MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to turn now to U.S.-Russia relations. It's been a dizzying change from just a few weeks ago when President Trump had nothing bad to say about Russia. But here he is this past Wednesday at the White House.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.
MARTIN: And just in case the message wasn't loud and clear that the administration is now taking a firm line with Moscow, the CIA director joined the pile on this week as well. Here's Mike Pompeo taking a shot at Vladimir Putin.
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MIKE POMPEO: For anyone who for a moment thinks that this is a credible man, I'll remind you what he said about the airplane that was shot down, the Malaysian airplane. Go look at his initial quotes. Go look at what he said about the fact that there were no little green men in Ukraine and the fact that he later actually said himself that, in fact, it was his team. And I think to this day he continues to claim that there are no Russians in eastern Ukraine. This is a man for whom veracity doesn't translate into English.
MARTIN: But let's take note the tough talk on Russia comes as the FBI and Congress forge ahead with probes into ties between Trump aides and Russia. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been all over this, so we thought this was a good time to bring her back in to tie all these threads together for us. Mary Louise, thanks so much for joining us once again.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: My pleasure. Hey, Michel.
MARTIN: So, first of all, tell us about this new tough line on Russia. How big a reversal is this?
KELLY: It is enough to give you whiplash. I was in the room when Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, made those comments. It was the first time he's spoken publicly as CIA director, and you could see the eyebrows shooting up as he basically called Vladimir Putin a liar. It is striking because we are, as you know, not yet even three months into the Trump presidency, a presidency that opened with the Trump-Putin bromance on full display. And we have seen a striking shift this week. Some of that's to be expected. Every administration takes a while to hit its stride and figure out where it's going to chart its path diplomatically. But this week, very striking shift and a shift very much influenced by events in Syria.
MARTIN: You're talking about the missile strikes that President Trump ordered last week.
KELLY: Right, correct, and the chemical weapons attack that precipitated those strikes. The White House says that Syria carried out a chemical weapons attack on its own citizens on April 4. Syria denies that. Russia, Syria's main ally, also denies that. And so what you had playing out here in Washington this week was the release of a pretty remarkable report in which the White House accuses Russia of helping to cover up a chemical weapons attack in Syria the same day that President Trump came out and made that remark we just heard about relations being at an all-time low. Now, that ignores some pretty key moments in history. You know, all-time low - you compare it to the Cuban missile crisis. I don't think we're quite there, but it does underscore just how dramatic a turn things have taken in the last several days.
MARTIN: OK. So let me ask you to turn to the latest twists and turns in the investigations into Russia and the 2016 election. There were some major developments this week, and it would have been easy to miss among all the other news, so would you tell us about that?
KELLY: The drip, drip of leaks continues. The biggest development arguably this week involved Carter Page, who people may recall was a campaign adviser to then candidate Donald Trump. And the news this week that we learned is that the FBI obtained a secret court order to monitor his communications. They got this last summer. Now, to get that secret court order, the FBI would have had to convince a judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was working as a foreign agent on Russia's behalf, which sounds like a huge development, a huge twist. And on the one hand, Page was at best a bit player in Trump's orbit. He never joined the administration.
The White House has distanced himself. He's not been charged with any crime. In that sense, this is a little incremental. On the other hand, as The Washington Post - which broke this story - has reported, this is the clearest evidence we have seen so far that the FBI had reason to believe a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents. That's kind of a big deal.
MARTIN: Paul Manafort, who was decidedly not a bit player, he was Trump's campaign chairman until he was forced to step down last August because of questions about his ties to Ukraine and Russia. There was a development involving him this week. What did we learn?
KELLY: There were yet more questions about those ties to Ukraine and to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. And what we learned this week Manafort revealed that he would register as a foreign agent for lobbying work, work that was done years before he joined camp Trump we should note. He's registering retroactively, which is an admission that he should have registered as a foreign agent before and he didn't. As a consequence of registering, he's going to have to lay out who was he lobbying in the U.S. government, what did he get paid, what are the details of his contract. That could all be really interesting to watch unfold in the context of these investigations. Again, though, this is for work years before he was working with Trump, so how much it may come to haunt this White House is an open question.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, I'm going to ask you to step back and kind of give us the big picture.
KELLY: I think the takeaway this week is we continue to learn of connections between people close to Trump and Russia. I mean, there's the people we've been talking about. There's the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. There's the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions. There's Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser, who, by the way, is number one on the list of people who the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating, say they want to talk to. None of these people are accused of criminal wrongdoing. On the other hand, none of them have been especially forthcoming about contacts that they have had with Russian officials. So you have this drip, drip, drip that continues to cloud these early months of the Trump presidency and continues to raise questions about whether this White House might be vulnerable to foreign influence.
MARTIN: That's NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Mary Louise, thanks so much for joining us once again.
KELLY: My pleasure. Thanks, Michel.
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