The Latest Developments In The Russia Investigation

Jan 5, 2018
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We've heard a lot this week about the political fallout from the new Michael Wolff book about the Trump White House and the big break the book has caused between the president and his former political guru Steve Bannon.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Together they promised to make America great again.


STEVE BANNON: Donald Trump was the best candidate I think we had since Ronald Reagan.

REPORTER: As of tonight, their bromance is now bust.

SIEGEL: But beyond the political drama, the book says several things about the Russia investigation. And we want to take a moment to review the substance of them.


Among the important revelations, Wolff suggests that Donald Trump Jr. may have introduced his father to the Russians he hosted at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. It also says that the Russia investigation is all about money laundering. Wolff attributes that characterization to Steve Bannon, going on to say that the Trump family may have secrets about their finances that could cause them problems if investigators uncover them.

SIEGEL: Also this week, outside of the book, there is new evidence of tension between the White House and the Justice Department spilling into view. The New York Times reports that the top White House lawyer, Don McGahn, called the attorney general last year and urged him not to step away from overseeing the Russia investigation.

SHAPIRO: Attorney General Jeff Sessions ultimately did recuse himself from that probe, but he has been on thin ice with the president ever since. Joining us to talk more about this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with some of these new disclosures about relations between the White House and Justice. What have you learned?

JOHNSON: Really more new details about tension in the Trump administration over the investigation of Russian interference in the election and over the role of FBI Director James Comey, who of course was fired by President Trump last May. First, the New York Times reports the White House was really concerned about the Russia probe. White House counsel Don McGahn called Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, to ask him to hold the reins, not to recuse from the investigation into Russia.

Sessions said he was sorry but that Justice ethics lawyers had decided he had to recuse, he had to step aside because he played such a big role in that campaign. That, we know, sent President Trump into a rage, and he's been angry at Sessions ever since. Another new detail relates to Jim Comey, the former FBI director. The Times said Sessions dispatched an aide to get dirt on Comey from congressional aides. But the Justice Department tells me that never happened.

SHAPIRO: Explain why this is more than just juicy palace intrigue.

JOHNSON: Well, a couple of reasons. The first is the Justice Department and the FBI have been pretty much under siege from President Trump for most of the last year. He has said the FBI is in tatters; the Justice Department is the deep state. These new reports that the White House was disrespecting the independence of the Justice Department and that Sessions himself may have been engaged in a smear campaign against the FBI director are not good for morale at the FBI and the Justice Department.

Another reason - legal experts are telling me this could fill in some of the blanks as to whether or not any obstruction of justice occurred last year. Now, Comey says he was fired because the president wanted him to go light on Russia, to influence the Russia probe. We now know the White House took more steps to try to lean on the Justice Department. And that's all of interest to the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

SHAPIRO: So we've talked about Mueller's investigation into possible collusion with Russia. What do we know about Mueller's interest in these possible issues of obstruction of justice?

JOHNSON: We know a few things mostly from witnesses and other people in the case. Mueller has the memos Comey made reflecting his conversations with President Trump last year. Mueller's team has interviewed the White House lawyer, Don McGahn, and the former chief of staff at the White House, Reince Priebus. He's also talked with the deputy attorney general about Jim Comey's firing.

Now, the White House denies any wrongdoing by the president. It's an open question whether any sitting president can be charged with a crime or indicted. Most people at the Justice Department don't think so. For some insight into this, I reached out to Chuck Rosenberg. Rosenberg's a former U.S. attorney, now a contributor at MSNBC. He says the disclosures here in the new book by Michael Wolff are probably not a surprise to Robert Mueller's investigators.

CHUCK ROSENBERG: I presume that everything in the book and all the folks that the author talked to are already known to Bob Mueller and his team. I can't imagine that he's sitting down and reading it, combing through it and getting ideas about who to interview. I have to assume that Bob Mueller has lapped us many times on the high school track and knows a heck of a lot more than we do.

JOHNSON: And sadly, Ari, Bob Mueller isn't telling us what he's doing with respect to obstruction of justice, at least not yet.

SHAPIRO: Someone else who's not saying much about this is the attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Some Republican lawmakers this week called for him to go. What's the latest?

JOHNSON: Yeah. This week, Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, both House members - conservative House members, urged the attorney general to go in an op-ed. But on the other hand, some Senate Democrats - people like Chuck Schumer of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut - say they don't agree with Jeff Sessions or anything he's done at the Justice Department, but he needs to stay on the job in part to protect that Robert Mueller Russia probe.

And this morning, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders addressed the issue on "Fox & Friends." She said that Sessions is focused on doing his job; the White House is focused on doing its job, and they're in a great place. But there's one more thing to consider, Ari. The president, Republican lawmakers and several cabinet members are going to Camp David this weekend. Jeff Sessions is not on that list. The Justice Department says he was not invited.

SHAPIRO: NPR Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks as always.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.