Trump Stories: Collusion : Embedded Embedded tells the story of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. What contacts did people in Trump campaign have with Russia? What financial and business ties has President Trump had with Russia over the years? And what more can we expect from the investigation? Through new interviews, archival research, and a look at key moments — from Miss Universe in Moscow, to hacked emails and promises of "dirt" — Embedded pieces together the story that defined the first year of the Trump White House.
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Trump Stories: Collusion

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Trump Stories: Collusion

Trump Stories: Collusion

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED. In 1986, a Russian diplomat named Yuri Dubinin is driving in New York City with his daughter. And he goes by this big, shiny skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan with gold letters that say Trump Tower. And he tells his daughter he wants to meet the owner.

LUKE HARDING: He takes the lift up, meets Donald Trump, who is a bit busy, and charms him. So Dubinin says to Trump, Mr. Trump, you have made the most beautiful building in all of America, delighted to meet you. And then Trump melts.

MCEVERS: This is Luke Harding. He's a correspondent at The Guardian. He's covered Russia for years. And the story he's telling comes from interviews in the Russian press with Yuri Dubinin's daughter, who was there. So after the meeting, Dubinin and Trump stay in touch.

LUKE HARDING: And then a few months later, there's an invite - an official invite for Trump to go on this all-expenses-paid trip to Moscow.

MCEVERS: And the reason for that, Dubinin's daughter says, is Dubinin told Trump he was imagining a skyscraper just like Trump Tower in Moscow across from the Kremlin. Trump even writes in his book "The Art Of The Deal" that it will be built, quote, "in partnership with the Soviet government." And so in the summer of 1987, Trump and his wife at the time, Ivana, go to Moscow.

HARDING: We do know his travel was arranged by Intourist, which is a Soviet travel agency essentially run by the KGB. So we can say that he was brought to Moscow by the KGB without exaggeration. The Trumps were staying in the National Hotel, which is just around the corner from Red Square. You can walk in three minutes to Lenin's mausoleum. What we can say with complete certainty is that the National Hotel in the Trump suite would have been bugged. Everything Trump said there would have been recorded, and it would have been added to this file on him. And somewhere in Moscow, there will be a record of what he said, who he met and what they thought of him.

MCEVERS: Somewhere in the Lubyanka.

HARDING: Somewhere in the Lubyanka.

MCEVERS: That's the headquarters of the KGB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And we should say, if this room was bugged in 1987, the recordings have never surfaced. But Luke Harding says this visit is important because it means that going back decades, Russian officials have been interested in bringing Donald Trump into their world, either as someone who will willingly help them or is someone who can be blackmailed into helping them. This is the kind of person the KGB was after.

HARDING: The KGB was desperate to recruit, cultivate Americans, Americans with a future, Americans who are going somewhere. And they were looking for people who are flawed, who are vain but also ambitious, narcissistic, and most importantly, kind of corruptible.

MCEVERS: And we know that going back decades, Donald Trump has been interested in doing business with Russia. So it's like this transactional relationship. We do stuff for you or maybe we blackmail you. And at some point perhaps, you'll do stuff for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And this, this is basically what that big investigation that's all over the news is about, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. We know Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. We know Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee and released thousands of emails to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. The thing we still don't know is, did the Russians do this with Trump's knowledge or even his help as part of this transactional relationship I just described? That is the question.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: If the answer answer is yes, then it could add up to criminal conspiracy. Some people call it collusion. We'll get to that in a minute. If the answer is no, then Donald Trump will be exonerated and this whole huge thing that's been hanging over his entire time in office will go away. And there are a lot of people who say the answer is no, let us be clear - people who work in the White House, members of the Trump family and members of the Republican Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

JOHN DICKERSON: Did any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, of course not.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Absolutely not. Those conversations never happened.

JARED KUSHNER: I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so.

JEFF SESSIONS: And the suggestion that I participated in any collusion is an appalling and detestable lie.

SEAN SPICER: This political witch hunt by some in the media is, frankly, shameful and disgraceful.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: There never was any collusion.

ERIC TRUMP: There's nothing there. It is the greatest witch hunt of all time.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And, by the way, folks, just in case you're, like, curious - no, Russia did not help me. OK. Russia. I call it the Russian hoax.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Whatever you think about this investigation, hoax or totally legit, what we're going to do today is lay out everything we know so far about Trump and his people and their contacts with the Russians during the campaign. So the next time you hear or read a headline about this investigation, you will know how it fits into the bigger story because however this investigation goes down, it has already changed the Trump presidency and more is likely to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: All right.

MCEVERS: Coolness. Say your name.

LUCAS: Me?

MCEVERS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LUCAS: Is there anybody else? Ryan Lucas.

MCEVERS: All right. What's your title?

LUCAS: I cover the Justice Department. That's probably the easiest way of putting it.

MCEVERS: OK, so we're going to have some help telling the story from NPR's Ryan Lucas. He's been reporting on the Russia investigation for more than a year. He's also a former foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe. And so I started out by asking Ryan to talk about Robert Muller's investigation.

Just sort of explain what collusion means.

LUCAS: Well, the thing is he's not actually investigating collusion. Collusion is the word that for some reason has kind of entered the popular mind, but it's coordination - possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. Were they working together to hack the DNC's emails? Was there any sort of coordination on handing off that material to WikiLeaks? Was there any sort of interaction between folks in the Trump camp and the Russian government, Russian government proxies to try to win the campaign?

MCEVERS: That is what they're investigating?

LUCAS: That is what they're investigating.

MCEVERS: Coordination during the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016. That is what we're gonna call it - coordination. And we should just say right here we reached out to the White House and to the president's lawyers for this story. The White House did not respond, and the president's lawyers did not agree to an interview. So before we tell this story about coordination during the campaign, we need to talk real quick about Donald Trump's business dealings with Russia over the decades. That'll help this campaign staff make more sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Remember, it all started in 1986, when Yuri Dubinin went up that elevator. Then Trump traveled to Russia. Then this Happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: I'm looking forward to welcoming Mr. Gorbachev to Washington.

MCEVERS: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev comes to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: At the State Department, he saw more members of Congress along with government officials and business leaders.

MCEVERS: And one of those business leaders who Gorbachev meets is Donald Trump. Trump and Gorbachev at some point have a long conversation about economics and hotels a Trump spokesman said at the time. In the '90s, Trump goes back to Russia. His company applies for its first trademark there. An architect draws up plans for two luxury residential buildings in Moscow. Those buildings don't happen.

And back at home, the Trump Organization goes through several bankruptcies. Most banks won't lend him money, so he has to look elsewhere for funding, like to Deutsche Bank, which loaned Trump hundreds of millions of dollars at the same time New York State alleges the bank was involved in a $10 billion Russian money-laundering scheme. The bank has already paid massive fines for this. And Robert Mueller has reportedly subpoenaed Trump's records from Deutsche Bank. And he gets funding from this developer called Bayrock, which helps build Trump SoHo.

A lawsuit by a former Bayrock employee claims some funding came from a company in Iceland that's connected to Russia. We did a whole episode about this. You should listen. And some funding comes from Russian oligarchs who buy Trump's properties. Trump sold one house in Florida to a Russian billionaire for nearly $60 million more than he paid for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

D. TRUMP: I sold a house for a hundred million...

DAVID LETTERMAN: Two bedroom?

D. TRUMP: ...Two weeks ago. Even worse, I think it's a teardown. You know, I think it's a teardown.

LETTERMAN: It's a teardown (laughter).

D. TRUMP: To a very nice Russian.

MCEVERS: Luke Harding, who you heard at the beginning of this episode, has reported on this. And he says Trump's profit on the sale - almost $60 million - raises a lot of questions. The oligarch never even lived in the house, later tore it down. The oligarch's spokesman says it still might be a good investment. Also around this time, Trump's children are spending a lot of time in Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP JR.: I've been there many times. And I've spent quite a bit of time in Moscow looking at deals.

MCEVERS: But still no major deals yet. Trump tells lawyers in a deposition, we will be in Moscow at some point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCEVERS: All right. So now we're up to 2013. That's when this happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: You have a special announcement of where the Miss Universe pageant will be held this year. Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The Miss Universe pageant will be held at Crocus City Hall in Moscow, Russia. So get ready.

MCEVERS: So just remember what I said at the top. Trump's critics see this whole relationship through the prism of, we help you or we blackmail you and you help us. Over the years, they say, Russian officials and businessmen keep the door open for some kind of Trump building in Moscow while Russian oligarchs and businessmen invest in different Trump properties. And in exchange, the theory goes, Trump owes them. Trump and his supporters, of course, say this is complete nonsense. It is all just business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So this whole pageant idea actually starts at the Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas. Two Russian men, father and son Aras and Emin Agalarov, come from Moscow to Las Vegas and make a deal with Trump, who, at the time co-owned Miss USA and Miss Universe. And the deal was to broadcast Miss Universe from the Agalarov's property in Moscow, this big performance space called Crocus City Hall. Aras Agalarov is a major Russian oligarch. Luke Harding actually met Agalarov when he was working as a correspondent in Russia.

HARDING: He is charming. Aras Agalarov, he's an Azeri - that's Azerbaijan - Russian tycoon who is actually - I would say he's a more successful version of Donald Trump. I mean, he's a genuine real estate developer. He has this kind of mega-building, Crocus, which is an exhibition space by the Moscow Ring Road. And I spent a day with him because he was at that point building a kind of, a sort of utopian village in greater Moscow for the super rich where each house cost $25 million, where it had sand imported from Thailand. You had a golf course. And Aras Agalarov drove me round in a Land Rover, British Land Rover Jeep. So here was a man of supreme confidence with the right connections both with the Moscow regional government and with the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.

MCEVERS: Yeah. What is his connection there?

HARDING: Well, he's an oligarch. So he lives in this banded space where if the Kremlin rings, you pick up the phone. It's a life of enormous privilege, but it's also a life of obligation, political obligation.

MCEVERS: We've opened doors for you, and so when we come calling, you need to do our bidding.

HARDING: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: About a week before the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, Aras Agalarov gets this big award from Vladimir Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: It's called the Order of Honor. Agalarov tweets a picture of himself next to Putin with the award pinned on his chest. Around the same time, Trump tweets, do you think Putin will be going to the Miss Universe pageant? If so, will he become my new best friend?

(SOUNDBITE OF 62ND MISS UNIVERSE PAGEANT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We are just a few hours away from the 2013 Miss Universe competition, and we are here at the red carpet with all the celebrity judges and talents.

MCEVERS: All right. So everybody gathers at Crocus City Hall. The pageant happens. Emin Agalarov performs. He's actually a pop star.

(SOUNDBITE OF 62ND MISS UNIVERSE PAGEANT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Please welcome international recording artist Emin.

(APPLAUSE)

MCEVERS: Comes onstage and does a couple of verses of a song. Then they announce some contestants.

(SOUNDBITE OF 62ND MISS UNIVERSE PAGEANT)

MCEVERS: Donald Trump is sitting in the front row, clapping and looking psyched. And during this Miss Universe weekend, Emin Agalarov also shoots a music video and some of the Miss Universe contestants are required to be in it, but they reportedly don't get paid for it. Donald Trump is also in the video sitting at a boardroom table like he's on "The Apprentice."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO, EMIN'S "ANOTHER LIFE")

D. TRUMP: (As character) You're fired.

MCEVERS: And also that weekend, Trump meets some very well-connected Russians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: I really loved my weekend. I called it my weekend in Moscow. But I was with the top-level people, both oligarchs and generals and top-of-the-government people. I can't go further than that, but I will tell you that I met the top people.

MCEVERS: Bloomberg News reports Trump has lunch at this fancy restaurant with the Agalarovs, the CEO of Russia's biggest bank, this guy who used to be in Putin's cabinet, and more than a dozen Russian business executives and tycoons. And at some point during the weekend, Trump and Aras Agalarov talk about how to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. Agalarov later told this to Russian TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARAS AGALAROV: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: ...And, this weekend is not long after the Obama administration has banned from travel and frozen the assets of 18 Russian officials. And the other thing that happens during this weekend is it's possible the Russians got something called kompromat on Trump. This is a rabbit hole we're not going to go too far down, but just know there's this former British spy named Christopher Steele and he was hired by a research firm that was working for Hillary Clinton to look at Trump's ties with Russia. And his Russian sources told him that one night during the Miss Universe weekend while Trump was staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, Russian intelligence obtained information that could later be used against Trump. This all comes from that infamous dossier, the Steele dossier. It has not been independently verified so that's all we're going to say about it. Trump's former bodyguard, who was there the night in question, has testified that the events that the dossier describes did not happen. But if you think there is coordination, or if you're investigating the question of whether there was coordination, this weekend in Moscow might tell you something about this alleged we help you, or, we blackmail you and maybe you help us relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Because here's what the different players get out of that weekend, right? Emin Agalarov gets the beautiful Miss Universe contestants and a reality star named Donald Trump to promote him and be in his music video. Trump gets paid a lot of money to do the pageant in the first place. The whole package was $20 million. And, he gets meetings with some big-time Russians, even though he never does get a meeting with Putin. Aras Agalarov, this oligarch, an associate of Putin, gets to have a conversation about Russian-American relations with an American who might later become influential. And the Russian government perhaps gets kompromat.

And the flip side to this, of course, is this is just how business gets done, right? I mean, most people would agree it's pretty normal for a real estate developer and reality TV star to hang out with pop singers and have lunch with high-ranking officials. Either way, at the end of the trip, Donald Trump tweets at Aras Agalarov - I had a great weekend with you and your family. You have done a fantastic job. And then, in all caps, he writes - Trump Tower Moscow is next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: Ladies and gentlemen...

MCEVERS: Two years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: I am officially running for president of the United States. And we are going to make our country great again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: After the break, the campaign, a whole new way of talking about Russia and three campaign staffers get the attention of federal investigators.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK. So now that we know all of this about Trump's relationship with Russia over the decades, now we can talk about what happened during Trump's campaign. Remember, he announces he's running in the summer of 2015. And right away, one of the things that sticks out is that Trump has this totally different take on U.S. foreign policy with Russia, not just different from the Obama administration but different from what all other Republicans are saying about Russia on the campaign trail. Here's NPR's Ryan Lucas again.

LUCAS: If you look at how Republicans traditionally view Russia, it's as an adversary, as a political threat, strategic rival. You have all of the folks who are in the Republican campaign primaries - and there were a lot of them - all took a very kind of hard-line view of Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLY FIORINA: Russia is a bad actor. Vladimir Putin is someone we should not talk to.

SCOTT WALKER: I would send weapons to Ukraine. I would work with NATO to put forces on the eastern border of Poland.

TED CRUZ: Russia used cyberwarfare against the Joint Chiefs. We need a new commander-in-chief that will stand up to our enemies and that will have credibility.

LUCAS: And then you have somebody like Trump who is coming out and saying, you know, we want to have a better relationship with with Russia. I think Putin's a bright guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: I will get along, I think, with Putin.

And having Putin dropping bombs on ISIS is a very positive thing.

You would like to call him a weak leader. He's a strong leader.

LUCAS: You juxtapose that with what everybody else was saying, including Democrats, Trump's comments really stand out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? And I mean where we have the strength. I don't think you'd need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.

LUCAS: I think the idea of not needing sanctions is something that certainly was not the view of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, certainly not the view of the Obama administration and not the view of other Republicans. And you talk to people in intelligence circles, in foreign policy circles and people who have contacts with the Russian foreign policy establishment, the one thing that repeatedly comes up that the Russians want to change is they want the sanctions on their economy lifted.

MCEVERS: These are those Obama-era restrictions on Russian officials and other sanctions to restrict investment in Russia's energy sector.

Why do you think these kinds of comments could be interesting to the investigation?

LUCAS: If what he's saying aligns with Russian foreign policy objectives, Russian foreign policy goals and the reason that he's saying it is potentially because the Russians have dirt on him or the Russians are going to help him win in exchange for that, then that's a problem. And that's an interest to the special counsel.

MCEVERS: In other words, it's not a crime to want a new U.S. approach to Russia, but if that change is tied to stuff like helping with the campaign or to some threat of blackmail, that's a different story. Trump's advisers say there's nothing to see here. The Obama administration had failed on Russia and Trump was just promising to make a change. So 2015, during the campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin is asked about Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Donald Trump.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Russian President Vladimir Putin called Trump a very bright and talented man and the absolute leader of the presidential race. Trump said he was flattered.

D. TRUMP: And Putin likes me. Putin says, Trump is brilliant. I love that when he says I'm brilliant. But Putin said Trump is brilliant, he's the real leader, blah, blah, blah. Now I don't know if he means it, if he doesn't mean it. I don't care. I like it, OK?

MCEVERS: You have Trump praising Putin, Putin praising Trump. And around the same time, summer and fall 2015, something else is going on. Hackers are trying to get into the Democratic National Committee's computer system.

LUCAS: Two hacker groups - one was Cozy Bear, one was Fancy Bear - they're both tied to the Russian government.

MCEVERS: And one of those two groups, which a joint report of the CIA, FBI and NSA later says is actually Russian intelligence, gets in.

LUCAS: They gained access to the DNC's network in the summer of 2015. As far as we know, they got the emails and the chat material of the DNC. So you have internal emails of people, you know, talking about everything from, you know, have you read this article or that article? Are you going out for lunch to discussions of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Hillary Clinton campaign? And ways to kind of downplay Sanders' meteoric rise on the left, stuff that you don't want the outside world to see necessarily.

MCEVERS: At that point in 2015, the outside world didn't see it, that would happen later. So now we are in early 2016. Trump has started to win some primaries, but still you have Republicans and people in the foreign policy world saying he's not legit because he doesn't have a real policy team.

LUCAS: He was getting a lot of flak for that in the spring, the late winter and then spring of 2016. And then in March of 2016, he sits down with The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mr. Trump, welcome to The Washington Post.

D. TRUMP: Thank you.

LUCAS: And lo and behold, he has a couple of names that he comes up with...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCAS: OK, you ready?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Taking notes.

D. TRUMP: Walid Phares, who you probably know.

LUCAS: ...None of which are big names in the foreign policy world. And then you get into two names that have really - that would resonate now. One is Carter Page...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: Carter Page, Ph.D.

LUCAS: ...Who was an energy consultant. And the other is George Papadopoulos...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: George Papadopoulos. He's an oil and energy consultant, excellent guy.

LUCAS: ...Who was a young guy who had graduated from DePaul University pretty recently, and he was working in London on energy issues. But neither one of them - you know, they left people scratching their heads. People had to go check their LinkedIn profiles online to figure out who these guys were.

MCEVERS: And so let's just kind of go through these two that really stood out. Let's talk about George Papadopoulos. You said he was young. He was a recent graduate at DePaul. What else do we know about him?

LUCAS: He came into the Trump campaign because he had been working ever so briefly as a foreign policy adviser for the Carson campaign.

MCEVERS: Ben Carson.

LUCAS: Yes. And at the time that he was named a foreign policy adviser, he was working as an energy consultant in London. His focus had generally been on the eastern Mediterranean, so on Greece, Cyprus, Israel. But he's not somebody that really rang a lot of bells with folks, even people in that field. He had established a sort of relationship with a professor in London by the name of Joseph Mifsud, who, according to court papers, has ties to the Russian government and Russian intelligence services.

MCEVERS: These court papers Ryan's talking about documents that lay out what is now the federal government's case against George Papadopoulos. They call it a statement of offense.

LUCAS: And Mifsud took an interest in Papadopoulos after it was announced the Papadopoulos was going to be an adviser to the Trump campaign.

MCEVERS: And just to explain Mifsud, he's not himself Russian. Describe who he is a little bit.

LUCAS: So Mifsud is a Maltese professor. He was working in London, tends to travel a lot.

MCEVERS: He's also a former official in the Maltese Foreign Ministry. He helped negotiate Malta's entrance into the EU. And he ran a university in Slovenia.

LUCAS: And has pretty good contacts with officials in a Russian think tank, but that think tank has ties to the Russian government and people in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

MCEVERS: And according to these court papers, Mifsud and Papadopoulos first meet in Italy in March 2016. Mifsud told The Daily Telegraph he introduced Papadopoulos to the director of a Russian think tank to help him understand Russian foreign policy. The court papers say Mifsud and Papadopoulos talk about setting up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulos emails his supervisor in the Trump campaign about this and gets a response - great work. And then the court papers say Mifsud and Papadopoulos meet again the following month in London.

Tell us about this April meeting between Mifsud and Papadopoulos.

LUCAS: So this meeting takes place on April 26. And Mifsud and Papadopoulos have breakfast at a hotel in London. During the meeting, Mifsud tells Papadopoulos that he just got back from a trip to Moscow where he had meetings with high-ranking Russian officials. And he learned that the Russians had what he called dirt on Hillary Clinton and that the dirt is basically thousands of emails that the Russians have hacked, which we now know, of course, was true.

MCEVERS: It's true that the Russians have the emails, but Joseph Mifsud denies knowing or saying anything about this to George Papadopoulos.

LUCAS: We don't know anything beyond what's described in the court papers at this point. The court papers don't say what Papadopoulos did with this information, whether he took it back to senior Trump campaign officials or not. What we do know from the court papers is that Papadopoulos did continue to correspond with campaign officials and that he kept in communication with Mifsud and an official with ties to the Russian Foreign Ministry. But we don't know specifically what he did with the information about the Russians having dirt on Hillary Clinton.

MCEVERS: During this same time, early 2016, George Papadopoulos actually worked in an office in London that was run by Mifsud - and so did this woman.

SIMONA MANGIANTE: Simona Mangiante.

MCEVERS: Simona Mangiante.

MANGIANTE: Yeah.

MCEVERS: And where are you from?

MANGIANTE: I'm from Italy, from nearby Naples.

MCEVERS: Simona Mangiante is now George Papadopoulos's fiance. She worked at this office after he did. And they actually met because George saw on LinkedIn that they had both worked in this same weird place. So I tell Ryan all about it. And she describes this really strange office in London. It's like - what's it called? - it's the Centre for...

MANGIANTE: Centre for International Law Practice, which was a partner of the London Academy of Diplomacy. And Mifsud offered me this job.

MCEVERS: He recruited her because she was working for the European Parliament. And he recruited her, like, come work for my center.

MANGIANTE: And he was interested to hire, let's say, young people with political connections to have access to their network.

MCEVERS: But it was just like this table. And, you know, you had to, like, bring your own laptop. And it wasn't ever really totally clear what exactly your job was...

MANGIANTE: It was really looking like weird, no work agenda. And they didn't even pay me.

MCEVERS: ...And that, like, she was told to attend a secret symposium.

MANGIANTE: Secret symposium. Leaders all around the world will be there, but it's secret so we cannot give you any details about it.

MCEVERS: And like somebody even bought plane tickets.

MANGIANTE: I think it was to Beirut - to Beirut, yeah.

MCEVERS: But then we asked her, you know, when you found out later from the United States government that he's considered to be somebody in touch with Russia, like, did that surprise you? And she's like...

MANGIANTE: Would not to be surprised.

MCEVERS: It wouldn't surprise you?

MANGIANTE: No. No.

MCEVERS: We reached out to Mifsud and to another man who ran this center, neither of them responded. Another organization Mifsud ran, the London Academy of Diplomacy, has now been shut down. Ryan Lucas says if these U.S. government allegations are true, the idea of a Maltese professor connecting a Trump campaign staffer with Russian officials fits a pattern.

LUCAS: I will say that if you talk to people in the intelligence community about how the Russian intelligence apparatus works, this is entirely consistent with how they would do this.

MCEVERS: Right.

LUCAS: So you have somebody who isn't, one, working for the Russian government directly. Two, they don't have to be a Russian themself. But it's cut-out, so to speak. They are allowed to kind of cultivate these people and provide introductions and kind of act as a middleman between somebody of interest like George Papadopoulos and the Russian government.

MCEVERS: So that's the special counsel's version of George Papadopoulos's role as laid out in these court papers. Trump's version is different. The White House and former Trump campaign advisers say George Papadopoulos was just a low-level unpaid volunteer.

LUCAS: There were people who just described him as somebody who nobody knew who he was. He was some George guy who worked and never really had contact with anybody in the campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: This was a campaign volunteer. He wasn't somebody that was a senior adviser, as many of you want to bill him to be. He was somebody that played a minimal role, if one at all.

MICHAEL CAPUTO: I never heard of Papadopoulos. He never showed up at Trump Tower, never had any interaction with any of the campaign leaders around me. And the leaders of the Washington office of the campaign didn't even know who he was. He was the coffee boy.

LUCAS: But, of course, it also turned out that there was a photograph of a foreign policy meeting that Trump was at, now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was at it as well because Sessions took part in the foreign policy team. And who was at the table as well? George Papadopoulos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So George Papadopoulos was probably more than the coffee boy, but it's also possible the Trump campaign was so chaotic and so different than any other campaign that people just didn't know what he was up to.

LUCAS: One thing that people on both sides of the political spectrum will say about this campaign is that it's much more difficult to get a read on how serious anything is because it was so unorthodox. There is an alternative explanation for almost everything, and often, that explanation is naivety, incompetence, just not knowing what it was they were doing. And with the case of somebody like George Papadopoulos, nobody really knew how much he did.

MCEVERS: Here are two things we do know George Papadopoulos did as a foreign policy adviser. He helped set up a meeting between Donald Trump and the president of Egypt. And when Trump delivered a big foreign policy speech...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible.

MCEVERS: George Papadopoulos helped edit the speech. And we now know from the House Intelligence Committee that George Papadopoulos's contact with this professor, Joseph Mifsud, is the reason the FBI opens an investigation into the Trump campaign and its contacts with Russia in July 2016, an investigation Robert Mueller later takes over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK. So that's George Papadopoulos. The next campaign staffer you need to know about is Carter Page. Carter Page lived in Moscow in the 2000s. He worked for Merrill Lynch, learned some Russian, got interested in the energy markets and later says he worked as an informal adviser to the Kremlin. In 2013, back in the U.S., a Russian spy tries to recruit him, according to charges filed against the spy by U.S. authorities. There's no evidence Carter Page knew it was a spy at the time, but that is when he gets on the FBI's radar. Fast forward. Carter Page offers to work for the Trump campaign. He goes to Moscow even though Trump advisers say they told him not to go to Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER PAGE: Thank you very much.

MCEVERS: He gives this speech where he talks about how the U.S. and Russia should have a better relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAGE: You know, things that Russia may provide to the U.S. can include, you know, much more collaborative partnerships in the energy industry.

MCEVERS: And then he sends an email to two people on the Trump campaign and says, I'll send you guys a read-out soon regarding some incredible insights in outreach I've received from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the presidential administration here. Later, he claims he was only offering to brief the campaign on what he saw on Russian TV and in the press. But we do know from his testimony to Congress that on this trip he met the deputy prime minister of Russia and an executive with the state oil company. Then in the fall of 2016, reporters start asking Carter Page questions about all of this, and he leaves the Trump campaign. So like with George Papadopoulos, it's still not totally clear how important Carter Page was in this chaotic campaign. But Ryan Lucas says here's why these two guys matter.

LUCAS: For the longest time, everyone in the Trump campaign was saying there's nothing whatsoever going on between Russia and the Trump campaign. And to even suggest as much is unfair and is just frankly a lie. And what we learn through Papadopoulos is that Papadopoulos had long-running contacts with Russian officials going through the summer. We know that Carter Page had contacts with officials in Moscow and was having conversations with them. And we know that both of them were keeping senior campaign officials informed of those contacts. So why did Trump campaign officials constantly say again and again there are no contacts with the Russian government or Russian officials at all when they knew that there were? Was it because it was politically difficult to accept that they did have contacts? Or was it because they're trying to cover something up?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So the third person who worked on the Trump campaign who has connections to Russia who you need to know about is Paul Manafort. Paul Manafort worked on other campaigns in the past for Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole. He was also a lobbyist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL MANAFORT: The technical term for what we do and what law firms, associations and professional groups do is lobbying. For purposes of today, I will admit that, in a narrower sense, some people might term it influence peddling.

MCEVERS: That's him testifying to Congress in 1989 about allegations of corruption at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Paul Manafort has also helped unpopular dictators improve their images. And he did a lot of work in Ukraine for this politician Viktor Yanukovych who was thrown out of office after big protests. Manafort gave Yanukovych an extreme makeover - that's how a State Department memo put it. And Yanukovych, who ran as pro-Russia, won the presidency back in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: In the Ukrainian presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych favors closer ties with Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Ukraine's new pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Yanukovych is proud of thousands. He'll sign a law protecting a Ukrainian's right to speak and do business in Russia.

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MCEVERS: Federal prosecutors now say Manafort laundered tens of millions of dollars he made in Ukraine to hide it from the U.S. government. Manafort has denied the charges. Anyway, in the spring of 2016, Paul Manafort gets in touch with the Trump campaign and offers to work for the campaign for free and eventually becomes the campaign chairman. Around this same time, summer 2016, Manafort also offers to give a private briefing to a Russian oligarch named Oleg Deripaska about what's happening inside the Trump campaign. A U.S. diplomatic cable once described Deripaska as very close to Vladimir Putin. But this briefing never happens, and Deripaska has denied any involvement with the Trump campaign.

LUCAS: Either way, anybody who has worked the campaign would probably tell you that it's inappropriate for a campaign manager for a U.S. presidential candidate to be offering a foreign businessman information on the inner workings of the campaign.

MCEVERS: Eventually, the New York Times starts reporting on Manafort's work in Ukraine, and Manafort resigns from Trump's campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So we have these three guys who used to work for the Trump campaign who are all now of interest to this investigation. George Papadopoulos, arrested in July 2017, pleads guilty to lying to the FBI - now cooperating with investigators, sentencing to come. Carter Page has been interviewed by the FBI back in 2013 and during this investigation. And Paul Manafort, charged by the special counsel with money laundering, has pleaded not guilty. A trial date has not yet been set. We weren't able to interview any of these three guys for this story. But Ryan Lucas says here's how you have to understand these guys. Cultivating them this way is how the Russians do. You go after as many people as you can.

LUCAS: This is entirely consistent with how Russia works. You wouldn't necessarily put one line out and try to cultivate one person to turn them into an asset or to have them give you information. You would throw a million different lines out. And if five people end up developing some sort of spot in the campaign, and they have information that they can give you, great. If not, if they fall by the wayside, doesn't matter because - guess what? - you have four other options out there. One of them gets burned - that doesn't matter. You haven't invested a lot in this anyways. You're going to throw out as many lines as you can to get as many fish as you can. And if you lose some, so be it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: After the break, two of the biggest moments in this story - the infamous Trump Tower meeting and what the Russians did with those emails they hacked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUCAS: I'm missing the - missing the mic there. All right.

MCEVERS: The meeting at Trump Tower. What is it? Who's there? What happens?

LUCAS: So there was an exchange of emails between a man by the name of Rob Goldstone, who's a music manager-promoter and colorful character who likes to take funny pictures of himself, and Donald Trump Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUCAS: So on June 3 of 2016 at 10:36 a.m., Rob Goldstone writes to Don Jr. and says, good morning. Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting. Now, Emin is Emin Agalarov.

MCEVERS: You remember this guy - a pop star music video with Miss Universe contestants and Donald Trump. His dad is the oligarch Aras Agalarov. Rob Goldstone is Emin's publicist. And again, this is the email that Goldstone sent to Don Jr.

LUCAS: (Reading) Emin just called and asked me to contact you with something very interesting. The crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary in her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump - helped along by Aras and Emin. What do you think is the best way to handle this information? And would you be able to speak with Emin about it directly? I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra-sensitive, so wanted to send to you first. Best, Rob Goldstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUCAS: Seventeen minutes later, Donald Trump Jr. responds. (Reading) Thanks, Rob. I appreciate that. I'm on the road at the moment, but perhaps I just speak to Emin first. Seems we have some time, and if it's what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I'm back? Best, Don.

MCEVERS: If it's what you say, I love it.

LUCAS: If it's what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.

MCEVERS: Summer 2016 - just months before the actual election.

LUCAS: Now, it took 17 minutes for Don to get that email and respond to the offer of information that is described as very high level and insensitive and part of Russia and its government support for Donald Trump - no hesitation here. And this is the beginning of what is going to be this infamous meeting on June 9 at Trump Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And here's who's going to the meeting.

LUCAS: We know from Donald Jr.'s email that on the Trump camp side it's going to be Donald Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. Rob Goldstone is there as well. There is the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. There is a Russian-American lobbyist by the name of Rinat Akhmetshin. There's a translator by the name of Anatoli Samochornov. And there is a man who worked for the Agalarovs by the name of Ike Kaveladze. So there were eight people in all in this meeting.

MCEVERS: The main person on the Russian side is this lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. She is actually not a Russian government lawyer. She's not the crown prosecutor like Rob Goldstone said in that email to Don Jr. She did used to work for the Moscow prosecutor's office. At the time of the meeting, June 2016, she was working to get rid of U.S. sanctions on Russia. Some of which were put in place by something called the Magnitsky Act. In retaliation for those sanctions, Russia had banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans. So this meeting is on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. Donald Trump's personal office is just one floor above.

LUCAS: So they show up. They have a brief discussion about what the Russians believe is fairly damning information about Democratic campaign donors.

MCEVERS: Don Jr. later tells his version of the story on Fox News to Sean Hannity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

TRUMP JR.: Hey, some DNC donors may have done something in Russia, and they didn't pay taxes. I was like, what does this have to do with anything?

LUCAS: The way that it's been portrayed is that basically Kushner wasn't paying attention. Paul Manafort was sitting there on his phone typing, and Donald Jr. says that he basically didn't understand what was going on and what they were talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

TRUMP JR.: It just was sort of nonsensical.

LUCAS: And then Veselnitskaya turned to the Magnitsky Act and...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

TRUMP JR.: Story about Russian adoption and how we could possibly help.

LUCAS: ...Russian adoptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: Did you even know what the Magnitsky Act was?

TRUMP JR.: I'd never even heard of it before, you know, that day.

LUCAS: And the way Trump Jr. basically portrays this whole thing is that it was a total waste of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

HANNITY: Did you tell your father anything about this?

TRUMP JR.: No. It was such a nothing. There was nothing to tell. It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: They didn't tell Trump Sr., he says, and they also didn't tell the FBI that a foreign power was offering dirt on their political opponent. Steve Bannon, who later ran the campaign, called this meeting treasonous. And here's how it fits in with everything else we know.

LUCAS: We have a number of cases now where they have demonstrated the willingness to accept information - incriminating materials on Clinton - from the Russians. Whether they got it or not, that's a whole 'nother issue. It's not clear, but certainly, there was a willingness.

MCEVERS: And what does that willingness mean if you're Robert Mueller?

LUCAS: Well, one, you have Donald Trump Jr. denying again and again and again that there was any sort of contacts with Russian government or proxies.

MCEVERS: This, of course, was before The New York Times reports about the Trump Tower meeting. Then Don Jr. goes on "Hannity" to talk about it. Up until then, he was denying it.

LUCAS: So he was not telling the truth in those instances. And, again, the question is why? Is it because it's politically uncomfortable to do so? Or is it because there's something to hide? And that is what Mueller is trying to figure out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Three days after this meeting in Trump Tower, the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, goes on British TV and actually announces he's about to release emails related to Hillary Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PESTON ON SUNDAY")

JULIAN ASSANGE: We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton, which are great.

ROBERT PESTON: But some of the ones that have not yet come into the public domain, you are planning to put out.

ASSANGE: We have emails related to Hillary Clinton, which are pending publication. That is correct.

MCEVERS: And right after that, this firm that worked for the Trump campaign - it's called Cambridge Analytica, and it's owned in part by the Mercer family, which has funded Breitbart News, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump - this firm's director actually reaches out to WikiLeaks. This is Cambridge Analytica Director Alexander Nix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER NIX: I asked my office to reach out to - actually it was a speaking agency that represents Julian Assange - to ask if he might share that information with us.

MCEVERS: Nix says Assange said no, and that was the end of it. But we do know Robert Mueller's team requested and was granted the emails of Cambridge Analytica employees who worked on the Trump campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So after Julian Assange says all this stuff about Clinton's emails, about a month goes by.

LUCAS: And then shortly before the Democratic National Convention, the emails are published by WikiLeaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: WikiLeaks releasing nearly 20,000 internal DNC emails...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Twenty thousand hacked emails...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: We just heard 20,000 emails have been leaked by WikiLeaks...

LUCAS: They gain a lot of traction very quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Including some that appear to show efforts to undercut the rise of Bernie Sanders.

LUCAS: People thought that the system was rigged so that Hillary would become the nominee. And this gave people something to point to, to say that that indeed was the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: Democratic Party officials did not want Bernie Sanders to be the nominee.

LUCAS: And there was a lot of anger.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: The Democratic National Convention's opening today here in Philadelphia, Pa., amidst massive party turmoil.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: Tonight, this scandal has cost the chair of the party her job.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: The scandal - an email scandal no less - today claimed the job of Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: This is really bad timing for the Democrats. Secretary Clinton needs to mobilize the Sanders base because the lack of energy is contagious.

LUCAS: A Russian goal, according to U.S. intelligence services, is to undermine faith in U.S. democratic institutions. And this would do that for the Democratic Party faithful. And that's hard to recover from.

MCEVERS: And in the middle of all this, Donald Trump says this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens. That'll be next. Yes, sir.

LUCAS: It was - it was shocking. And he got a lot of flack in the media for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: The Clinton campaign responded saying this has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.

MCEVERS: We talked to a handful of former and current U.S. government officials about this, and what they say is it's fairly common for governments to listen to each other's phone calls and even attempt to look at their emails. But it's a whole other thing to weaponize them. Releasing all these emails - that was Russia deploying a weapon against Hillary Clinton and for Donald Trump. Again, remember, the key question is this - how much did Donald Trump and his top campaign people know about these emails being weaponized, and what did they do with that knowledge?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: One group of people who did know about the weaponization and who had a lot of questions about it were people in the Obama administration. Like I said, by this point, the FBI is already investigating, and other agencies start to learn about it, too, and are pretty freaked out. Secretary of Homeland Security at the time Jeh Johnson told us the release of these emails was like a cyber Pearl Harbor. But even though all these agencies knew what the Russians were doing, they didn't say anything about it for months.

JEH JOHNSON: It was in the midst of an election season - a rather heated election - in which one of the candidates, as you will recall, was saying that the outcome of the election was going to be rigged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: And I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest because...

JOHNSON: And so rightly our national security apparatus of our government, me included, was reluctant and concerned about doing and saying something that would be perceived as taking sides in the election.

MCEVERS: Part of it was also the fact that people in the administration didn't think Donald Trump was going to win. They figured Hillary Clinton would win, and then there'd be an investigation to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. So, yeah, months go by. The Obama administration doesn't say that it knows Russia's trying to influence the election. And then they do decide to say something.

JOHNSON: A lot of things happened on Friday, October 7, 2016.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Walk us through it.

JOHNSON: I'll never forget it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: So we had Hurricane Matthew working its way up the East Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #15: Battering Florida's east coast - it's now setting its sights on Georgia.

JOHNSON: And at 1:15 in the afternoon, I briefed Secretary Clinton on the hurricane and the relief effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #16: Twelve million remain under hurricane advisory.

JOHNSON: At 2 o'clock, I briefed Mr. Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #17: The wind has been intense through the night and into the morning.

JOHNSON: I got off the phone with Mr. Trump probably around 2:30. It occurred to me then we're about to drop this bombshell statement about the Russian government hacking into the DNC. And I didn't mention a single thing to either one of them, which was a little awkward, but at that moment, the information was not yet declassified.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOHNSON: So the statement, as I recall, went out around 3 or 3:30.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #18: We have some breaking news from the White House right now - the feds accusing the Russian government of directing hacks into the U.S. election system...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #19: The Department of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence said it is an effort to interfere with the election process...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #20: Pointing the finger directly at the Kremlin here...

JOHNSON: And moments, if not an hour or two later...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #21: A new storm around Donald Trump.

JOHNSON: The "Access Hollywood" video was then released.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #22: A recording of Donald Trump made more than a decade ago has surfaced. It is lewd. It is vulgar. And we caution you - you won't want young children to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.

D. TRUMP: Grab them by the pussy.

BUSH: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: Shortly after that...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #23: And tonight, it also appears that WikiLeaks...

JOHNSON: ...Mr. Podesta's emails were somehow leaked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #24: Wikileaks tonight releasing more than 2,000 emails allegedly from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: Reporters are scrambling to cover that story. Plus there's all this fallout from the "Access Hollywood" story. Remember, this is just weeks before the election, and Republicans are denouncing Trump. And then you have this statement about the Russians trying to influence the election.

JOHNSON: I expected that our statement would be big news, possibly even full-banner headline above the fold in both The Times and The Post. I was surprised and a little disappointed the next morning to see that it was below-the-fold news in both newspapers because of the "Access Hollywood" video. Basically, the press went off to the other corner of the pasture after the story about sex, greed and lust.

MCEVERS: Jeh Johnson says the statement should have gotten way more attention than it did.

JOHNSON: Here is the United States government pointing the finger at a superpower and the top guy in that superpower. We said the highest levels of the Russian government, accusing them of trying to put their thumb on the scale of our democracy. That is a big deal. It was unprecedented that we do that. That hasn't happened in my lifetime, and I don't think it's happened in anybody else's lifetime. And it did not get the attention it should have received.

MCEVERS: Ryan Lucas was following all this in Washington at the time.

LUCAS: Yes, it did get overshadowed. Everybody wrote about it - doesn't mean that it got as much airtime.

MCEVERS: Right. It wasn't above the fold was sort of his complaint, yeah.

LUCAS: Yeah. But you know what? If President Obama goes on TV and delivers an address about this happening, that becomes a big deal. Instead, it was a statement dropped on a Friday afternoon on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence's website, which is not the smoothest running website in the world. It was put there on a Friday afternoon. What did they expect?

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #25: The campaigning is over, and Election Day is finally here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #26: History will be made today whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump emerges victorious.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #27: Polls are closing in half a dozen states at this hour, and we already have some early projections from the Associated Press.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #28: Donald Trump will win the state of Indiana. When the votes are counted, we project that Donald Trump will win in Kentucky as well.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #29: Donald Trump has won the state of Ohio.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #30: Donald Trump will carry the state of Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #31: We have seen him outpace every single expectation, it seems like, in pre-election polling.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #32: I'm gobsmacked.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #33: This is definitely not the kind of night the Clinton campaign was expecting.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Leading in Wisconsin, leading in Michigan. He's leading in New Hampshire. And if all of that were to go that way, Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLF BLITZER: Hold on one second. I want to go back to Dana right now. Dana, what are you learning?

DANA BASH: CNN can report that Hillary Clinton has called Donald Trump to concede the race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: To all Republicans and Democrats and Independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So, yeah, Trump wins. But what do the Russians get out of it? Like, if this whole relationship is about Russia helping Trump and Trump helping Russia - we know Russia helped Trump, but did Trump help Russia in some way, or is there some expectation that he will help them later. Right after the elections, the Obama administration puts more sanctions in place against Russia. That night, Trump is asked about the sanctions. He's at Mar-a-Lago with Don King.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #34: What do you think generally about sanctions against Russia?

D. TRUMP: I think we ought to get on with our lives.

MCEVERS: I think we ought to get on with our lives. And then the next day, Michael Flynn, this retired general who in the past had been paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russian state TV to make a speech and who at this point was on Trump's transition team, actually talks about the Obama sanctions with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. He asks the ambassador not to escalate the situation and says the Trump team wants to offer a better relationship once Trump is inaugurated. We know this from Flynn's statement of offense. That's a court document outlining the case against him.

Flynn has pleaded guilty to the special counsel for lying to the FBI about this very issue. And he is also cooperating with investigators, so we'll hear more about this at some point too. We should say Trump did sign a law that is supposed to impose new sanctions on Russia, but later, his administration did not authorize those sanctions, saying there's no need for them right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: So as investigators look back on all of this - right? - Donald Trump's formal and informal business dealings with Russia over the decades and his campaign's dealings with Russia in 2015 and 2016, the question they're asking is if any of it is a crime.

LUCAS: This is why this is a very tricky case because there isn't anything in and of itself that you can point to and say - according to people that I've spoken to - that, in and of itself, is illegal. You have things that are politically questionable. Should they have gone and talked to the FBI when there was an offer of dirt from a Russian proxy? Is not telling them a crime? As I understand it and as legal folks have told me, no, it's not, in and of itself, a crime. The communication with WikiLeaks, not in and of itself a crime.

MCEVERS: That's the outreach by that firm that worked for the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica. Another legal avenue, Ryan Lucas says, could be conspiracy.

LUCAS: Collusion is not a crime, conspiracy is. So conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, if they were somehow working with Russia on the hacking of the DNC and John Podesta, if they weren't directly involved in the hacking itself but knew about it, kept it hidden, could be charged as accessories after the fact. And one possibility would be some violation of campaign finance law.

MCEVERS: And then there's the even-bigger question of whether this all goes up to Donald Trump himself, and if it does, can you even charge a sitting president? Most people say no. Some people say yes, but if you do, you have to have a very strong case. Still, no matter what happens with this investigation, whether it results in more charges or not, the way it has divided the country, the way it's undermined people's faith in institutions to many people means Russia has already won.

LUCAS: You have people who are convinced right now that Donald Trump is an agent of the Kremlin. You have people who are convinced that the investigation is a witch hunt. That is a success for Moscow because it has proven incredibly divisive among the American people, the American electorate. And it's been damaging to the country.

MCEVERS: Oh, and one last thing. Even if this coordination investigation goes nowhere, even if there's no more there there, it's possible that once Donald Trump and his top advisers made it to the White House, they were part of a criminal cover-up. It's possible it was obstruction of justice. This made the president really, really angry, so angry that he stayed angry with Jeff Sessions, we think, to this very day.

LUCAS: And then they kind of compromised on honest loyalty, which I'm sure meant different things to the two of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D. TRUMP: And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election.

MCEVERS: And it's our episode next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Ryan Lucas, Tom Dreisbach and me, and it was produced by Tom. It was edited by Neal Carruth, Phil Ewing, Beth Donovan, Chris Benderev, Neva Grant and Rebecca Hersher with help from Mark Memmott. Our lawyer is Ashley Messenger. Fact checking by Greta Pittenger.

Big thanks to Carrie Johnson, Alina Selyukh, Tamara Keith, Shirley Henry, Lucian Kim, Sergei Sotnikov, Will Dobson, Richard Farkas and the Guardian correspondent you heard at the beginning of the story, Luke Harding. His new book is called "Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, And How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win."

Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans, other original music by Ramtin Arablouei. EMBEDDED is executive produced by me, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. You can hear more NPR on your local public radio station and on the NPR One app.

Thanks for listening.

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