JOHN YANG: The recent string of natural disasters in the South and political divides in Washington have overshadowed developments in the Russia investigation. But the probe is far from over, and in many ways, it’s just ramping up.
William Brangham is here to bring us up to speed — William.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s right, John.
There have been several recent developments in the Russia probe. Some reveal tools Russia might have used to meddle in the election. Others provide new information about Mr. Trump’s business interests in Russia before he became president. And there are also fresh clues about where those various investigations are going.
Earlier today, I talked with our own Nick Schifrin, who’s been reporting on all this.
I asked him what we know about who is actually the target of this probe.
NICK SCHIFRIN: So, when we talk about the target of these probes, we have to know that the special counsel, Rob Mueller, is not talking.
So, we know this from the targets themselves. And target number one seems to be Paul Manafort, former chairman of the Trump campaign. And we know that FBI agents raided his home in late July, and reportedly a P.R. firm connected to him has also been subpoenaed.
Target number two, Michael Flynn, the retired general, former national security adviser, we know that a lobbying firm connected to him has been subpoenaed.
And target number three, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, recently testified to Congress about a meeting he had in Trump Tower last summer that turned out to be with a Russian lawyer who has some vague connections to the Kremlin.
And in a statement from Donald Trump Jr. to Congress, he said: “I didn’t collude with any foreign government and do not know of anyone who did,” but he admitted that he was willing to collude — quote — “To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character, or qualifications of a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, I believed I should at least hear them out.”
And now certainly that meeting is part of the investigation.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK, so those are the targets.
Second avenue is some questions about the president’s business interests. And there have been some reports out that the president, while he was running to be president, wanted a hotel deal in Russia. Tell us about that.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Those reports are true.
The Trump Organization admits that while Trump was the candidate, they were considering the possibility of building Trump Tower Moscow — sorry — while he was running for president.
Trump met three times with his lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the second time that they met, they signed a letter of intent. And that letter included details like the hotel, residential space, commercial space, even details about a high-end spa.
And Cohen has released a statement saying this was one of many development opportunities that came through the Trump Organization, and Cohen says he terminated it in late January 2016 because it wasn’t feasible and that he terminated himself and didn’t ask Trump first, but, nonetheless, certainly part of the story, because they were considering that while Trump was saying nice things about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As you well know, the question in Washington is always, is the cover-up worse than the crime?
And the question that’s been swirling around the president in this regard is about whether obstruction of justice was going on here. And one of the main ways they talk about that is the firing of James Comey.
I want to play a little bit from what Steve Bannon had to say about the firing of Comey.
Let’s take a look at that.
STEVE BANNON, Former Chief White House Strategist: I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we wouldn’t have a special counsel.
CHARLIE ROSE: Someone said to me that you described the firing of James Comey — you’re a student of history — as the biggest mistake in political history.
STEVE BANNON: That would be — that would probably be too bombastic even for me, but maybe modern political history.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, is Mueller investigating whether the firing of James Comey was, in fact, obstruction of justice?
NICK SCHIFRIN: We know that Mueller is investigating the process by which Comey was fired.
And we know that because he asked for and received a letter that the president and his aides wrote that justified Comey. This was the original draft of the letter, according to a senior administration official. And that official tells me that that letter wasn’t that demonstrably different from the final letter, which was written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing the Russia investigation.
But a reminder here, William, that it the president’s own words that the people who are asking about obstruction cite. He told NBC’s Lester Holt that it was the Russia investigation he was thinking of when he fired Jim Comey, and not, as Rosenstein’s letter said, about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With regard to this investigation, we know it’s also — it’s not just collusion. It’s not just obstruction of justice.
It’s also what role did Russia actually play in our election and how and whether they meddled. Facebook came out this week with some evidence saying they have a piece of this puzzle. Explain.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Yes, this is actually the main thrust of the investigation.
What Facebook says that it got $100,000 from a troll farm in Russia in ad sales. And it just so happens that I have been to the building where that — we believe that troll farm is. It’s called the Internet Research Agency. It’s in St. Petersburg.
And I have talked to former trolls about how they were given instructions on how to denigrate the U.S. and celebrate Russia. Now, Facebook says these ads, bought by the Internet Research Agency, were designed to — quote — “amplify divisive social and political messages.”
So Facebook is not quite saying what the ads were, but I will say this. U.S. intelligence says that the person who funds the Internet Research Agency is a businessman. He’s got a catering firm and, he’s so close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he’s known as Putin’s personal chef.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nick Schifrin, thanks for keeping us up to date on all these different threads.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Thanks very much.