Trump, Following Explosive News Reports, Denies He Worked For Russia

Jan 14, 2019
Originally published on January 15, 2019 2:06 pm

Updated at 1:05 p.m. ET

President Trump on Monday denied that he has been trying to conceal details about his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin after a pair of explosive press reports over the weekend.

"I never worked for Russia," Trump told reporters. "It's a disgrace that you even asked that question because it's a whole big fat hoax. It's just a hoax."

Trump also said he doesn't know anything about what happened to the notes taken by an interpreter when he met with Putin last summer in Finland or after other meetings with the Russian leader.

The Washington Post reported that Trump has taken at least one interpreter's notes after a meeting with Putin and instructed a linguist not to brief anyone else in the administration about what the two leaders had discussed during their closed-door meeting.

That followed a pattern of what the newspaper describes as attempts by Trump to limit access to his dealings with the Russian leader and the initially false explanation he gave about the meeting in June 2016 at which his top campaign aides hosted a Russian delegation that had offered "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.

Trump said on Monday morning that he had a good meeting with Putin in Helsinki and that he often deals one-on-one with world leaders, including the presidents of China and Japan.

The Post report followed an earlier story by The New York Times that said the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump in 2017 after he fired then-Director James Comey.

That was reportedly passed to the current special counsel, Robert Mueller, but it isn't clear whether the counterintelligence question — Was Trump working on behalf of Russia? — remains part of the broader investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

Trump and the White House scoffed at the reports — press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called The Times' story "absurd" — and Trump later said on Twitter that reporters have become so frenzied pursuing what he calls false stories that they need a vacation.

Trump also said on Monday morning that the FBI has been discredited by Comey and its other leaders, including former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who was fired last year after an internal investigation.

The discredited FBI leaders are "known scoundrels," Trump told reporters. He called them "dirty cops."

Democrats want more information

The weekend's reports intensified calls by Democrats for more information about Trump's contacts with the Russian leader, particularly at the summit in Helsinki.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has called for the interpreter to appear at a hearing or for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to provide notes or other materials from the summit.

House intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that although he couldn't comment on the specifics of the Times report, "counterintelligence concerns about those associated with the Trump campaign, including the president himself, have been at the heart of our investigation since the beginning."

Schiff and others renewed their calls for the State Department to release more information about the Trump-Putin summit, including the interpreter herself. Schiff and other Democrats tried to get that before but were blocked by Republicans, then the majority in the House.

Now with Democrats in control of the intelligence committee and other chairmanships, there may be a renewed push to try to compel more disclosure by the executive branch, and one beyond just the intelligence panel.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told NPR that he too wants to find out more about Trump's relationships with Russia and that his committee would convene hearings to that end.

It's not acceptable how little information many in the administration or in Congress have about what Trump and Putin discussed in Helsinki, Engel said.

"Nobody knows, as far as I know. I certainly don't know what happened there, what they discussed," he said. "The Trump-Putin connection doesn't pass the smell test. It just makes you scratch your head."

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President Trump says he never worked for Russia. That denial after a pair of explosive news reports over the weekend - reports that have landed the Russia investigation right back on top of the agenda in Washington.

NPR national security editor Phil Ewing is here in the studio to help jog our memories on what we do know, and what we don't, about the investigation unfolding and how these new developments may or may not advance our understanding of all this. Hey, Phil.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So can we just start by pausing and noting what a remarkable moment we find ourselves in. The president of the United States, two years into his term, finding himself in the position of needing to explicitly say, no, I am not a Russian agent.

EWING: It's extraordinary. And in short, the reason is people inside the United States government thought he was, or he thought he may still be, depending on...

KELLY: Thought it was worth posing the question.

EWING: Correct, depending on where this leads. This is all from a New York Times story that appeared on Friday that said the FBI began investigating that question explicitly - that it opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump might have been acting on Russia's behalf when he fired the FBI Director James Comey in 2017.

Then The Washington Post followed in short order with a report that said the president has taken unusual actions to keep people inside the government from knowing the substance of his conversations with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and including in one case, according to The Post, he took the notes away from an interpreter who was in a meeting with the two leaders.

The bottom line is that people inside the government don't know what Trump has been saying to Putin, and they were suspicious about that.

KELLY: Safe to say this pair of news reports landed like grenades over the weekend - grenades blowing up the news agenda. How - walk me through just how the White House has reacted.

EWING: Well, they reacted very strongly. But actually, you know, initially, there wasn't a denial. They called it absurd. And then on Monday, when the president talked with reporters, he made the denial, so there was a little bit of news in that.

KELLY: Today, yeah.

EWING: He also said the head of the FBI at the time this might have taken place was the then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who also was later fired after Comey. McCabe has been a villain for Trump and Republicans through this whole story. And he mentioned a top special agent and a top lawyer who exchanged text messages inside the FBI about how much they hated Trump. That story has really embarrassed the FBI.

And the president says this is all about bias. He called the people in the FBI, known scoundrels - that was his phrase - and, quote, unquote, "dirty cops."

KELLY: One question on my mind raised by these stories over the weekend, which is this - if the FBI runs a counterintelligence investigation against the sitting president of the United States, what kind of hurdles does that present?

EWING: That's a great question, and I don't know if anybody knows the answer. And I don't know if the FBI knew the answer. But this could explain some of the what appeared to be craziness leak out of the FBI over the past two years or so - people at the top of this bureau struggling with what they should do.

There's no rule for this, most likely. And the president, as you know, was the top consumer by, say, of intelligence he's built into the building. You know, he's the keystone of the arch.

KELLY: They report to him, ultimately.

EWING: That's correct. And if they needed to look into him, do they have the authority to do that? Can they do it without him knowing? No one knows, but that's what makes the stakes for this story so high.

KELLY: So looking ahead to what might be the next shoe to drop, Democrats are making noise about hearing from this interpreter who was at the Helsinki summit with Trump and Putin. In the past, Democrats have wanted to hear from her. They may be making a further push.

EWING: That's right. The change now is Democrats have a majority in the House. They have the ability to call hearings and compel witnesses, potentially. So if they start up that push again, it could have a different result from the last time we went through this.

And the other thing is there's a hearing tomorrow in the Senate Judiciary Committee with William Barr. He's the president's nominee to become the new attorney general. This, very likely, will come up. And who knows what other kinds of questions may get asked or answered when Barr goes before the Judiciary Committee?

KELLY: NPR's Phil Ewing, thank you.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.