MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You could almost hear the Washington scandal machine shifting into overdrive this week.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When were you aware that he spoke to the Russian ambassador?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I wasn't aware of that.
KELLY: President Trump fielding questions from reporters, questions about the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and also about this man.
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JEFF SESSIONS: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.
KELLY: That would be Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Reports of contact between those two men, Sessions and the Russian ambassador, became the latest twist in a political scandal that has pretty much sucked the air out of everything else happening in Washington this week. We decided to stop and take stock of what we know and what we don't. We're christening this the everything you need to know about Russia in 10 minutes part of the show. So the clock is ticking. And to help in this endeavor, we're going to hear in just a moment from the CIA's former head of Russia operations. First, I'm joined by two reporters. Greg Miller of The Washington Post, who is breaking stories at lightning speed - Greg, a hat tip, good morning.
GREG MILLER: Hi, good morning, thank you.
KELLY: And we also have with us NPR's Scott Detrow, who's covering the story from Capitol Hill. Good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Morning.
KELLY: So I have a challenge for you both on this Sunday morning. If you had to sum up the Russia-Trump story, like if you were trying to explain this to an alien from outer space what is going on in Washington right now, what would you tell this alien? Scott, do you want to take a whack at that first?
DETROW: Sure. It'd be an interesting conversation starter. Right now, I'd say there's a general agreement that Russian actors hacked into Democratic emails and helped make them public over the course of the election. So the question is did Trump's campaign know that was going on? Were their conversations about it between Trump advisers and Russian operatives? So far, there's no evidence that's the case, but, amid all of that, now you have two close Trump advisers - first Michael Flynn and now Jeff Sessions - caught making misleading statements about conversations they had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
KELLY: The Russian ambassador, the man of the hour. Greg, what's your story for our alien friend?
MILLER: I would start by telling this alien, you know, whatever civilization you're in right now, it might be more functional than ours. Perhaps you should stay put. No, but I think Scott just hit it. I mean, I would say a couple things. So every day becomes more obvious, I think, that Russia really destabilized a fundamental piece of American democracy, really attacked the 2016 presidential campaign. And we're just only beginning to come to grips with that. Second, that you have an untested politician in the White House whose administration has an odd affinity for the Russian president, has a weird web of connections with Russian officials and a real inability to be very honest about that or forthcoming. And that is why we've had two senior administration officials be in deep trouble over this in just a matter of weeks. But as Scott said, there so far is no clear evidence of collaboration or collusion between the Trump team and Russia, just sort of a weird reluctance to confront what happened.
KELLY: Scott, we should note the latest plot twist that has emerged over the weekend came in the form of a tweet storm from the president accusing his predecessor, President Obama, of wiretapping him. What should we make of this?
DETROW: Yeah. President Trump's response when he's in a tight situation is often to create a one-on-one feud with someone else. And that's what he seemed to be trying to do with former President Obama here claiming on Twitter that Obama approved a wiretap of Trump Tower. The president - former president responded through a spokesman, saying that the White House never interfered with investigations and that this is false. But Trump's claim does raise a question that if there was some sort of surveillance and it involved a warrant, then there may have been probable cause somewhere. Initially, there was no response from Trump's staffers for almost a full day, but this morning, Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement requesting that these congressional investigations include a looking into whether or not executive branch powers were abused in 2016.
KELLY: So again, no evidence to support this claim that President Trump is making. And we're not exactly sure where he's getting this from.
DETROW: Which, of course, has happened on several other topics as well.
KELLY: Greg, I should note - with maybe a little smidge of jealousy in my voice - that you and your colleagues at The Post broke the story this week about the Jeff Sessions meeting with Russia's ambassador and that he then failed to disclose that at his confirmation hearing. Do you think Sessions will survive this?
MILLER: You know, at the - when we first started putting that story together, I probably would have said yes, and maybe I still would lean in that direction, but I think it gets harder to say that. I think that for a couple reasons. One is his own political skills have been pretty wobbly on this. I mean, his press conference to try to explain this went all over the place. It was not very coherent. Then he went on television that night and I thought compounded his problems and said something odd in that interview that should be getting even more attention. He basically said that he is - he does not agree with the conclusions of the intelligence community, including the FBI, which he oversees, that Russia did...
KELLY: That he's not sure why Russia might have interfered in the election. You'd have to ask the Russians, he said.
MILLER: Correct, yeah. I thought that was a bizarre response. And I think that Trump's behavior makes it harder for his own team to withstand all of this. I mean, Trump, yesterday with his tweets, again today with his tweets, keeps this story at such a high boil that I think it perhaps does make it more likely that you end with some sort of independent investigation to try to get to the bottom of all of it.
KELLY: Let me push back at you both and give you both a chance to give me a quick answer to this. The White House, in the form of Spokesman Sean Spicer, has told the press corps you're wasting your time covering this story. There is no there there, he says. It's a non-story. Would either of you remotely entertain the idea that this is all smoke, no fire?
DETROW: I don't think that's the case at this point because, again, now you have two very top Trump advisers, people close in his inner circle, making misleading statements and only correcting the record after independent reporting was done saying otherwise.
KELLY: OK. Greg.
MILLER: I do think it's conceivable that you get to the end of all this and we may still may never uncover evidence of collusion or collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia. But I do think that this - that the reason for their interference here points to Trump and that Trump's response to this is so problematic that it become - that it is - that's why it's a lasting political crisis for him.
KELLY: Well, I look forward to what you both continue to dig up on this. That was Greg Miller of The Washington Post and NPR's congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you both.
DETROW: Thanks for having me.
MILLER: Thank you.
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