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The biggest questions yet to be answered in the Russia probe

March 31, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
New developments on the connections between the Trump White House and the Russian government seem to emerge every day. To help you keep it straight, Lisa Desjardins and John Yang join Judy Woodruff to walk through what we know and what we don't about the alleged ties and what they mean.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It seems every day, sometimes every hour, there are new developments in the inquiry into connections between President Trump, his associates and Russia. It’s hard to keep it all straight. But, because it’s important, we’re going to give it a try.

Here to talk through what we know, and what we don’t, are correspondents John Yang and Lisa Desjardins.

And thank you both for being here to do this.

Lisa, I’m going to start with you.

Remind us, where did all this come from? What was the origin of Russia’s interest in our elections?

LISA DESJARDINS: Let’s start with 2011.

That’s when Hillary Clinton, the then secretary of state, spoke out criticizing Russian elections. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, then reacted, saying that she was interfering and she was helping protesters, and she was trying to have an impact on the Russian election.

Then we can flash forward to last summer. That’s when the FBI became aware of hacking into the Democratic National Committee, then to October. Then we have a conclusion from the director of national intelligence that Russian officials were in fact trying to interfere with our election.

And then just this month, we heard from FBI Director Comey about their investigation, making this rare public statement:

JAMES COMEY, FBI Director: The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

LISA DESJARDINS: A very rare statement in the middle of an investigation.

Bottom line, Judy, we know that our intelligence on the U.S. side has concluded that Russia tried to interfere with the election. And that includes now they’re investigating things like trying to send fake news to particular states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The biggest question now seems to be, was the Trump — were any Trump associates, any Trump campaign officials involved, did they know about this, did they collude with Russia at all?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John, what is known about any links, any connections between Trump, Trump’s campaign and Russian officials?

JOHN YANG: It is a spider web, Judy.

You have got campaign officials who either had or have business relations with Russia like former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, adviser Carter Page. You had others in the campaign who were in contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States either during the campaign or during the transition, adviser J.D. Gordon, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Sessions, of course, who’s recused himself from this investigation because of that contact.

And then there’s Roger Stone, who somehow got advanced word about these hacked Hillary Clinton e-mails, e-mails that the — our United States intelligence says came from the Russian intelligence, was hacked by the Russian intelligence.

Now, could this all be a coincidence? Sure, but a lot of these people have been less than forthcoming about these contacts.

I mean, just last month, Judy, you asked Carter Page whether he had met any Russian official during the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you have any meetings? I’ll ask again. Did you have any meetings last year with Russian officials in Russia, outside Russia, anywhere?

CARTER PAGE, Former Trump Campaign Foreign Policy Adviser: I had no meetings, no meetings.

JOHN YANG: And, of course, eventually, he acknowledged that wasn’t true. He met the ambassador at the Republican Convention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he said that after he had told me just the opposite.

But, Lisa, what about financial connections between the president, people around him and Russia?

LISA DESJARDINS: The president was, for so much of his life, the CEO of the Trump Organization.

So, let’s look at the business side of the Trump Organization here to Russia. The White House stresses that there are few direct connections. One, the president has sold some real estate to a few Russians.

But, two, probably the connection most people know about is that Mr. Trump hosted the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. That was in 2013. But there’s more to it than that, some more indirect kind of connections. We know that among the other business ties, Donald J. Trump Jr. said in 2008 that, of their businesses all across the board, that Russians were pouring in money. He thought that the Russians were among their most important clients at that time.

Now, Russia was emerging as an important economy then. So, make of that what you will. But, second, the Trumps have looked into real estate deals in Russia going back to 1987. Donald Trump visited Russia in 1996.

And then on that 2013 trip, he also looked for potential sites for a Trump Hotel in Moscow. That never came to bear. Finally, last summer, it’s a story people paid attention to that adds to the confusion here. We know there are reports from CNN and others that investigators looked into a Russian bank repeatedly trying to contact servers in Trump Organization.

The Trump Organization says they didn’t know anything about that. And it’s not clear if that was for business reasons or what was going on there. It was a one-way connection, but many of them from a Russian bank to the Trump Organization.

One final connection, Judy, family businesses? The Kushners also have a family business, Kushner Properties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s the son-in-law.

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, that we have heard about from John.

And he — Jared Kushner, in addition to meeting with the Russian ambassador, also in December met with the head of a Russian bank which is under sanctions right now. The White House says that was a diplomatic meeting, but the Russian bank says it was for business reasons. So, it’s something to look at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John, the other — one of the other names you mentioned, of course, Michael Flynn, so much attention around him. He was briefly the president’s national security adviser. Then he stepped down. What’s known about his role in all this?

JOHN YANG: Well, right now, he of course has asked — or told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he’s willing to testify if he gets immunity. The committee rejected that request for now. They said it’s too early, that they generally like to find out what they can without immunity first.

He was a surrogate and an adviser in the campaign. He became well-known for both attacking Hillary Clinton in the campaign and advocating closer ties with Russia. And, as you say, he was very briefly the national security adviser. He had to resign after it turned out he had misled White House officials about some of his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.

Now, his attorney says he certainly has quite a story to tell. But it’s not quite clear what that story is or who it’s about. This morning, the president tweeted that he thought that Flynn should get immunity and should testify. This afternoon at the White House briefing, Sean Spicer was asked if the president had anything to fear from that testimony. Sean Spicer had a one-word answer: “Nope.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, so much to follow.

Where does this go from here, though, Lisa?

LISA DESJARDINS: All right, let’s look forward a little bit.

We know there are three investigations under way right now that we know. That is FBI investigation, the House Intelligence investigation and the Senate Intelligence investigation. We expect all of those to take months, maybe many months.

And that brings us, I think, to our final name of this look at the who’s who in this Russia situation. That’s Devin Nunes. The congressman from California chairs the House Intelligence Committee and their Russian investigation.

In the past two weeks, he said he was made aware of intelligence from a source that he’s not naming that U.S. spy agencies somehow caught surveillance of some Trump associates and some Trump White House officials potentially inadvertently.

He took that information and talked — spoke to the president about it, but didn’t share that with his own Intelligence Committee. That is raising questions, especially from Democrats, who are calling for him to recuse himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he said it didn’t have to do with Russia, right?

LISA DESJARDINS: That’s right. That’s right.

But because he’s chairing this Russia investigation, the question is, is he too close to the president, who’s he watching out for the most? Democrats say he has a conflict of interests.

And, of course, Mr. Nunes said to me and to other reporters that, no, he feels like he can chair this investigation.

JOHN YANG: And now, of course, this has embroiled the White House in the suspicions that the administration was the source of this information for Congressman Nunes.

This afternoon, Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, went to the White House to look at documents that the White House says they have uncovered that relates to this coincidental or incidental surveillance. It’s not clear yet whether or not this is the same material that Chairman Nunes was shown.

LISA DESJARDINS: And, again, the material might not be about Russia. It’s a question of the man leading the Russia investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are so many strands in this story to follow. The two of you are on the case.

We thank you. And I feel like we have brought our audience up to date. Thank you very much.

Lisa Desjardins, John Yang, thank you.

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