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Morning News Brief: Russia Investigation Widens; Neighbors Discuss Baseball Shooter

Jun 15, 2017
Originally published on June 22, 2017 12:47 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A special counsel's curiosity now reportedly extends to the actions of President Trump.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Robert Mueller is the former FBI director who's been appointed to examine Russian meddling in last year's election. The Washington Post reports that Mueller's investigation now includes President Donald Trump, asking if he tried to obstruct justice. The ironies are several layers deep here.

Remember, the president fired FBI director James Comey, who had said Trump was not under investigation. So far as we know, Trump still is not personally under investigation for ties to Russia, but investigators are asking if he tried to impede that investigation.

INSKEEP: That, at least according to The Washington Post, whose reporters include Devlin Barrett, who's on the line.

Good morning, sir.

DEVLIN BARRETT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So we should emphasize we're not talking about charges or knowledge of crimes. We're talking about investigators' questions. What questions are the investigators asking?

BARRETT: Well, we're told that investigators want to talk to a handful of senior intelligence officials. And that's significant because, you know, this whole debate between what occurred in the private meetings between Comey and Trump is essentially a he-said-he-said, and it's a question of who you believe among those two.

What's interesting about reaching out to the senior intelligence officials is they could either back up or discount some of what Director Comey has been saying. And so they could be potentially important witnesses to corroborate other things that the special counsel has heard.

INSKEEP: Let me get out what we're talking about here. You're referring to reports that earlier this year, President Trump met with or spoke with people such as Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, or Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, and asked for their help to, in some way, rein in the FBI or clear the president. Is that right?

BARRETT: Right, it's a little - it varies a little person to person. But essentially, there were two asks that has - have been described to us. And the first is, would you guys be willing to say - this coming from the president supposedly - would you guys be willing to say, publicly, that there was no - that there's no evidence of collusion. We're told both men declined that request.

Then there's a separate issue of - we are told Coats told associates that he was concerned that the president had sort of floated the idea, would you be willing to help me in some way with Comey on this issue of the Mike Flynn investigation, his former national security adviser. And, you know, that obviously gets more into the basic question of was the president pressuring Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.

INSKEEP: Is it a little odd that Robert Mueller would need to look into this though? Because the reports were out there, as you know. And then Coats and Rogers, among others, testified under oath before Congress. And Coats and Rogers, as I recall, both said, nobody directed me to do anything improper. They left it quite fuzzy as to whether they might have been asked to do something. But they've said under oath they weren't directed to do this.

BARRETT: They said they didn't feel pressure and they weren't directed. They wouldn't say whether they were asked to do it. And I think the interesting corollary is when Comey describes being asked something - he said in his testimony last week, I took - because it was coming from the president, I took it as a direction.

Now, it's fair and I think good and valid for people to argue about what all these terms mean, what these precise words mean. But I do think that it's worth - you know, from the prosecutor's point of view and from the investigator's point of view, it makes sense that you would look at this and try to unpack a little bit more, OK, exactly what was said, how it was said.

MARTIN: Also...

INSKEEP: Rachel Martin.

MARTIN: ...Just worth remembering quickly, I mean, Rogers was really resolute when he said that in his testimony. But Dan Coats actually said - made it seem like he would perhaps be more fulsome in a private setting, that behind closed doors, he might be able to speak more freely.

BARRETT: Right. And so I, frankly, take both of them as having signaled that. And we know that Rogers has spoken privately with the Senate intelligence committee since then. So I think every indication is that they are being more forthcoming in private settings.

INSKEEP: OK, Devlin Barrett, stay with us because we're bringing in another voice - NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are you surprised by this news?

MONTANARO: I'm not, frankly, because the fact is after James Comey testified and essentially laid out all the breadcrumbs for Robert Mueller to figure out whether or not there was obstruction of justice, he was asked point-blank, do you think there was obstruction of justice here. He said, I don't know; that's for Bob Mueller to decide.

That should have set off sirens for all of us that Comey was pointing directly to Mueller to say, go and look into this; I think something inappropriate happened. And by the way, remember these other guys who testified who wouldn't say exactly what their conversations were with President Trump.

INSKEEP: Devlin Barrett, let me ask you about the timing of your report now, this news that there's an obstruction of justice investigation or questions about obstruction of justice. Just the other day, a presidential friend was musing that President Trump might fire the special counsel. And suddenly, word comes that the president himself is under investigation. Does this news make it impossible, politically, for the president to fire Robert Mueller?

BARRETT: I think it's - I think it's very tough to predict the president's behavior on this front. I don't think anyone really predicted, frankly, Jim Comey being fired. So I don't - I'm hesitant to use words like impossible.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BARRETT: All of this is...

INSKEEP: In this circumstance, yeah.

BARRETT: ...Very dangerous ground and risky ground for everyone involved. And I think, you know, that's why we cover it, and that's why we try and figure this stuff out.

INSKEEP: Couple of other things. A spokesman for the president's personal lawyer has said the leak of information - your story - the leak of information is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal. Now, if you get information, you report it. But let me just ask. Is this information we really need to know? Because no one has been charged here. This is investigators' questions.

BARRETT: Right. Well, I mean, you tell me. Would you care if the president was under investigation for possibly violating the law? I think most people would agree that that's something worth knowing. And I think, you know, the reporting is very clear that this is something they are looking at.

We're a long way away from coming to any conclusions about that. And, you know, what we do is we cover investigations. That's how it works.

INSKEEP: Domenico Montanaro, is this a bit awkward for Republicans who keep trying week after week after week to focus on what they say are substantive issues they want to focus on, and instead it's overshadowed?

MONTANARO: Well, look. Republicans are still working quietly, too quietly for some Democrats, on their agenda, including health care. They want to get a vote out before the July Fourth recess. But even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he would like a little less drama coming out of the White House.

INSKEEP: A little bit less drama. All right, well, Domenico Montanaro, NPR's politics editor, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Devlin Barrett, Washington Post reporter, one of those who broke news that President Trump now faces investigation for the possibility of obstruction of justice, thanks very much to you, really appreciate it.

BARRETT: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK, so who exactly was the man who opened fire yesterday at a baseball field in Virginia?

MARTIN: This is the man who, according to witnesses, fired more than 50 shots as congressional Republicans were practicing for their annual game. They hold this against congressional Democrats every year. So this happened at a baseball field just outside of Washington, D.C. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was among those who were shot. The gunman was killed by Capitol Hill Police. He was 66-year-old James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill.

INSKEEP: Which is where we now find NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

Hi there, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What have you learned about Hodgkinson?

WANG: Well, we've heard from one of his friends growing up - Dale Walsh - that he grew up in the same neighborhood. And he said that he was surprised that Hodgkinson was the shooter because he knew him as a happy-go-lucky guy, a jokester at parties. We have some tape from St. Louis Public Radio. Here's what Dan - Dale Walsh said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DALE WALSH: I just want to let people know that he wasn't evil, that he was, I guess, tired of some of the politics that are going on. Just like in this state, we've got politicians collecting a paycheck and doing absolutely nothing for it.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, that's a very common thought, to be frustrated with politicians in this age. Not everybody, though, opens fire at members of Congress. What happened?

WANG: Well, we're still trying to figure out exactly what his motives are - were. And - but we do know he did have a criminal record showing arrest for suspicion of battery and motor vehicle damage, for example. Those charges were dropped. St. Louis Public Radio also spoke to one of his neighbors, Bill Schaumleffel. And he told us that he didn't interact very much with his neighbors, even though there was recently a run-in where he was found firing off a hunting rifle and sheriffs came, but again, no charges.

INSKEEP: Quickly, a couple of things that baffle me. What was he doing in Washington? He was here to protest - or what was he doing?

WANG: We're still not quite sure. We do know the FBI says that they found a vehicle where he lived in for a few months before these shootings took place. And they are still trying to figure out exactly what his motives were, how - what exactly a timeline was. And they're asking the public to offer any tips that they might have about his motives and people he may have met before the shooting.

INSKEEP: The one other mystery that's on my mind is there are some people around Washington who knew that this baseball practice was a regular thing at that particular diamond in Alexandria, Va. You have to wonder how this man from Belleville, Ill., would have known that.

WANG: That's a good question.

INSKEEP: So where does the investigation stand?

WANG: Well, currently, the FBI, they've been searching his house. And they're also looking for leads, obviously, in Alexandria, Va., at the scene of the shooting. And we are still waiting for more updates from law enforcement to see where it goes next.

INSKEEP: OK, and we'll listen for updates from you, as well. Hansi, thanks very much.

WANG: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang in Belleville, Ill., which was the home of the man identified as the shooter in yesterday's attack on congressional Republicans as they were practicing baseball yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "KNEE-DEEP IN THE NORTH SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.