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The Trump-Bannon rift and what we’re learning about the Russia investigations

In an upcoming book, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is quoted as saying a 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr., campaign staffers and a group of Russians was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times and Robert Costa, host of Washington Week, talk with Hari Sreenivasan about the latest revelations in the Russia investigation and so-called Steele dossier.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    We return now to the public rift that broke out today between President Trump and his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

    Hari Sreenivasan explores how the spat was sparked by the Russia investigation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In excerpts of an upcoming book on the Trump presidency, Steve Bannon is quoted as calling a June 2016 meeting that Donald Trump Jr. and other campaign aides held with a group of Russians as treasonous and unpatriotic.

    Separately, another focus of the Russia investigation returned to the headlines, after two founders of Fusion GPS, a political research firm that commissioned the so-called Steele dossier, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times.

    We break down these latest twists and turns with Mark Mazzetti, Washington investigations editor for The New York Times, and Robert Costa, host of Washington Week and national political reporter for The Washington Post.

    Robert, we saw the White House come out very strongly against Steve Bannon today. "Steve had very little to do with their historic victory," was one of the quotes that they put out in the statement. "Not only did he lose his job, but he also lost his mind."

    Put Steve Bannon in perspective here on how important or what kind of role he played in the campaign and in the presidency.

  • Robert Costa:

    A strong and visceral response from President Trump and his advisers today, and it is the culmination of a somewhat winding path that was taken by Bannon ever since he was chief strategist at the White House, in 2017. He departed last summer.

    And he remained in close contact with President Trump in recent months talking through issues like the Alabama Senate race. But after this new book by Michael Wolff, people close to the president tell me they don't expect him to speak to Bannon anytime soon.

    They feel burned by the comments he's made, especially about the president and the president's family.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I was going to say, well, what does this tell us about the president? Because there seems to be lots of different thresholds of critique that he can withstand.

  • Robert Costa:

    It tells us that the president fights, as he did in the 1980s and 1990s, still now in a tabloid, combative style. He doesn't mind being out there with these kinds of comments that Bannon has lost his mind.

    However, there is always an asterisk when it comes to relationships with President Trump. Any student of his career, his political life knows that if you look at Roger Stone and so many business associates, he has gone to war with people in the past and then he has mended those relationships and continued to talk to people.

    So I'm not ready to write off Bannon as a reporter and say he's totally outside of the president's inner circle. But certainly this is a new bump, a major one, in that relationship.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr. and some Russians was one of the focal points of the Russia investigation, but another focal point was the dossier written by Fusion GPS.

    Mark Mazzetti, bring us up to speed on what was in there and other reporting that they had.

  • Mark Mazzetti:

    So, the dossier was commissioned by the firm Fusion GPS.

    And it was — they hired a former British spy named Christopher Steele to put together information, to research any connections between Donald Trump and Russia. This occurred over 2016. And at the very beginning of 2017, almost exactly a year ago, it became public when BuzzFeed published the dossier.

    And it was sort of a wide-ranging series of accusations about Trump's relations with the Russians. And some were — the charges were quite salacious, and it has kind of hung over this story for the better part of a year, this question of, is what is in the dossier true?

    And it is also, though, become a kind of cudgel by the Republicans to try to beat back this issue of Trump and Russia. They're trying to paint the dossier as being political opposition hired by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, and as a political document, rather than as a piece of intelligence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mark, there's also this back and forth on who wants what public and in what forum, right?

    I mean, the people at Fusion GPS said their reporting and their research uncovered money laundering and other links between the president and Russians. And they said that they would prefer to have all their testimony presented to Congress which might not have been in the dossier to be public. And at the same time, we have members of Congress saying, fine, the invitation for you to be public is open.

  • Mark Mazzetti:


    So they have already testified before Congress. And as they said in their op-ed, they would like transcripts of the testimony released. That is going to be up to the discretion of members of Congress to do so. And you saw some Republicans kind of push back today and say, well, we will have you back in open testimony, so we can question you again in public.

    And I do think that this is going to be a theme going forward of, again, Republicans trying to paint the dossier in a certain light and the people behind it as political operatives.

    And so — and this is going to be, I think, a little bit of the chess match going forward.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And, Mark, as your team or the teams of reporters at The New York Times uncovered just even as early as this last weekend the dossier and what's in it is not the reason that the FBI launched this investigation into the Russian meddling in the first place.

  • Mark Mazzetti:

    As we reported over the weekend, the dossier — sorry — the predicate for the investigation which began in July 2016 wasn't the dossier.

    It was a couple of things, and a significant factor in it was this meeting that George Papadopoulos, who was a foreign adviser to the Trump campaign, had in May of 2016. It was actually a night of drinking with Australia's top diplomat in the United Kingdom.

    And during this drinking session, Papadopoulos revealed that he had learned that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. A couple months later, the Australian diplomat cabled his government about this. And that ended up in the hands of the FBI. And that's one of the significant factors that led the FBI to launch the investigation later that month.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Robert Costa, the Trump — the president has had multiple statements on what he thinks about Robert Mueller, the FBI, THE DOJ.

    One of his most recent ones is that he thinks that Robert Mueller will be fair, but that this investigation makes the country look bad. How do we figure out what his threshold is for tolerating how close this investigation is getting and perhaps how that infuriates him?

  • Robert Costa:

    So far, the indictments that have come forward have been to campaign advisers to the president's campaign in 2016.

    They have not reached his inner circle in a major way. They have not reached his own family or himself. And because of that, there's a reluctance among the president, I'm told, to really combat Mueller at this time, to go after him in a public way. That's why he keeps saying, in statement after statement, that he believes Mueller will be fair and that he's just going to let the process play its course.

    But there's a spoiling right now on the right for a fight against Mueller, that this investigation has gone on too long. And so if he ever changes his tune, the president knows on the right wing of the Republican Party, there are elements and groups and major figures who are telling him and the White House we are ready to take on Mueller.

    We just haven't reached that threshold yet, in part, my reporting tells me, because this investigation has not come exactly into the White House in a serious way the White House would see as debilitating.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:


    All right, Robert Costa, Mark Mazzetti, thank you both.

  • Robert Costa:

    Thank you.

  • Mark Mazzetti:

    Thank you.

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