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Trump’s recent Russia probe tweets raise questions about interference. Here’s what we know and what we don’t

The Friday guilty plea by former national security advisor Michael Flynn touched off a running response from President Trump on Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Taken together, two of the president’s statements could suggest interference. P.J. Tobia reports and Miles O’Brien talks to former FBI official Stephanie Douglas and Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post.

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  • Miles O’Brien:

    We turn now to the growing Russia file that special counsel Robert Mueller is accumulating.

    The president himself added to it over the weekend after Michael Flynn's guilty plea.

    P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, I feel badly for General Flynn. I feel very badly.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    President Trump voiced sorrow for his former national security adviser this morning, and took another shot at an old foe.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI. Nothing happened to her. Flynn lied, and they have destroyed his life. I think it's a shame.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Retired General Flynn pled guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. That touched off a running response from the president, starting Saturday morning with his renewed claim that there's no evidence of any election conspiracy with the Russians.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There's been absolutely no collusion, so we're very happy.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Hours later on Twitter, he was back, with this- "I had to fire General Flynn," he wrote, "because he lied to the vice president and the FBI."

    Mr. Trump had said before that he fired Flynn, on February 13, for lying to the vice president. The reference to lying to the FBI is key, because former FBI Director James Comey has said that, the very next day, the president urged him to let this go, referring to the Flynn case.

    Taken together, the two statements could suggest interference in the investigation.

    And, in short order, the president's attorney John Dowd said he had actually written that tweet. He also said Mr. Trump didn't know in February that Flynn had lied to the FBI.

    But that did little to quiet the legal questions.

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein:

    I think what we're beginning to see is the putting together of a case of obstruction of justice.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke Sunday.

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein:

    I see it in the hyper-frenetic attitude of the White House, the comments every day, the continual tweets. And I see it, most importantly, in what happened with the firing of Director Comey. And it is my belief that that is directly because he didn't agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered a warning.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham:

    You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigations at your own peril. I would be careful if I were you, Mr. President. I would watch this.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    But Michael Mukasey, former attorney general under George W. Bush, said Sunday it's all being overblown.

  • Michael Mukasey:

    What I made of it is that a lot of the heavy breathing and a lot of the speculation is completely unwarranted. That plea agreement doesn't, to me, indicate that there is very much else there.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Meanwhile, Mr. Trump fired off new broadsides at the FBI yesterday. He tweeted that- "Its reputation is in tatters."

    Former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder defended the bureau, saying it's the FBI, not the White House, that has integrity and honesty.

    But Mr. Trump also zeroed in on news that the FBI's top agent on the Russia probe was removed this summer for texts he had sent disparaging then-candidate Trump.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's very unfair. Thank you very much.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    By this morning, the president was again branding the special counsel's investigation a witch-hunt.

    And late today, special counsel Mueller accused former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort of violating an order not to discuss his case publicly. Court documents say Manafort and a Russian colleague drafted an opinion piece to get his house arrest lifted. It was never published.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    We take a closer at what we know now with Carol Leonnig, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, and Stephanie Douglas, a 23-year veteran of the FBI, where she worked on national security and counterintelligence issues. She now works in private practice.

    Carol, over the weekend, you spoke to John Dowd.

    What was his explanation of the tweet and what exactly the president knew about Mr. Flynn and when did he know it?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    So, John Dowd is the president's personal lawyer.

    And on Saturday at The Post, we reported, based on two sources, that Dowd had actually drafted and written that tweet. On Sunday morning, Mr. Dowd let me know that that was true, he had drafted it. And he also explained that it may not have been as precise as he would have liked. He used some other words for that, and he said that the president didn't know that Flynn had lied to the FBI.

    No one told — I should say, no one told the president that Flynn had lied. He wanted people to understand that the White House counsel had communicated to the president that Flynn had likely told the same inaccurate story to the FBI that he told the vice president.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    A little surprising that a defense attorney of that stature would be so imprecise.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Well, many people are speculating right now that, indeed, the president did know this. But we can't know that for sure.

    It makes sense, or I should say it stands to reason that if you are told by your lawyer at — the White House counsel, that the information that Flynn gave to the FBI agents was the same as the inaccurate account he gave to Pence, that the president and his lawyer should deduce that it was a lie or at least omitting important facts.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Stephanie, let's talk a little bit about obstruction of justice, maybe a little bit about what it takes to prove cases of that type, but how this tweet might or might not fit into such a case.

  • Stephanie Douglas:

    Well, first of all, to actually be able to charge an obstruction of justice count, you have to be able to show intent, right? So there has to be a corrupt intention on the part of the person who is doing something or directing that something take place to basically obstruct justice.

    So if, for instance, a person asked someone to lie about something, that could be deduced as an act of obstruction of justice. Now, we don't have information to suggest that that is what happened. But if someone told Mike Flynn to provide misleading information to the FBI, that could be deduced as an act of obstruction of justice.

    As it goes to the tweet that was actually sent out over the weekend, remember, cases will not be made on just a simple tweet, especially given that the president does a lot of tweeting. He does very reactive tweeting. And whether the tweet was sent out by his attorney or whether he sent it out himself, it doesn't necessarily help this case, but it doesn't stand alone as being something that would imply obstruction.

    Before there would be any charge of obstruction, based on anything that was said on Twitter or any other social media component, there would be corroborating evidence that would be provided to bolster any kind of charge for something like that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Does it really matter whether the president or his attorney actually wrote out that tweet?

  • Stephanie Douglas:

    Well, I think the most important thing is, is it accurate?

    I mean, did — was there information that the president had that he knew of that Mike Flynn lied to the FBI? And then the important question is when — if that is the case, when did he know?

    I mean, my immediate thing that I would want to know is if Mike Flynn after being interviewed by the FBI in February, before the departure of James Comey, if he returned to the White House, and did he tell the president, or did he tell anybody in the White House that he provided misleading information?

    And then did the president subsequently terminate James Comey?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That would be the nub of the issue.

  • Stephanie Douglas:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Carol, let's talk about a little bit further of your communications back and forth with John Dowd.

    What did he say about a potential obstruction case, if at all?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    He thinks obstruction — he sent me some interesting reading material about this.

    He believes that you cannot charge obstruction of the president. The president can't be guilty of that, that the president is allowed to fire someone in his administration and, in this case, the FBI director.

    I think Stephanie's absolutely right. It's the truth of, what was the motive of the president that Bob Mueller is investigating? How much of an obstruction case does Mueller have? We don't know. But that's the issue. What was the motive and the intent of the president when he acted?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Intent is a tough thing to prove.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Absolutely.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Stephanie, the president — that's not all the tweets we have to discuss. There were a series of tweets, some of them very critical of the FBI itself, your former agency, saying it was in tatters.

    What do you think about those tweets? And do they fit into this case at all, or are they kind of a sideshow?

  • Stephanie Douglas:

    Honestly, I think it's a sideshow.

    I mean, there's been, you know, times in the past where the bureau has come under scrutiny for a lot of different things that have been interpreted by politicians from either side. And they take a certain amount of, like, media buzz as a result. And this is just another time.

    We know that the president has said a lot of things about the FBI since he's been in office. A lot of them have not been very complimentary. But it serves as a distraction and is annoying, but, at the end of the day, the men and women of the FBI will get to work and will recognize it for what it is, a distraction.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    There's a lot of what about Hillary Clinton in all of this. And the president is suggesting there is a double standard here.

    Do you see one?

  • Stephanie Douglas:

    Well, I mean, first of all, I don't know what information he has to say that he knows for certain that Hillary Clinton lied to the FBI.

    I think, if there is evidence that Hillary Clinton lied to the FBI, the FBI would take that very seriously and would continue to investigate it. And I don't think that there would be, should be a double standard on that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Carol, you co-wrote a fascinating piece over the weekend which takes us sort of inside the Mueller bunker, if you will. Maybe he wouldn't like that term.

    But this is where people are going and testifying. And some of the people who have been there spoke to you. What were your big impressions as you wrote that piece and as you heard from them?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Well, one thing was the dizzying array of questions that people are facing.

    I mean, some of the interviewees, either through their friends or they themselves told us that they were there for eight and nine hours straight. They had food brought in, partially because they didn't want to be noticed near Bob Mueller's investigative layer and partially because they really actually just wanted to get this interview over with and keep working through lunch.

    The other thing that struck me were the teams of prosecutors and agents that sit down, rotating in and out of the office, almost like a boxing match. OK, we have a fresh team coming in to talk to you about X. OK, now here is another fresh team.

    The other thing that struck me was — were the details about the impression that people got that this is nowhere near over, that this is quite the beginning stages in a way of a long-running investigation.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And just a quick word about their demeanor. That was interesting to me.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Carol Leonnig:

    So, one defense lawyer told us that he felt that this was a jocular, confident, relaxed crowd, and that gave him the heebie-jeebies.

    He said, when — he wasn't talking about his own particular person, but he said when you see people behaving that way that are prosecutors, you feel like, uh-oh, my guy is in a heap of trouble.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The heebie-jeebies.

    All right, Carol Leonnig, Stephanie Douglas, thank you both very much.

  • Stephanie Douglas:

    Thank you.

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