News Brief: Fusion GPS Wants Congressional Testimony Made Public
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And we start with new developments concerning how the Russia investigation began.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The founders of Fusion GPS are calling on Congress to release the firm's testimony. You may remember Fusion GPS. It's the research firm that, during the 2016 election, put together what became known as the Steele dossier - a collection of unsubstantiated information about Donald Trump's ties to Russia. Well, now the Fusion GPS founders say, in a New York Times op-ed, they want the firm's testimony to be made public.
MARTIN: All right, NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell joins us in our studios this morning. Hey, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey, there.
MARTIN: First, just remind us what was in the so-called Steele dossier.
SNELL: Sure. So it was compiled by a former British intelligence officer who was working for the firm, Fusion GPS. And he found alleged direct connections between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials who were working to get him elected. So these were uncorroborated reports. And anonymous sources have - were the ones that were relied on for this. And the information was released by BuzzFeed after they obtained the information several months - maybe possibly a year - after the information was originally compiled.
MARTIN: OK. So the authors of this op-ed - these are the founders of this company Fusion GPS - they're arguing that Republicans have spun up conspiracy theories about the dossier. Like what?
SNELL: Yeah. First of all, they talk in this op-ed about refuting the claim that the Steele dossier was what started the Russia investigation.
MARTIN: The Mueller investigation...
MARTIN: ...By the FBI.
SNELL: So they don't exactly say who it is within the Trump campaign that spoke about this. But The New York Times reported over the weekend that George Papadopoulos, a campaign official who also worked in the White House, told an Australian diplomat in London about this meeting between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, when he was at a bar.
So they wanted to refute that. And they also want to refute the idea that they were doing research for the Clinton campaign when this was released. It's a little bit of them trying to clear up their own name.
MARTIN: So just to be clear - they are arguing that it wasn't the so-called Steele dossier that triggered this whole investigation, that it was used to corroborate information that they had from another source, according to The New York Times, possibly George Papadopoulos.
SNELL: Right. And they had been hearing from the intelligence community that they had heard information about the Trump campaign having discussions with Russia. And they want to clear that up. They want to have their testimony released.
MARTIN: And by releasing that testimony, that's going to dispel all of this? I mean - so they sat for Congress - let's back up - they sat for Congress in testimony...
SNELL: Yeah, they said that they did 21 hours of testimony from their firm in conversations with Congress. That's a lot of time to be spent. And they want that all out there, in part - and like I said - because they want to clear up their name. They pushed back, they say, only when it came to the investigations into their other clients that weren't related to the Steele dossier or to the campaign.
MARTIN: And they still stand by their research, even though it's been widely controversial because it can't be substantiated. They still stand by it.
SNELL: That's the way that they and this op-ed is they say they stand by their research. We don't know if Congress plans to release this. And we imagine that they will get a lot of questions. The Senate comes back into town this week, and the House returns to Washington next week, so I'm sure this will be an issue they discuss.
MARTIN: NPR's Kelsey Snell - thanks so much, Kelsey.
SNELL: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right - my button is bigger than your button. President Trump tweeted out those words last night in response to North Korea's leader.
CHANG: That's right. So Kim Jong Un gave an address in which he signaled a willingness to hold talks with South Korea. But he also jabbed President Trump, saying he has a nuclear button on his desk. President Trump tweeted, asking if someone from Kim Jong Un's regime would, quote, "please inform him that I, too, have a nuclear button. And it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my button works."
Meanwhile, U.S. department (ph) spokesperson Heather Nauert says Kim's proposal to start talks could be an effort to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea.
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HEATHER NAUERT: That will not happen. That will not occur. We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un's sincerity in sitting down and having talks.
CHANG: But today North Korea announced it will reopen a cross-border communication channel with South Korea.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz is following all of this. Hey, Rob.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So this seems like a big deal, opening up this cross-border communication channel between the North and the South. What is this channel? What does it do?
SCHMITZ: Yeah, this line of communication began in 1971, when the two Koreas agreed to use an uninhabited border village named Panmunjom along the Demilitarized Zone to make phone calls to each other. And here's how it works. South Korean officials sit inside a building in this village called Panmunjom - in the House of Freedom, it's called - and they work at a desk with one green phone for receiving calls and a red phone for making calls to the North. They also have a fax machine, if they want to go that route.
MARTIN: (Laughter) Oh, good.
SCHMITZ: It's not very high-tech (laughter). Around a hundred yards away is North Korea's building, where they have a similar setup. South Korea calls the North an odd dates. The North takes the even dates. Now, this was the case up until early 2016, when the North stopped answering the South's calls. And this was a retaliation measure North Korea took after the South halted operations at a joint factory complex the two sides had managed together. And they haven't spoken ever since until, that is of course, today.
MARTIN: Wow. So I mean, how are the North and the South framing this development?
SCHMITZ: Well, the South Korean officials that have come out to the press - they're calling this a breakthrough, a very significant step in restarting dialogue with the North. Tensions, as we all know, are very high in this region. And up until today, there hasn't been an official way for the two Koreas to regularly talk to each other. Now, of course, there's no guarantee that tensions between the two Koreas will suddenly disappear because of this.
And it's clear, at this stage at least, that Kim Jong Un wanted the line reopened to discuss the specific topic of allowing a North Korean team into the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. In the past when the two sides have held high-level talks, they often didn't resolve very much and usually ended in stalemate.
MARTIN: So we're not supposed to expect anything much from this (laughter).
SCHMITZ: You know, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, as was mentioned earlier, played down talks between the two Koreas, saying the U.S. wouldn't take any talks seriously unless they're able to get Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons.
And for President Trump's part, after sending his my-button-is-bigger-than-your-button tweet, he responded to the news of these talks with a follow-up tweet, saying perhaps this is good news, perhaps not. We will see.
But all of this aside, this is progress. It's impossible to know how this will influence Kim Jong Un and what he does with the weapons his country has developed. But it is a regular dialogue, which is something that simply hasn't been there for the two few years between these two sides.
MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz. Thanks so much, Rob.
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MARTIN: President Trump also took aim at the Palestinians yesterday.
CHANG: Yeah. So it appears President Trump is threatening to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinians. In a tweet, the president said the U.S. pays hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Palestinians and gets, quote, "no appreciation or respect."
Palestinians have protested Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They've said the U.S. can no longer be a fair mediator between Palestinians and Israelis.
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Jerusalem. Daniel, why is the president tweeting about this in this moment?
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Palestinians are furious with Trump right now because he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. And Palestinians also want parts of Jerusalem for their capital. So they're saying they don't want to be a part of any peace talks led by the U.S. But the Palestinians rely on the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. And so Trump tweeted a quote - "with the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?"
MARTIN: Wow. So U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, yesterday, said Trump is considering freezing funds to this U.N. agency that funds Palestinian refugees. Here's what she said.
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NIKKI HALEY: We're trying to move for a peace process. But if that doesn't happen, the president is not going to continue to fund that situation.
MARTIN: Is the Trump administration to be taken at its word on this? I mean, how are Palestinians reading it? Is it going to happen?
ESTRING: Well, the Palestinians don't know. And if you ask Israelis, I don't think Israel wants to see it happen. American aid actually helps keep the Palestinians afloat. For instance, the U.N. agency that Nikki Haley was speaking about - it gives food and services to Palestinian refugees. And the U.S. is the biggest funder of that agency. Behind the scenes, the Israeli military thinks that if that aid were to stop, there would be a massive humanitarian disaster, which Israel doesn't want.
And Israel has had a similar attitude about other funds to the Palestinians. I spoke today with President Obama's ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. He's now at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies. And he said - on many occasions in the past, Congress has slowed or conditioned aid to the Palestinians. But on each occasion, the Israelis have quietly asked to get Congress to eventually release those funds.
MARTIN: So you're saying Palestinians have been upset with President Trump for a while now, in particular over his decision about Israel. How are they reacting, then, to this latest tweet? Not well, I imagine.
ESTRING: One Palestinian official has called it blackmail, threatening to cut funding to the Palestinians. And actually, Rachel, Trump said something interesting in his tweet about Israelis. He said, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, it would have made the Israelis have to pay more in negotiations. And an Israeli Cabinet minister said Israel should be very wary about that.
MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem. Daniel, thanks so much.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, we mistakenly say that The New York Times reported George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat about a meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials. In fact, the Times reported that Papadopoulos told the diplomat that Russia had collected potentially damaging information about Democratic political candidate Hillary Clinton.]
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Correction Jan. 3, 2018
During this conversation, we mistakenly say that The New York Times reported George Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat about a meeting between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials. In fact, the Times reported that Papadopoulos told the diplomat that Russia had collected potentially damaging information about Democratic political candidate Hillary Clinton.