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Tamara Keith and Eliana Johnson on Trump’s meeting tweet, Paul Manafort on trial

Tamara Keith of NPR and Eliana Johnson of Politico join Nick Schifrin to discuss President Trump’s explanation of a 2016 meeting in Trump Tower related to the Russia probe, the testimony of former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates in the Paul Manafort case, the president’s endorsement of Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach and more.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pair that story with today's testimony of Rick Gates, the former top aide in the Trump campaign, and there's plenty to break down coming out of Robert Mueller's investigation.

    Here to help make sense of it all, we turn to Tamara Keith of NPR and Eliana Johnson of Politico.

    Welcome to you both.

    Tamara Keith, so is it a big deal that Trump tweeted this yesterday? It's something that he said in the past.

  • Tamara Keith:

    It's something that he has precisely said in the past.

    It seems as though this is likely related to a Washington Post article over the weekend that said he was concerned that his son Donald Trump Jr. would be at legal peril as a part of the Mueller investigation.

    I think it is interesting that the president is emphasizing that he didn't know about it in advance. This comes after a CNN report that Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer and fixer, had said that he might be willing to tell the FBI that Donald Trump did know about it.

    So the president is sort of emphasizing that in particular.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eliana Johnson, is this a big deal? You heard Jay Sekulow, the president's lawyer, say, how could this be illegal?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Well, I think the first thing to note is that we know Bob Mueller is a — the special counsel is looking into this, and it would certainly be a big deal if Bob Mueller were to find that the president's son, who was an integral part of his campaign, were criminally at fault in any way.

    And that is why, even though we don't know that the president knew about this in advance, the president seemed to be intervening and has been involved himself in this whole thing, at first helping his son craft a response to a New York Times story, and now offering a different response.

    So the president has — it seems, has embroiled himself in this by helping — or by being concerned that his son may be criminally liable. And the crime really would be, it is illegal to take anything of value from a foreigner to help an American presidential campaign or any kind of political campaign.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tamara Keith, the president is trying to disembroil himself, if you will, from the testimony of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates today.

    So, former campaign chairman, former deputy campaign chairman, the president says, look, this happened way before these people joined my campaign and these people, frankly, has nothing to do with me.

    So, is it important to see Gates testifying against Manafort?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Gates is the sort of key witness for the prosecution in this case.

    And Paul Manafort, President Trump likes to say, oh, he only worked on my campaign for a couple of months. He was there for the president's campaign for about five months, a critical five months in that campaign.

    And although this isn't specifically about the campaign — this is about things that happened well before the campaign — this is the first time that there's a trial related to Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation.

    So the stakes are very high for this. And based on the reporting coming out of — coming out of the trial, the prosecution has built a strong case.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eliana Johnson, are the stakes high coming out of this trial, even though none of this actually is specifically about Russia or even the Trump campaign itself?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    The stakes are very high, I think, for Bob Mueller, because Paul Manafort was sort of the low-hanging fruit here. People considered him a criminal.

    And though this isn't directly connected to Russian collusion, I do think that, if Manafort is convicted, it helps feed the narrative that Donald Trump surrounded himself by criminals, if he's convicted. And I think the Michael Cohen investigation happening in the Southern District of New York helps feed the same narrative.

  • Tamara Keith:

    And if — if they were — if the prosecution were to win, that sort of pushes back on the idea of a witch-hunt.

    President Trump's lawyers have said, sort of put up or shut up. Well, getting a conviction would be putting up, I guess.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Not much of a witch-hunt if there's a conviction.

    Let's go to domestic politics, if you will, and switch over to Ohio.

    Congressional District 12, this is right outside of Columbus. We have a special election tomorrow. This has been a Republican stronghold for 35 years. But right now, it looks like it's a tight race.

    Eliana Johnson, why is it a tight race? What's going on here?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    This is a special election, as you mentioned, a deep red district in Ohio, with the Republican candidate leading only by one point.

    President Trump has thrown his weight behind the Republican candidate. And, of course, as people watch this race, they're asking, what does it mean for the midterm elections?

    And I think this is really giving Republicans cause to worry, because the takeaway I have, if Republicans lose this race, I think the takeaway really is that all of the economic good news that Republicans are campaigning on may not outweigh all of the drama and tumult that we're seeing from the president on Twitter, the negative headlines of child separation at the border.

    People have said, look, Americans vote their pocketbooks. If Republicans lose, that's a real dire warning sign, I think, for November.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tamara Keith, it seems to me that special elections are tough, right? They're tough to understand, whether they're parts of waves or not parts of waves, or just totally local issues.

    So do you believe that special elections are a bit of a bellwether for how things could go over the next few months?

  • Tamara Keith:

    There have been a lot of special elections this year.

    And in those special elections, even in the races were Democrats lost, they outperformed, the candidates outperformed how Hillary Clinton performed in 2016.

    One thing that I'm watching for with this particular special election is the sort of revenge of the suburbs. The suburbs have been rising up and favoring Democrats or pushing more towards Democrats, more independent voters leaning away from President Trump's party since the 2016 election.

    So that'll — that'll be something to watch.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And then one other election that we should bring up, the governor race in Kansas.

    And we saw a presidential tweet endorsing Kris Kobach.

    And the tweet reads: "Kris Kobach, a strong and early supporter of mine, is running for governor of the great state of Kansas. He's a fantastic guy who loves his state and our country. He will be a great governor and has my full and total endorsement. Strong on crime, border and military. Vote Tuesday."

    Kobach, as the president tweeted, not perhaps a surprise, right? Strong and early supporter of the president. Or should we be surprised about this endorsement?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Not surprising, because it's this president, who has really bucked tradition by getting involved in primaries in his own party.

    And unlike these special elections, where Republicans have faced Democrats, and Trump doesn't have such a strong record, he really has shown an ability to tip the scales in Republican primaries, where the Republican base remains loyal to the president. And they have shown that they — that a Trump endorsement makes a difference.

    This Kansas race, a very crowded Republican primary, and Trump's endorsement really could help Kobach in what is a seven-way race.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tamara, President Trump's endorsement hasn't always helped, right? I mean, there's a bit of a mixed record on that.

    Can the president's endorsement help on this? And how closely should we be watching this race?

  • Tamara Keith:

    This endorsement comes pretty close to the day of voting. So, certainly, the president will be watching to see how it turns out. Everyone will hang this on the president, depending on which way it goes.

    But I think this is also a signal. Kobach is a candidate who is very Trumpy. And he, in fact, led up the president's election fraud commission that fizzled in a big way.

    And so the president seems to be betting for these midterms on candidates that are very much like him. He wants to — he is trying to turn out the base. He's not actually at the moment yet, with his rallies, reaching for independents.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eliana Johnson, is it controversial for him to endorse this particular candidate? And can he be as Trumpian as Trump, if you will?

  • Eliana Johnson:

    I don't think it's controversial at this point, because the president has waded into so many Republican primaries.

    But it is a typical for a Republican president to wade into Republican primaries. Now, Kris Kobach, who was one of Trump's very early supporters, he has made immigration and border enforcement one of his signature issues. He may even out-Trump the president on this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He's very, very right on immigration especially.

  • Eliana Johnson:

    The president wanted to make him secretary of homeland security, and sort of told that he couldn't be confirmed by the Senate.

    So this is almost Trump's revenge against his own advisers, who thwarted his wish to make him a part of his Cabinet, I think, hoping to see Kobach instead become governor of Kansas.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eliana Johnson, Tamara Keith, thank you to you both.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

  • Eliana Johnson:

    Thank you.

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