Sorting Out The Congressional Russia Investigations

Mar 31, 2017
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There have been a lot of twists and turns in the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Here's one more - General Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, has offered to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution. He doesn't seem to have found any takers on that offer. But he has found an apparent supporter in President Trump, who tweeted this morning, quote, "Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt, excuse for big election loss by media and Dems."

This all comes at the end of a day where there were already several other developments on the Russia story, all swirling around these questions - what exactly did Russia do? And did it collude with anyone close to Donald Trump? Two congressional committees are looking into that answer, but they seem to be taking very different paths.

NPR congressional reporter Scott Detrow's been following all of this, and he joins us in the studio this morning. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So let's start with this most recent development. What should we make of the reports about Flynn seeking immunity?

DETROW: Well, like you said, there don't seem to be any takers on this offer yet, either the FBI or the congressional committees. Flynn's lawyer says this is simply about Flynn protecting himself. He said in a statement, and I'll just quote, "no reasonable person would submit to questions in such a highly politicized witch hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution." But Flynn's critics immediately dug this clip up from last year when Flynn was criticizing Hillary Clinton during the campaign.

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MICHAEL FLYNN: People like Hillary Clinton, I mean, five people around her have had - have given immunity, to include her former chief of staff. When you are given immunity, that means that you've probably committed a crime.

DETROW: Flynn, of course, is a key person in all of this. He was fired after misleading Vice President Mike Pence and others about the nature of a conversation he had with Russia's ambassador during the transition.

MARTIN: So this Flynn story is grabbing all kinds of headlines this morning. But so much seems to be going on with these Russia investigations. It's hard to sort out what is actually important moving forward substantively and what has been just political theatrics.

DETROW: So I think the best way to go through what happened with the House investigation yesterday is chronologically because otherwise it'll get even more confusing. So yesterday afternoon, the White House sends a letter to the chairs of the two congressional committees saying you had asked for information about whether intelligence about U.S. citizens was mishandled and leaked. We now have some. Please come to the White House to look at it.

Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Committee, responded saying this is very weird timing given that The New York Times had just reported that two White House staffers were the ones who gave those documents to Devin Nunes last week which sent the committee into this whole tail spiral.

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ADAM SCHIFF: Are these the same White House staff that reportedly discovered them in the ordinary course of business? And if they are, they just walk down the hall or across the plaza and they can present it to the White House staff or the president himself at any time. So why all the cloak-and-dagger stuff?

MARTIN: So Adam Schiff, other Democrats say Nunes should now step down, recuse himself from this investigation because of all of this. So where is that now? Is there any indication Nunes could step down?

DETROW: Well, that would be up to, you know, Republican leaders. And so far, they continue to back Devin Nunes. We've now seen one House Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, say that he should recuse himself. Another House Republican, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, has not said that but has basically said this House investigation is at a gridlock and it's time for the Senate to take over. There was one interesting comment from House Speaker Paul Ryan yesterday.

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PAUL RYAN: I think you're right, this has gotten a little political. Let's take a pause. And let's just get all the evidence, all the documents and find out what happened.

DETROW: So that's an acknowledgement from Ryan that this has really hit the rails.

MARTIN: Yeah. So - interesting to hear Paul Ryan say that and also focusing attention in some way on the Senate investigation which is launching this week. A lot of pressure on these people now as we see the House investigation kind of go off the rails in some ways. They've got to make sure this is a different kind of experience.

DETROW: Yeah. And they are making a point to present a bipartisan front here. They held their first public hearing yesterday. It was informational, big picture, experts talking about what Russia was trying to do in terms of meddling in the United States elections, doing the same thing in Western Europe.

One interesting expert was Clint Watts, who's from the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He walked the panel through just how intricate these efforts are, how Russia has actually, at points, come up with whole armies of Twitter trolls - Twitter bots to kind of spread information and even given them identities who look like Midwestern swing-voter Republicans.

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CLINT WATTS: So that way whenever you're trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it's much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures.

MARTIN: So we heard from experts yesterday on hacking and cyber and these bots. Did any of the witnesses have anything to say about the alleged role of President Trump or his campaign aides in any of this?

DETROW: Watts did say something about that. And it wasn't in terms of any sort of evidence of collusion or anything like that, but just - he said - stating a reality from his point of view. He was asked at one point, so Russia's has been trying to spread misinformation for years, why were they so effective this time? And he said, well, basically because Trump himself was willing to spread false information as well.

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WATTS: He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged. That was the No. 1 theme pushed by RT, Sputnik news, white outlets all the way up until the election. He's made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama's not a citizen.

MARTIN: So two investigations underway now. What happens next?

DETROW: We don't know. (Laughter) A lot of the serious work happens behind closed doors. And there's no set timetable. So we just don't know when hard conclusions will happen. But it seems like there's some sort of leaked development one way or another multiple times a day at this point.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow keeping us up to speed. Thanks so much, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.