ROBERT COSTA: I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra, where we pick up online where we left off on the broadcast.
Let’s get you updated on the Russia probe. This week we learned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is investigating a meeting in the Seychelles weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration between a Middle East powerbroker, a Russian executive, and a top Republican donor close to the Trump transition. Middle East specialist George Nader, a close advisor to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates and someone who often visited the White House last year, is cooperating with Mueller’s investigators. Nader was reportedly present at a January 2017 Seychelles meeting between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian associate of President Vladimir Putin. Investigators want to know if the meeting was about establishing a backchannel of communication between the incoming administration and the Kremlin. Mueller is also interested, reportedly, in Nader’s December 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with then-National – incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Peter, a lot to unpack with George Nader, but it shows that someone new is in the mix in the Mueller investigation, and someone who has had a lot of meetings, a lot of associations with this White House.
PETER BAKER: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it shows that Bob Mueller is not just focusing on obstruction, he’s not just focusing on the things that we already knew he was looking at. He is, in fact, zeroing in on this idea of whether or not there was collusion, whether or not there was a backchannel, if you will, between Russia and the Trump team. Now, in and of itself, a backchannel, that’s not necessarily anything wrong about that. The question is whether it constitutes some sort of an illegal act. Collusion in and of itself is not an illegal act. But presumably what he’s looking for is evidence that the Trump campaign might have agreed to trade off policy in exchange for help during the election in the form of these purloined emails and so on and so forth, the incriminating information. So, whether this is a sideshow or whether it’s going to be part of the main investigation, we don’t know yet because obviously Mueller is being pretty thorough in looking at everything. We don’t know what he’s going to take out of it.
MANU RAJU: And one of the – the thing that the Nader development, learning about George Nader reveals is that this could be potentially problematic from that Republican operative and donor, Erik Prince, the head of the former security firm Blackwater, the brother of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was at this Seychelles meeting. Now, Erik Prince has testified before the House Intelligence Committee, said this was not a backchannel. He said he was there for business opportunities. He was invited by the UAE to go there. He had met with some UAE officials, and he said he met with a Russian businessman at the request of the UAE. They had a beer, they really didn’t talk about anything significant. He was not a Trump emissary. That’s what he said under oath. He never said that George Nader was at this meeting, and we have now learned that Nader was at at least one of those two meetings in the Seychelles. So the question for particularly Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, they’re saying, well, why didn’t you disclose this during your testimony? They’re asking for more records from Erik Prince. They want him to come before the committee. They want George Nader to come before the committee. The problem, of course, is that they’re in the minority and the Republicans are in the majority. They’re the ones who determine the schedules, and they’re not there yet, and they’re not convinced that this is an issue for Erik Prince. But we’ll see what Bob Mueller thinks, and we’ll see if Bob Mueller believes that Erik Prince was, in fact, sent there by the Trump campaign, was trying to do this backchannel, and wasn’t truthful to Congress, and we’ll see if Bob Mueller has a different view of this.
KAYLA TAUSCHE: And all the attendees that were at this meeting in the Seychelles, one of their common threads is money. They all had a role in either arranging financing for the Republican Party, in Erik Prince’s case, or in the case of the Russian who was in attendance or for Nader himself, arranging financing for foreign governments, sovereign funds tied to internal government investments. So there also raises a question of whether Robert Mueller is now looking into financial aspects of people who are peripheral to the Trump family, the Trump transition, and the Trump campaign.
MR. COSTA: And we also saw this week Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign advisor, was defiant with Robert Mueller’s request for testimony before the grand jury, but ultimately on Friday decided to appear before them.
KIMBERLY ATKINS: He did, and he decided not to speak to the media after he appeared before them. So that was quite an about-face from the spectacle of him going on every media show known to man – (laughter) – to declare that he would not cooperate and seeing sort of like a slow intervention happen by the end of the day, when he realized that legally it was in his very strong interest to participate. I think that was just a part – a sideshow in this ongoing investigation.
MR. COSTA: Yeah, Nunberg. I wrote a story about him calling him the Pete Best of the Trump campaign. You can find it online. It’s a long story. I don’t want to explain it right now. (Laughter.)
So we also learned today that President Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, used a Trump Organization email account during negotiations to pay off a porn star. NBC News broke that story. Stormy Daniels claims to have had an affair with the president. The president says it never happened. Cohen used his Trumporg.com email to negotiate a $130,000 payment to Daniels, reportedly to keep her quiet. Cohen has said he paid the money on his own, with no connection to the campaign or to Trump.
Who wants to start? (Laughter.)
MS. ATKINS: I mean, that doesn’t even pass the giggle test. I mean, why would he on his own pay money to someone –
MS. TAUSCHE: Using a home equity line.
MS. ATKINS: Using a home equity line, putting himself in debt, who he had no relationship with, who happened to be claiming that she had a relationship with the president, and he happens to work for him. I mean, come on.
MR. RAJU: And not tell his client.
MS. ATKINS: It doesn’t make any sense at all. There’s no explanation that this was not done on behalf of someone else.
MR. RAJU: I mean, this whole thing – I mean, this is a cliche, but it’s true. It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.
MS. ATKINS: Right.
MR. RAJU: And this is exactly the problem here is the payoff to –
MR. COSTA: The timing of the payoff.
MR. RAJU: The timing of the payoff. And their explanations that just do not make sense and do not add up. And the White House has been not forthcoming about what happened. Sarah Sanders acknowledged that there was some arbitration. She said they won. And then she decided not to provide more details about it. And she also wouldn’t – she kept saying that we’ve explained everything about this situation. Well, really, they have not explained the payoff. They have not explained whether the president knew, whether the president talked to Michael Cohen about it, and whether the president – and anything, really, about this situation at all. And it’s – again, it’s the coverup, not the crime.
MS. TAUSCHE: It’s like the more the White House gets asked about the issue, the less it has to say. Sarah Sanders today at the podium, when she was asked about some of the more recent reporting around this situation, said: I’ve already discussed that enough. I don’t need to go into that subject at all again.
MR. BAKER: Right. And she discussed it enough as far as the president was concerned, who didn’t want her to discuss it at all. And she put the White House right into it by acknowledging and claiming victory in this arbitration. But the one person who was on TV almost as much as Sam Nunberg this week, of course, was Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, who was out there saying, no, this is all a bunch of hogwash. And, of course, the president must have known about it. And we don’t acknowledge this restraining order that supposedly stops her from speaking. And we don’t think this is a valid contract for her. She can say her story if she wants.
So obviously, you know – (laughs) – this is not what the president wants to be talking about. It’s not what the White House wants to be talking about. But it’s not a story that’s going away, because there are, in fact, unanswered questions. And we don’t know how we’re going to get those answers.
MS. ATKINS: But at the same time, it’s a story that doesn’t seem to be causing the president a lot of political harm. I mean, compared to the Access Hollywood statement when he was boasting about assault, essentially. This is viewed by a lot of people as something that was consensual between two people, whether it was wrong or not. You see Democrats aren’t really going after him over this. This doesn’t seem to be that politically perilous. So I think of all the negative headlines out there, perhaps this is the one that the president and folks around him are the least concerned about.
MR. RAJU: But, you know, legally, though, this is a case that’s going to potentially continue on. So it could maybe become politically problematic or, at the very least, legally problematic.
MR. BAKER: Well, you remember, they prosecuted John Edwards, who ran for president, for a payoff to a mistress who had his baby, basically. He got – he didn’t get convicted, so that’s the question. But you could make the argument – some people are saying you could make the argument this payoff to Stormy Daniels constituted a campaign contribution that was in violation of the law.
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, one of the reasons why I don’t think you’ve seen the opposition from members of Congress is because the president has given them enough other information to dislike or to react to that they don’t simply have enough time to stand there and give a comment on a laundry list of issues that they want to break with the president on right now.
MR. COSTA: Michael Cohen, as someone who covered the president as a businessman, and there was no one closer, really, than Michael Cohen to the president, so – and he would not do anything unless he asked Donald Trump for permission. I don’t know much about the details of how this all played out beyond what we’ve all reported. But Michael Cohen is certainly a confidant.
We’re going to leave it there. And thanks, everybody, for joining us. While you’re online, take the Washington Week news quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.