Full Episode: Russia meddling investigation reaches Trump’s inner circle

May. 26, 2017 AT 4:14 p.m. EDT

The federal investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election reached President Trump’s innermost circle. Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner is a focus of federal investigations and officials believe he has information relevant to the probe. The cloud of the Russia investigations followed the president as he traveled on his first foreign trip, and the president had harsh words for American NATO allies

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ROBERT COSTA: The Russian-meddling probe hits close to home for President Trump. I’m Robert Costa. Why the president’s son-in-law is being considered a person of interest, plus how Trump’s “America first” agenda played out on the world stage, tonight on Washington Week.

The FBI’s Russia election investigation takes them inside the White House, directly to Jared Kushner. But unlike former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and former Trump advisor Paul Manafort, Kushner is not considered a subject in any federal probe. Still, the Russia questions are only mounting, and the former head of the CIA tells Congress he saw evidence last year of Russian officials interacting with people involved in the Trump campaign, but stopped short of calling it collusion.

FORMER CIA DIRECTOR JOHN BRENNAN: (From video.) These are contacts that might have been totally, totally innocent and benign.

MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, overseas the president walks a diplomatic tightrope, pushing his “America first” agenda, and taking NATO to task on military spending.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and that they are supposed to be paying for their defense. This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.

MR. COSTA: Plus, a new probe into U.S. intelligence leaks surrounding the Manchester attack. We tackle it all with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Vivian Salama of the Associated Press, Adam Entous of The Washington Post, and Erica Werner of the Associated Press.

ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. While President Trump winds down his first trip abroad, the ongoing investigations into Russia election meddling continue to cast a shadow over the administration. We learned this week that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and White House advisor, is under FBI scrutiny for a series of meetings he held with Russian officials last year. Kushner, one of the president’s closest confidants, reportedly met in December with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow. Kushner is not considered a target of any federal probe – we want to be clear on that – but investigators do believe he may have information critical to the federal investigations into possible collusion with the Kremlin.

Joining the table from the Post newsroom is Adam Entous, one of the reporters who broke the story. Adam, everyone’s wondering: Why did the federal probe now turn to Kushner?

ADAM ENTOUS: Well, in many ways it’s very logical. You know, what’s happening here is the FBI is monitoring Russian communications, along with the National Security Agency. And the Russians are talking about their contacts with members of the Trump team during the campaign, and later with members of the transition, including Jared. And so they’re picking up in those communications basically the Russians talking about Jared. They’re talking about their contacts with him. They’re describing – you know, they’re describing what those contacts are. And it’s raising alarm bells.

And so it’s natural that the FBI would want to figure out what were the nature of those contacts that Jared was having with the Russians, and to try to figure out if there’s any connection – any coordination, which is a focus of the FBI, between the Russians who were meddling in the election, and members of Trump’s team during the campaign.

MR. COSTA: One of the most important lines, I think, in your story is the federal investigators are supposedly looking now into broadly – seeing if there are financial crimes committed. Were there financial crimes committed by Jared Kushner? Is that really a serious target for the investigators?

MR. ENTOUS: Well, one has to understand the way these investigations work. This starts off as a counterintelligence investigation. Basically, the Americans are listening to these conversations to try to figure out basically spycraft, and how are the Russians trying to influence people in the United States, get information, that sort of thing. But when you’re digging into a counterintelligence investigation, you look through financial records. You look through tax returns. You do those sorts of things. And you listen to communications.

And if you – as part of that investigation, you hear things that point to financial crimes, you then can pursue those things. So often what happens in these kinds of investigations is the actual espionage piece of it is not necessarily what the FBI pursues, but it’s actually things that come from that that they find out about as part of that investigation.

MR. COSTA: Peter, we saw that in these reports that Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, a Russian banker, as well as meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. How much hot water is he in, do you think, in terms of the probe, but also politically for this White House?

MR. BAKER: Well, we don’t really know, of course. As Adam said, we’re still trying to – the investigators are really trying to figure it out, and we’re trying to figure out what they know. But meeting with the head of a bank, VEB, that’s the name of the Russian bank, which was under sanctions at that time, is curious. What was that about? And it’s not surprising that investigators would try to figure out what was behind it. Does that mean he did anything wrong? No, not necessarily at all. But it’s – you know, we’re in this very awkward position with Russia right now, where these contacts were happening at a time where we were very, very much at loggerheads over Ukraine. We were imposing more and sanctions and more sanctions, cutting off ties not building ties. So anybody doing the opposite, of course, is going to draw attention.

MR. COSTA: Vivian, the White House seems to be in bunker mode right now, thinking about building a war room inside of the West Wing. What’s their plan to respond to this new information about Kushner?

VIVIAN SALAMA: Well, this is definitely the closest to home that anything has struck. So they’re probably taking this very seriously, and proceeding in a way that would, you know, protect themselves legally especially. I mean, everyone is talking about, you know, are there crimes committed? Certainly, we’re far off from knowing whether that’s the case or not but they want to be ready for any accusations that may come. So far, the Trump administration has been able to distance themselves from a lot of the accusations, saying that these surrogates or associates who have come up in the investigation – whose names have come up, they were – they served for a short time on the campaign or they, you know, were at a distance. They’ve always managed to do that.

Kushner is close to home. It really hits close to home. It’s not only someone who is a top advisor in the administration, it’s also a family member of Trump’s. And so they want to make sure that they are protected. Now, of course, going off something that Adam just said, it was Kushner’s job to meet with these officials, in a way. And that is something that they have maintained up until now, at least with the ambassador, is that he is someone who that supposed to be sort of a liaison between the campaign and the transition team and foreign dignitaries. He was meeting with many, not just the Russians but others as well. And so this was just part of his job, that he was trying to see how they could proceed diplomatically.

And so they maintain that. Now, obviously, the issues of meeting bankers, and especially a sanctioned bank, that raises a lot of concerns because there was a lot of speculation going into the start of this administration that they might want to ease sanctions. And so that was – that was something that a lot of – you know, this was what Michael Flynn – a lot of questions came up with General Michael Flynn, Trump’s initial national security advisor, that he was talking to people about maybe easing sanctions, or that that came up in some of the conversations. And so that is obviously a major concern.

MR. COSTA: Yes, indeed. And we should note that it’s – that Kushner’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, said Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about these meetings. He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with another inquiry. Erica, what’s the congressional response? There are ongoing inquiries on Capitol Hill. And we have the former FBI director scheduled, perhaps, to testify, though that’s not clear yet.

ERICA WERNER: Right, yes. James Comey is expected to be on the Hill not this coming week, which is a recess week, but the week after that. As you say, it’s not scheduled, but that is the expectation at this time from the Senate Intelligence Committee. So the Kushner news which, as Vivian said, brings this much closer to home for the White House, broke last night after members had left town for the Memorial Day recess. So we haven’t heard reactions specifically to that.

But what the line is from Senator McConnell, Paul Ryan and the rest, is that there are ongoing investigations, the Senate Intelligence Committee being the primary one, also now the special prosecutor. And that’s pretty much what they point to when asked about kind of any area of this. They say: We’re investigating. The investigation will reach its conclusion. And McConnell in particular, as you know, very disciplined, won’t say anything else. It’s, we’re investigating. It’ll reach its conclusion.

One other point, though, that I would make about all of this that I’ve heard from several lawmakers of both parties is that they do not hear about this issue in town halls, from their voters when they go home. They don’t hear about Russia. They hear about health care. They hear about jobs. So they aren’t getting pressure from constituents, even Democrats, on this issue.

MR. COSTA: Yeah. But the issue is certainly picking up in some of these places around the country. Adam, when you look at the intelligence community, what’s next? We’ve had reports that the president asked DNI Director Dan Coats, Mike Rogers, the head of the NSA, to perhaps back off of the investigation in some way. Is the intelligence community alarmed at the president’s conduct? And how does that – how is that going to play out?

MR. ENTOUS: Yeah. I think – I think you have to look at this – and there’s kind of two reporting lines here. We’re all trying to figure out what is the FBI looking at, who are they looking at, what kind of charges might they be considering down the road. The other line here is, if you will, obstruction – this concept of obstruction. You know, is – you know, Trump, who’s obsessed with narrative, is he reaching out to people in the intelligence community, trying to put pressure on the FBI, in order to at minimum change the narrative and basically, you know, muddy the waters, if you will, convince people that there is nothing there really to look at that involves him or involves those that are around him? Or is he doing this in order to relieve pressure?

I mean, obviously, we saw the appointment of a special counsel, which was a result of pressure. And so the efforts that I think Trump was making in March in particular, and then in April, of basically trying to get Coats, trying to get Rogers, the NSA director, to basically go out there and say what James Clapper had said earlier on, which is that he had seen no evidence of collusion. I think what Trump was trying to do is to get these other people to say something like that, in order to reduce the pressure so that, again, his allies in Congress and the White House can sort of push back at those calls for the special counsel. But as we saw, once he fired Comey, you know, the pressure just built and the decision was made. And now that there is a special counsel, the ability of the White House to kind of control the narrative and control events is going to be more limited.

MR. COSTA: But, Peter, the White House is not just responding to questions about collusion. Democrats are now charging that the president, through some of his actions, is maybe obstructing justice. How is that going to affect the White House as it moves forward, trying to get so much done in Washington?

MR. BAKER: Yeah. You just heard it on Friday from nobody other than Hillary Clinton herself, who gave a commencement address at Wellesley College, where she very clearly made the allusion between President Trump and Richard Nixon in the middle of Watergate. And she noted that he got pushed out largely on obstruction of justice allegations. In some ways, there are parallels. What Nixon did, the smoking gun tape that finally pushed him out the door, was showing him ordering his chief of staff to tell the CIA to tell the FBI to back off, to not pursue an investigation into the – into the burglary and its connections.

Whether this counts as the same thing, I don’t know. What Gerald Ford once famously said was impeachment is what the House of Representatives decide it is. Right now, you don’t see any moves toward that in Congress. And so it’s a talking point for Democrats, but so far it hasn’t resulted in anything beyond that.

MR. COSTA: Is that right? Is there really no movement in Congress on the obstruction of justice front?

MS. WERNER: Well, the leadership in the House and Democrats in the Senate don’t want to be talking about impeachment. They don’t think that that’s good politics right now.

MR. BAKER: Or the Republicans.

MS. WERNER: For the Republicans, it’s completely off the table. I mean, it’s not even –

MR. COSTA: But are they privately concerned?

MS. WERNER: Yes. They are privately concerned about what’s going on, clearly. I mean, you know, on many levels. You know, we have a president that’s at 40 percent approval ratings, sometimes less in some polls. Where does that come from? It’s partly because of the Russia stuff. It plays – you know, it manifests in various different ways. When he submitted his budget this week, Republicans had almost nothing good to say about it. Is that partly because of his low approval ratings, the lack of deference? Certainly, Republicans are not going to be impeaching this guy. And some liberal Democrats want to talk impeachment. Pelosi tries to tamp that down.

MR. COSTA: Indeed. Republicans are slow-walking a little bit, seeing how it all plays out.

One of the most important stories also this week was the president is looking to have an outside legal team. The White House is taking it seriously in terms of how they’re going to bring attorneys into the process. Adam, I want to thank you for coming on and welcome to Washington Week.

MR. ENTOUS: Thank you.

MR. COSTA: Thank you.

Let’s talk about the president’s foreign trip, which was supposed to be the major story for the White House this week. Overall, no major incidents, except for Mr. Trump’s rather blunt address to NATO allies. As NATO leaders gathered in Brussels, much of the spotlight was on President Trump. The president scolded leaders who stood just a few feet away. And he acknowledged America’s commitment to Article 5, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all, but he would not endorse it. Peter, the president seems to be implying that the U.S. won’t abide by Article 5 unless some of these countries pay more in dues.

MR. BAKER: Yeah. Look, this – you wouldn’t normally have to have a president make an affirmative commitment to Article 5. It should be gone without saying. It’s not without saying in this case because he raised that very question last year during the campaign. He gave an interview to my colleagues at the Times and said that he would defend those allies who paid up, who were part of – you know, contributed enough financially. Well, that’s not a commitment to full defense, especially given, as he said, that 23 of the 28 haven’t pulled up – paid up.

But he’s mischaracterizing the situation here. He says this as if they owe money, as if the United States was somehow owed money and that they hadn’t paid dues. That’s not the way it works. What we’re talking about here is a commitment that NATO members had made starting in 2006, renewed in 2014, to spend about 2 percent of their economy, their GDP, on defense. All right, about five countries do that. The United States does that, a few others. The rest don’t.

But there’s no dues that they owe at this point. They haven’t lived up to that goal, but it’s not a legally binding requirement. He makes it sound like somehow the United States has been shafted. And that fits into his “America first” kind of message to his own people back home. It didn’t go over well with the Europeans, though. What they wanted to hear were the words: Article 5 – I support Article 5. The president knew that. He chose not to say it.

MR. COSTA: It wasn’t just about the policy, Vivian. The images coming out of this summit in Europe were striking. The most – the thing that went viral online was when the president seemed to push Prime Minister Markovic of Montenegro on Thursday. And then had this white-knuckle handshake with the new French president. What did that tell us about this outsider president making his way abroad?

MS. SALAMA: They’re not going to embrace him the way that maybe he received a warm welcome in Saudi or in Israel on the first part of his trip. He has a tough crowd that he has to answer to in Europe. And even though they are our closest allies, they’re not going to sort of allow him to carry on with his insults and his criticism in the way that he has been. One of the most striking moments to me was during the speech that Peter was just talking about. At the end, where he jabbed them for not asking how much the new NATO center costs. He said, I won’t even ask how much that cost. And world leaders literally started snickering in the middle of his speech, because it was such a bold statement that he made. And so there were so many incidents like that.

MR. COSTA: And he’s not lining up with them on the climate as well. They’re pushing for the Paris agreement. The pope even gave the president an encyclical encouraging climate change action.

MS. SALAMA: Absolutely. And they made it clear that even the policies were not going to be in line with each other, then they’re going – he’s going to face a tough crowd, and they’re going to push back on him. I think that President Trump here has been used to maybe criticism, but he’s been such an outspoken voice that I think it’s – he feels like maybe he can dominate the world stage. Also, with regard to Theresa May being there, I think he thought that she was going to be a close ally, someone who was against – you know, wanted to withdraw from the European Union and was really – had a lot of similarities in terms of policy views. But she has made it clear that she’s going to take a tough stance on Russia, that she supports NATO, and all these others things that he thought they would be kind of in line with.

MR. COSTA: Following up on that, Peter, we saw with the prime minister – the British prime minister there was some real anger across the pond about how intelligence was shared with the U.S. about the tragedy in Manchester, and we saw a public division and then a makeup between the U.S. and Britain.

MR. BAKER: Yeah, we did. In fact, the British cut off intelligence sharing with us and a few hours later resumed it, so it was, fortunately for both sides, a short-lived feud. But it did sort of sour, you know, the relationship. Remember, just a few months ago the White House basically gave voice to this conspiracy theory that the British had somehow helped President Obama wiretap President Trump. That didn’t go over well in London. This hasn’t gone over well in London either. But it plays into President Trump’s conviction, which is very strongly held, that there are too many leaks going on in Washington. This is an example where it could have hurt our foreign policy, in his view, and therefore he calls for a Justice Department investigation. That’s not – you know, that’s probably not going to stop people from talking to Adam here, who is going to tell us what’s really going on behind closed doors in some of these investigations, but it will create a bit of a chill at this point when he comes back and presumably tries to do something about that.

MR. COSTA: Erica, what was the view on Capitol Hill? You saw the president didn’t tweet much when he was abroad. He had a speech in Saudi Arabia about religion and Islam that was – didn’t talk about the Muslim ban which he heralded during the campaign. Did they see a more traditional Republican, or is it still President Trump?

MS. WERNER: Well, I think it’s still President Trump, and for that reason actually a lot of them were pretty happy that he was out of the country for a while and kind of a little more peace and breathing room on the Hill, although there was plenty of other stuff going on. You know, frankly, I think, especially among some of the senior Republicans that have been doing politics for a long time and are pros, they’ve kind of lowered their standards as to what they expect from President Trump. So if he goes over there and things go fairly smoothly, that’s good news. I heard from a couple of people who were not happy with the NATO speech, the Article 5 thing, but they said, well, you know, it wasn’t as bad if you look at it as how it’s being portrayed. The Montenegro thing, I even heard a suggestion from someone that maybe there should be a CODEL over there to mend relations. (Laughter.) But, I mean –

MR. COSTA: We don’t want to overread too many of those moments. But, I mean, it’s interesting when you look at the policy coming out of this trip. The president, in many ways, didn’t make any huge strides. He was articulating a lot of his own views. Peter, when you think about the trip itself – you were on the trip. All the Russian issues still lingered back here at home. Was this a reset for the administration or not?

MR. BAKER: Yeah, no, it was fascinating. We were – I was on Air Force One as one of the pool reporters, and we’re taking off from Andrews Air Force Base, the wheels were actually in the – you know, had lifted off the tarmac, and I got a phone call from my editor back in Washington saying, by the way, just so you know, we’re about to post a story saying that the president had told the Russian foreign minister in their meeting that James Comey was a nut job and that firing him would relieve some of the pressure on him. And so there wasn’t much I could do at that point, but within about half an hour of the flight heading to Riyadh Fox News is on the channels in Air Force One, and the chyrons come on: New York Times reports this. And then, very quickly afterwards: Washington Post is reporting a White House official then-unnamed as a person of interest in the Russia investigation; later, you guys have reported that it’s Jared Kushner. So even as he’s taking off, even as he’s leaving the country, this is literally shadowing him heading overseas. So you can understand why he was happy to leave the country for a little while, and it did allow him to reset. He did look, for a least a little while anyway, somewhat presidential. He didn’t do a lot of sort of anger-tweeting during the trip. At one point we felt like asking him, you know, who are you and what have you done with our president? (Laughter.)

MS. SALAMA: (Laughs.) No roaming.

MR. BAKER: You know, I mean, he was very restrained for a lot of that – the early part of the trip, at least, before he got to Europe and he ran into the more skeptical audience.

MR. COSTA: And speaking of Jared, the family was everywhere on that trip.

MR. BAKER: They were, exactly. Ivanka was with him, went to the Western Wall. Melania, obviously, got a lot of attention for her outfits and her elegance, and one little flick of her hand when she seemed not to want to hold his. And it was – you know, it was very much a family trip. Jared Kushner is the one who negotiated the arms sale, $110 billion, to Saudi Arabia, and he’s supposed to be in charge of Middle East peacemaking with the Palestinians and the Israelis. So it’s a family business.

MR. COSTA: Vivian, one of the takeaways some critics of the president have had is that he had icy relationship with some leaders in Western Europe, and he seemed to be so embraced when he was in Saudi Arabia, did not speak out extensively about human rights.

MS. SALAMA: They were elated by his presence.

MR. COSTA: Saudi Arabia?

MS. SALAMA: The Saudis were elated by him, exactly for the reasons you say, is that he was giving them money – one of the largest arms deals to the Saudis, that came close to record-setting deals by the Obama administration and the Bush administration – and he would overlook issues – domestic issues like human rights, like aggression on Yemen – neighboring Yemen. And so that, for the Saudis, was great.

Now, they’re also very happy that he’s taken a tougher stance on Iran. However, both the Saudis and Israelis are approaching that with caution because both governments essentially assume that the Trump administration would come in and tear up the nuclear deal that Obama signed with the Iranians on day one. That hasn’t happened, and in fact, they’ve even scaled back their language on that, saying that it may not actually be torn up, it may be revised, and just make sure that the Iranians comply with it. And so, until that happens, there’s always going to be a little skepticism.

MR. COSTA: And a lot of questions still remain, Erica, about Russia, U.S.-Russia relationship, and will some of these sanctions continue. When I was talking to people on Capitol Hill, they said that’s at the top of their list, and what’s the president’s plan there? And Congress doesn’t want to see these – the Republicans in Congress don’t want to see them rescinded.

MS. WERNER: Right, and there is talk about sanctions legislation that could be on the floor sometime after Memorial Day. So we’ll see about that. Definitely, the story will continue. And with James Comey expected to testify on the Hill potentially that week after Memorial Day, that’ll be an opportunity to revive a lot of this, and there is potential there for damaging revelations to come out. We know that Comey has been – has kept memos of various conversations that he’s had with Trump and other White House officials. In some cases, you know, it’s anyone’s guess what could be in there and what might emerge, so that could be very interesting.

MR. COSTA: There’s so much to keep an eye on. When I was at the White House on Thursday night meeting with some sources, it seems like a staff shakeup or some kind of movement within the staff could also be in the works. The White House really seems to be prepared that this Russia matter is going to last for perhaps months, if not years, not only building an outside legal team but building something inside of the White House to try to channel all of the different questions.

Thanks, everybody, for coming out tonight. Our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about a newly elected congressman who delivered an apology in his acceptance speech. You can find that later tonight, all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

While you’re online, read my personal note about a fallen hero who died too young. And on this Memorial Day weekend, please try to take time to remember and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country and the families they left behind. We salute them.

Thanks so much. I’m Robert Costa, and we’ll see you next week.

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