Morning News Brief: Trump's Request To Comey And Sharing Intelligence With Russia
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And, David, if President Trump thought he was going to be done with James Comey after he fired him as FBI director, looks like he may have been wrong.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, it sure sounds like it. So this memo has surfaced that was written by Comey after he had a meeting with President Trump in February. And according to this memo, Rachel, which was first reported by The New York Times, President Trump asked Comey to stop investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn. This is, of course, all part of the FBI's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.
MARTIN: OK. NPR's lead politics editor, Domenico Montanaro, is in the studio again with us. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: What exactly does this memo say?
MONTANARO: Well, NPR has confirmed, through associates of Comey's, that Comey took notes of his meeting with the president in February and said that the president asked him, of the Flynn investigation, quote, "I hope you can let this go." Now, we don't have the physical memo in hand. And The New York Times, which first reported this, said it was read to them over the phone. But Comey has a history of memorializing significant events, and this is a blockbuster, frankly - potentially very damning for the White House and for President Trump. So the next step here is going to be if this memo is produced.
MARTIN: So the White House is denying this report outright. They say the president never pressured Comey to drop this investigation into Flynn. Democrats are seizing on this, though. What are the repercussions if this conversation did happen?
MONTANARO: They are potentially huge, Rachel. The White House seems to recognize this. This White House tries to spin its way out of everything, from simple things like inauguration crowd sizes and whether a spokesperson promised to get information, to much bigger things, like whether Trump revealed classified information to the Russians. But this, they seem to understand, is - could potentially cross a line if you read their statement. Two words here - two I words that have been mentioned, started to be mentioned - independent investigation and some Democrats even using the other I word, impeachment.
MARTIN: Impeachment. So what about the Republicans in Congress? How - how are they reacting to any of this?
MONTANARO: Well, and the Republicans are the key here because for all the Democrats and liberals who want to talk about impeachment for obstruction of justice or anything else, Republicans are the ones who control Congress. They control the House. They control the Senate. And, you know, right now Republicans are not at that point, certainly. They range - their responses have been ranging from exhaustion at the pace of all this to disbelief at anonymous sourcing, by the way, to alarm.
Jason Chaffetz, who's the head of the House oversight committee, penned a letter to the FBI acting director, McCabe, yesterday saying if true, these memoranda raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede the FBI's investigation. And he wants these memos turned over by May 24. So we're going to see if eventually we get those within a week.
MARTIN: I want to play a clip of tape from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. This is what he told reporters yesterday.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: If Mr. Comey is alleging the president did something inappropriate, I don't want to read a memo. I want to hear it from him.
MARTIN: So there are calls for the president to produce this memo if he's got it or to at least confirm the nature of this conversation. But here Graham is saying, I want to hear from Comey. Is that likely to happen? Could we see Comey in front of a committee?
MONTANARO: He's a private citizen and certainly could be compelled to testify. It's something he's done in the past and wouldn't be surprising if he eventually gets called to testify again.
MARTIN: OK, so Domenico, stay with us because this, of course, all folds into another bigger aspect of this. The White House is still defending itself against allegations that the president shared too much with Russian officials last week - right, David?
GREENE: Yeah, Rachel. And Domenico, so this allegation is that the president revealed sensitive intelligence related to the fight against ISIS, intelligence that, according to multiple news reports now, came from Israel. After criticism started pouring in over this, the president sent out a series of defensive tweets. And yesterday, Trump's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, spoke to White House reporters about what the president told the Russians.
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H R MCMASTER: He shares information in a way that is wholly appropriate. And I should just make - I should just make, maybe, the statement here that - that the president wasn't even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either.
MARTIN: OK, we're going to bring in another voice to the conversation. NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre is here. Hi, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK, that last line of McMaster's statement reveals a lot. Is it possible that President Trump told the Russians this information and had no idea where it came from and that it could jeopardize our intelligence partner?
MYRE: Well, that was the sort of little bomblet that the McMaster dropped as he was leaving the briefing yesterday. I think he ended up raising more questions than he might have answered, this fundamental question of how the president is receiving and processing information. It sounds like it was passed to him in a casual manner. And some of the details were left out, and he sort of brought it up casually with the Russians.
MARTIN: He doesn't get daily intelligence briefings.
MYRE: It's not clear. You know, he's - at times, they said he doesn't need it every day. And some officials have then said, well, no, he is getting them regularly. So this has been an issue. And I'd also just add a quick note about McMaster. I mean, he's supposed to be the adult in the room, the person at the president's side who can guide him through these sorts of tricky questions. And yet, he was in the room, and yet this episode seems to have been handled pretty poorly.
MARTIN: Do we know any more about the nature of the information the president revealed in his meeting with the Russians?
MYRE: The basic information is about the Islamic State and a laptop computer and a bomb that they could put in a laptop computer and get on a plane. So that's the fundamental thing. We don't have additional details beyond that other than to say, again, the U.S. and Russia are both against the Islamic State. But they take different sides in terms of supporting or opposing President Bashar Assad. And therefore, sharing any sensitive information has been taboo.
MARTIN: Domenico, the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, went to Capitol Hill yesterday. What was he there to do?
MONTANARO: Well, this was a prescheduled briefing. But certainly he was going to get grilled by a lot of Republicans who wanted to hear what - what was actually the latest with what this president actually said to the Russians in that Oval Office meeting. I should say, McMaster's press conference did serve to sort of tamp down some Republicans on Capitol Hill. You heard people like Orrin Hatch after that press conference say, you know, I think these things are blown way out of proportion.
MARTIN: And finally, Greg, the relationship between the intelligence community and the president has been fraught from the very beginning. So how does this leave it? I mean, this latest development must only be exacerbating that.
MYRE: Absolutely. Trump and the intelligence community got off to that rocky start when he questioned their finding on Russia interference in the U.S. election. He's been railing about them throughout the first few months.
MARTIN: And leaks - he thinks the leaks are all coming from the...
MYRE: And one last little note about the Comey meeting is that he was even calling for reporters to be jailed if they released - report classified information.
MARTIN: Greg Myre, Domenico Montanaro, thanks, you two.
MYRE: Thank you, Rachel.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
MARTIN: All right, David, let's talk more about if and how all this could affect America's intelligence partnerships.
GREENE: Yeah, and one key relationship actually where the focus is right now, and that's the United States and Israel. As we mentioned, several news outlets are saying Israel provided the intelligence that the president disclosed to those Russian diplomats. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, released a statement yesterday. And it said, Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.
MARTIN: All right, we are joined now by Chemi Shalev. He is an Israeli columnist, and he's joining us on the line from just outside Tel Aviv. Chemi, thanks for being here.
CHEMI SHALEV: Hi, how are you?
MARTIN: I'm well. How is this being reported in Israel? Is there an acknowledgement that this intelligence came from Israel?
SHALEV: Well, there's no official acknowledgement. But there is - judging by the statements and the reports and the press reports, it sounds very credible that indeed it came from Israel. I don't think you'll hear a public acknowledgement. But off the record and in conversations - and, in fact, by the way, for example, the defense minister just announced that ties with the U.S. will remain as vibrant as before - it's implicit that the report about the source of the information is apparently true.
MARTIN: So the Israeli government, as you note, at least publicly wants to leave the impression that everything's fine, nothing to see here. We're moving on. Is it the same within Israel's intelligence service?
SHALEV: I don't think so. I think there is, first of all, concern about the damage that was specifically done to Israeli assets as a result of this leak, secondly, concern about the safety of information that is moved to the United States and angry, even, at the fact that this relationship would be put in such jeopardy. But - but on the other hand, I mean, there are a lot of ex, former, you know, intelligence people who are really angry and are venting their anger in the media.
But I'm assuming that the immediate target and the immediate objective of the intelligence services is just a way to calm things down, to get things back to normal and to try to make sure that this doesn't happen again, which is not - you know, not necessarily something easy to do.
MARTIN: And we should note, President Trump is going to Israel. He's going on his first big foreign trip. Israel's part of that. He has a close relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. Do you expect both leaders to just try to bypass this whole thing and - and move on to other topics?
SHALEV: I don't think they'll - I mean, I'm sure they will discuss it in, you know, in their private conversations. I don't think it'll come up in public. I think it does, in a way, perhaps give Netanyahu an advantage because it means that Trump is coming here with something to apologize for. Although, I'm not sure that Donald Trump is the kind of guy who would be aware of that.
MARTIN: Yeah. Chemi, we'll have to leave it there. Chemi Shalev, he's a columnist for the Israeli paper Haaretz. Thank you so much for your time this morning, Chemi.
SHALEV: You're welcome.
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