Russia Questions Dominate First 100 Days Of Trump's Presidency
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
If you had to pick one story that's dominated these first almost-hundred days of the Trump presidency, you could do worse than this one.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Russia is fake news.
CORNISH: That's President Trump. Questions about Russia have dogged his young presidency. According to the U.S. Intelligence Community, Russia interfered in the election last year, including by releasing stolen emails and circulating misleading information.
Nearly every day of 2017 has brought some new twist to this story, so many that it's been easy to lose sight of which are actually important. So this seemed like a good moment to chart a path through the key Russia developments of these first hundred days. Our guide is NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Hey, there, Mary Louise.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, there. I feel like I should have brought a compass to chart our path (laughter)...
CORNISH: Yes, yes (laughter). Well...
KELLY: ...And a flashlight.
CORNISH: We're going to do it chronologically, right? We're going to go back a hundred days, January 20, Inauguration Day. Remind us where things were in that moment.
KELLY: January 20, if you recall, rainy day, and at that moment when Donald Trump raised his right hand and took the oath, the central core of this Russia controversy was established, that core being that Russia had interfered in the presidential election. That is the consensus of all 17 U.S. spy agencies. And at that moment when he took the oath, President Trump himself had come around to this view.
But you had, on that day, two big, unanswered questions. Among the many unanswered questions, I'd say the biggies were how Russia did this and whether anyone in Trump's orbit may have been compromised by Russian intelligence.
CORNISH: Right, and right away, the controversy shakes up the Trump Cabinet, right?
KELLY: It did. The first shoe to drop was Mike Flynn, who served briefly as Trump's first national security adviser. That shoe dropped fast, Audie. Three days after the inauguration, The Wall Street Journal published a story saying that Flynn was under counterintelligence investigation because of suspected ties to Russia.
Three weeks after that, we arrived at this moment. I'll play you a bit from the White House. This is White House spokesman Sean Spicer confirming Flynn had been sacked.
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SEAN SPICER: We got to a point not based on a legal issue, but based on a trust issue, where the level of trust between the president and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change.
KELLY: That's stunning, if you allow that just to register for a moment - the national security adviser to the president working from an office in the West Wing of the White House fired because of links to a foreign power to Russia. In Mike Flynn's case, the downfall was conversations that he had had with the Russian ambassador.
CORNISH: Right, Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, is a name, all of a sudden, we all became much more familiar with.
KELLY: He was the man of the hour for a while there.
CORNISH: Right, because Flynn wasn't the only Trump aide who had to explain contacts with the ambassador. What happened next?
KELLY: So the next shoe to drop would have been the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who remains the attorney general. He has not lost his job over this. But he did have contact with Ambassador Kislyak and failed to mention it under questioning during his confirmation hearing. Sessions denied any wrongdoing. But last month, he was forced to call this press conference and make this announcement.
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JEFF SESSIONS: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter, relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States.
KELLY: So that's Sessions stepping aside from the investigation. That tape, Audie, is from March 2. Two days after that, the floodgates opened on March 4.
CORNISH: Because that is when there is some tweeting, right? When it comes to Donald Trump, at some point there will be tweeting. And what did he say about this issue?
KELLY: This was a Saturday morning. He was headed out to play golf. But before he did, he woke up, and he started tweeting that his phones had been tapped during the campaign, and not just that, but that President Obama had ordered this wiretapping, which brings us to this next moment. This is March 20. This is the head of the FBI, Jim Comey. He showed up to testify on Capitol Hill before the House Intelligence Committee, and Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on that committee, asks him about it.
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ADAM SCHIFF: Director Comey, was the president's statement that Obama had his wires tapped in Trump Tower a true statement?
JIM COMEY: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI.
KELLY: So you hear there the FBI dismisses these claims, but interestingly President Trump has not backed off them. He continues to repeat this claim, prompting the question, why?
Democrats allege this is a diversion, that it is designed to distract us from some of the questions that President Trump would rather not be talking about. And if so, it has succeeded. We have all been talking about this for the last several weeks, but it has also very much kept the Russia story front and center. You had this already explosive controversy, and the president opened another front.
CORNISH: Then last month, the House Intelligence Committee investigation that's supposed to be looking into this stumbles. The Republican chair, Devin Nunes, who was a Trump supporter, ended up fighting to hold on to that seat. Here he is running from reporters (laughter) March 28.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But are you going stay as chairman and run this investigation?
DEVIN NUNES: Well, why would I not?
CORNISH: Well, he didn't end up (laughter) staying on that investigation. What happened, Mary Louise?
KELLY: He recused himself about a week later. And in one of these plot twists you could not make up, the reason is that Devin Nunes is now under investigation himself by the House Ethics Committee over claims that he mishandled classified information and that he might have done so in an effort to give credibility to those Trump tweets. Nunes denies that he mishandled classified information, but he has been forced to step aside from running the Russia investigation that his committee is currently in the middle of.
CORNISH: So while our attention is there, do we get any closer to an answer on Trump's claims that he was wiretapped?
KELLY: Not yet, but there are other figures, of course, who've now been caught up in this. I mean, the name that's gotten the most attention is Susan Rice, who, of course, was President Obama's national security adviser.
President Trump has suggested she committed a crime by asking for the names of people who were caught up in surveillance. President Trump has put forward no evidence to support this. But Rice has been forced to answer questions about it. Here she is answering questions from Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.
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SUSAN RICE: But let me...
ANDREA MITCHELL: Did you leak the name of Mike Flynn?
RICE: I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would.
KELLY: That exchange is from three weeks ago today. But it brings us to where we are now because Rice is going to be called to testify in these investigations that are underway into what happened with Russia.
CORNISH: And investigations, plural, right? What's going on now?
KELLY: The FBI investigation proceeds. We don't know a lot about it because it's happening behind closed doors. The House Intelligence Committee, which I had taken to describing as a political bar brawl - we had this whole sideshow, we mentioned, with Devin Nunes - they are showing signs of sobering up. They just put a hearing on the calendar. It's going to happen May 2. They say they have the head of the FBI and the head of the National Security Agency on tap to come testify.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, which appeared to be proceeding relatively smoothly, there are signs that they are now floundering. You will hear different explanations for why. But it is clear that there are parallel tracks. Republicans appear to be more interested in investigating the surveillance, wiretapping, political spying charges, and Democrats appear to be more interested in investigating what happened with Russia and the election.
CORNISH: All right, Mary Louise, well, at the beginning of this conversation, we were supposed to understand two unanswered questions; how might Russia have interfered in the election, and what role, if any, did Trump associates play in that alleged interference? It sounds like those are still open questions.
KELLY: Those are still very much live, open questions, and it is safe to say that we are months away, if not longer, from any official accounting of what happened with Russia and the 2016 election and the central mystery of how Russia might have interfered. And how you would prevent something like that from happening again in a future election remains very much a mystery.
CORNISH: That's NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks so much.
KELLY: You're welcome.
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