the Democrats choose to do that, I think it will be at great cost to themselves because then it'll just be political theater. It won't be this, you're bringing up witnesses and you're getting to any new information. I mean the information was all in the report. I don't - I'm not sure what new information they think they’ll get.
SANTUCCI: Well, that's what I want to ask you about. I mean you know, people now know that you were a member of Congress, but prior to that I mean your background is that you were an investigator. So, if you were in this world right now, it seems like you saw the Mueller report. OK. We've moved on from that. But the Democrats are not stopping, you've seen every committee dropping subpoenas, they're asking for information. What does a House investigator do right now? What information do they go for? Where could they go that perhaps after you look through the report, you would say, oh that's an area Bob Mueller really didn't touch?
COMSTOCK: Well that's, I think first they should go and sit down and talk to the Senate and put together what do we have -- what do we already have, that we know? What's in the report and what things do we really not know? I think what they really want to do is just have public theater and I think what the White House is saying, which is their prerogative, is we're not going to play.
VLASTO: Except Congressman Swalwell, who was on our podcast and he was making the point that when you hear from Barr or if you hear from Mueller or maybe key witnesses like Don McGahn, then it will resonate to people. And that people out in America haven't read the 438-page report and that's a way that then they'll come on board perhaps the impeachment parade.
COMSTOCK: Well I think there were polls before the report came out saying nobody was going to change their mind before the report came out. And I think that's somewhat been demonstrated since the report came out and they're going to get to hear from Mueller. I mean he we'll go up there I imagine. Bill Barr is the acting attorney general. So he will. I don't know. I mean Rod Rosenstein is leaving so maybe he won't want to go and doesn't have to. And - but Don McGahn is a private citizen now and he - if they drag him up there and do that, all they're trying to do is set up some kind of perjury trap and if I were his counsel or I'm sure other counsel would say, you've done your thing, you know, you gave 30 hours. I don't need to play in this anymore. I did what I was legally obligated to do. And they have the information. I mean if they want to go subpoena the documents from the Justice Department or go through a court case of his 30 hours of interviews that's always available. But I would imagine the Justice Department would oppose doing that as they - it is their right. But this is now all political and it's all a political fight not a legal fight anymore.
SANTUCCI: But to your point though about political theater, I mean one of the things that we've been talking about is that it is kind of surprising that you have the Democrats now almost five months in power. They've only had one political theater show, if you will, Michael Cohen.
COMSTOCK: It didn't go too well.
SANTUCCI: Well, that was the one and only I mean. Did that - does it surprise you though that it's been so slow or are they going about this the right way taking their time? I mean, I mean if you were there, right? I mean I know you're not a Democrat. You're not going to give them free advice, but how would you be coaching a committee to go about this right now? Bring everybody in or they need more time? They need to make sure when they bring somebody in it's a homerun? I mean what what's the Barbara Comstock book of advice?
COMSTOCK: Oh boy, yeah you're right. I don't really need to give the Democrats advice -
SANTUCCI: Just give it to us.
COMSTOCK: -On how to do this. But I think they have a split right now within their caucus of people who were elected, talking about they wanted to work on some issues and now even though, even though they've only had the Michael Cohen hearing, still all anyone’s seeing on TV has been this back and forth partisanship, you know from both sides. So, for those who are frustrated and want something done. If you're in a hard blue district that's probably all they want you to do. But if you're in a swingier district and this is not your priority and you've seen some Democrats already saying well hey I had a town hall and nobody came in and talked about this. But I think, I don't think they have staff who really are, you know, up for doing this or kind of understand a lot of the legal ramifications because you know when we had - back in 2007 when they tried to go after the Bush administration and then went to court, it took two years to play it out. So the clock ran. What we did back in the 90s was, we actually resolved it. When we did two contempt reports, one against Janet Reno, one against Jack Quinn to get documents, there was somewhat of a compromise in turning over documents which we then agreed to.
PHILLIPS: How, how does that work and what was effective for you then
COMSTOCK: Well, well we did. But we were also doing the legal work and doing the back and forth and we compromised. I don't think the polarization that's on the outside now allows for that. Even that kind of thing to be done.
SANTUCCI: You think right now, compromise is impossible?
COMSTOCK: Well I think both sides have made pretty clear that this is all political. You know, I think the president understands that they want to drag this out and make it - it's all a campaign issue. I think--they're very split on will this help us or will it not? And I honestly, you know, can't say. I mean I—
VLASTO: Well Dave Bossie was on our podcast and he thought it would backfire.
COMSTOCK: But - and that - the president does have a way of making things backfire and using things against them. So I think that, there's a strong case to be made for that. Philippe Reines, who was a Hillary Clinton person, wrote a piece recently saying well no, actually, the continued investigations up to the 2000 election actually helped Republicans prevail, and prevail in Congress until 2006. So his argument is no - go whole hog which I think Hillary Clinton endorsed -
VLASTO: Except I would argue that she became senator from New York because of the impeachment of the president.
COMSTOCK: Yes. And I don't think Hillary Clinton's political advice maybe is necessarily something that the Democrats want to take because it hasn't been that wise overall.
PHILLIPS: Barbara, months ago I asked you what would you be investigating, when we look at what everybody's looking into and talking about. And I said if you were in our position what would you be looking into knowing what you know and your background, and you said follow the money. Did you mean follow Trump's money--his charities, his businesses, his past? What did you mean by follow the money?
COMSTOCK: Well, I think some of the investigations are tied up in the money - not, I think on this investigation, anything that was that might have been financially related has been looked into. But the ones that got assigned elsewhere - whether it's - and this is where there might be some things where the White House may not be able to cut off something like the golf course and people you know illegal aliens who were hired there, because if you can go after bank records - we were able to get bank records - if there are bank records that can be subpoenaed. It's hard to block that. We didn't have anyone who was able to block them. Now, I think the president has indicated that he will try and block anyone going after his bank records
SANTUCCI: That’s right.
COMSTOCK: and that they’re - we never read into that. That would be a new legal case if they do that.
SANTUCCI: So, the action the president took this week where he filed that injunction that prevented investigators from going and contacting his accounting firm for records. That's new ground, that’s something you had not seen from your experience in the past?
COMSTOCK: Yeah no. Yeah, we didn't. I guess since the Clintons hadn't been successful in Whitewater they didn't have like whole business to go and investigate.
SANTUCCI: But it is interesting how I guess, you know, there's so many similarities between differences between where this is actually going because the fact this president has had such a lucrative business for so long and it's so spread out, you know, one of the things Chris Christie said to us is that he felt that the Southern District of New York investigation and the New York State Attorney General's investigation could be more damning because of Donald Trump's long financial businesses up there.
COMSTOCK: I would agree and Chris would know certainly from his background as a U.S. attorney. So I think that is, you know, you could - how they get at those things but they can, you know, whether they get other people to cooperate and how they can get at other documents that may not be in the control of the organization.
SANTUCCI: Well that’s what I was going to ask you, because the big document that they want right now up on Capitol Hill you know this are his tax returns. And we saw his lawyers come out saying can't do this, the Treasury Department's delaying. Do you actually think that Congress has the right to get his tax returns?
COMSTOCK: We never went after tax returns because that was Nixonian, when you heard tax returns that - all the red flags went up. And when we had one prosecutor who briefly worked on the committee who mentioned tax returns and it was a blow up in the press and it was something that we never - we said we are not touching that.
VLASTO: It was like the third rail.
COMSTOCK: Yeah, and that was - so this is very different that they're going at it. Now as a creature of Congress, and I’m not - I'm looking at this more as what are your authorities and rights as Congress, not what the Democrats should do. I would argue - and I did when I was in Congress, that Congress's authority to subpoena and do those things is pretty thorough. I mean it is set up constitutionally, you can go pretty far. But then the Justice Department and the executive branch, they can also push back. So, when I was over at the Justice Department after I had been chief counsel on the House Committee, my successor was very frustrated that we weren't turning over everything from the Justice Department in a subsequent investigation. But we were also protecting - then we were protecting the prerogatives of the executive branch and institutional concerns. So I think there are genuine institutional concerns both at the Justice Department, in the executive branch, and in Congress. And that's why I think the speech Rod gave was like, listen I know everyone else is playing their different roles. My role was to do right by the Justice Department. And he was somebody who had served there for a long time. And at the end of the day, I think that's why Bill Barr keeping him on, having him go through this process, and Bill Barr himself being an institutionalist - that's why I feel comfortable about where this is at legally.
VLASTO: But Barbara, going back to our old time during Clinton, I mean doesn't Donald Trump deserve a little credit in the sense of he's right that he didn't assert any executive privileges?
COMSTOCK: Right. Exactly, yes.
VLASTO: He did turn over a million documents.
COMSTOCK: Which the Clintons never would. They never - they did claim executive privilege and they claimed a lot of executive privilege as those were legal cases that were all there that at any point Donald Trump could have said oh I'm going to claim. I mean, really, it's fairly stunning that the White House allowed their White House counsel to sit down for 30 hours and I think that is testimony to that they felt they had nothing to hide - even the warts and all kind of you know.
VLASTO: But does that help their argument for asserting privilege now to Congress?
COMSTOCK: Yes, yes.
VLASTO: To say, it's there, someone already independently looked at it, right?
COMSTOCK: Exactly, like we've done - because I think the argument legally is they gave it within the executive branch and that they preserved their right to claim privilege, but we're allowing him to go forward, then the president said to Bill Barr - I'm not going to, because he could have in that report taken all of that out, said it has nothing to do with anything because they didn't find anything. But I think Bill Barr rightly kept it in there, and I think the president was right to say you do right by it, because I think that gives the basis for being able to trust this that at the end of the day, you still get to see everything but also know that there wasn't a legal case there.
VLASTO: But what do you see -I mean do you really think, I mean do the - will the Democratic presidential candidates, whoever the nominee is, basically be the boss of this and say either stop the investigations or not. I mean, you and I both were part of the investigative culture and do you think that actually helped Bill Clinton?
COMSTOCK: I think probably – because - and this is where the president is playing off of Nancy Pelosi. I think the president, when he had the midterms, I think he thought in part, gee if the Democrats win, maybe that'll be better for me and I can play off of them. So, there is that line of thought. Now, I would suggest being investigated and having all that aggravation is not helpful either for the president or for the American people. So I think both the president and the American people lose by having this constant investigations there. Now what - now when we did it even leading up to 2000, George W. Bush was not part of this at all. Remember, he was coming from Texas as a governor and he wanted to turn the page, and they weren't involved in this at all. And it's different now because all of these candidates who are running are senators and House members, or the most viable ones, and they are involved in it. So I think it is going to impact them more. They can't say I'm not part of it the way Bush was able to kind of run down the field and not be involved in it and have a very robust agenda that he ran on, whereas what are you hearing from Democrats these days, but you know impeachment and those things because that's what the news wants to cover. I mean imagine if this goes - if they want to get something, or get Don McGhan’s testimony. If they do something crazy like do this inherent contempt and bring him in and try him in the House of Representatives that will be a media circus. And I think that will backfire on the Democrats.
VLASTO: I honestly have to say Barbara, this sergeant at arms and the inherent contempt thing is the greatest thing I learned today. I always try to learn one new thing every day. And now you taught me something new.
COMSTOCK: Well, Barbara Olson who had been House counsel before this you know and we worked with congressional research service people - they went through all the history and so when we saw that one we always joked about it. But when I saw somebody seriously talking about I said wow they really are out there. And I think that's the kind of, sort of off the rails thing that make most normal people who are back there, back home thinking in Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin - this is not what I voted for. And then when you have the economy doing as well as it did today, exceeding all expectations, you have a president who's going to run on an economy hopefully, you know, he should focus on that more probably than fighting with Don McGahn or anybody else because at three point two percent economy I think it's hard to beat.
PHILLIPS: Is there a Democrat right now that you see could give the president a run for his money?
COMSTOCK: I guess two questions whether the Democrats would nominate somebody who would be electable or where they - can they tear themselves away from a Bernie or their left. Because I've spent this past semester part time at Harvard University with a lot of students, most of them Democrats. And when I ask like who are they excited about, I don't hear one name. I think you've already seen some shoot up and flame out already, I think Beto is a perfect example of that. I think he's already over you know, he's sort of like a boy band. You know they kind of liked him.
VLASTO: Mayor Pete has taken that oxygen.
COMSTOCK: Yeah, yeah. Now he's taking the boy band role of position and interestingly we end up both Republicans and Democrats where the leading contenders are 70 something white men which is an interesting dynamic.
VLASTO: This was great. Barbara thank you so much.
COMSTOCK: Thank you.