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The Latest From Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia Investigation


We begin this hour with news about special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. This evening, documents in the case of President Trump's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen were filed in a New York federal court. The documents shed light on the crimes the government says Cohen has committed. And we also have another set of documents, new documents from the special counsel about the president's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. So a lot of news to wade through right now.

And to help us with the wading, we are joined now by NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who is here with us in the studio. Hey, Carrie.


CHANG: And White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who is joining us from the White House. Hey, Tam.


CHANG: So, Carrie, let's start with you. There were two new documents from the government describing what Michael Cohen did. What are the new details we're learning tonight about his case?

JOHNSON: Ailsa, this is a lot. Strap in. Put your seatbelt on.

CHANG: (Laughter) All right, buckling right now.

JOHNSON: Prosecutors in New York say Michael Cohen deserves a substantial prison sentence. They say he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1, whom we know is the president, in a campaign finance probe of payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, two women with whom Trump allegedly had personal relationships. The document also says Cohen consulted with Donald Trump about meetings in Moscow or meetings with Russian officials in Moscow, part of a highly lucrative Trump Tower Moscow deal that never came to fruition. And that document also talks about Cohen getting approached by some unnamed Russian as far back as 2015 to try to engage in some kind of political synergy. Now, that was the...

CHANG: Political synergy.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and we're going to find out more about that I think. Now, that was what prosecutors in New York said. We also got a filing on Michael Cohen this evening from the special counsel, Robert Mueller. They say Cohen met with them seven times, provided useful information on Russia matters that are core to their investigation. And they say that Michael Cohen was in regular contact with company executives, Trump Organization executives during the campaign. He also talked about his contacts with people tied to the White House in 2017 and 2018 and that when he was asked questions about - from Congress about all of these issues, he circulated those responses before he sent them. The big question is, who saw those because...

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: ...We now know Michael Cohen has acknowledged those responses were false.

CHANG: And, Tam, you know, the president has consistently defended himself, casting doubt on Cohen's credibility. The government is basically saying, yeah, Cohen is a liar; he has admitted to lying. And the president has just tweeted about all these developments tonight. What did he say?

KEITH: It's a pretty short tweet. It says simply, quote, "totally clears the president. Thank you," exclamation point. However, the White House has also weighed in with a statement from Sarah Sanders. She says - and I'll just read it to you.

CHANG: Yeah.

KEITH: (Reading) The government's filings in Mr. Cohen's case tell us nothing of value that wasn't already known. Mr. Cohen has repeatedly lied. And as the prosecution has pointed out to the court, Mr. Cohen is no hero.

And those court filings do indicate that Cohen was not fully cooperative. And they say that he wasn't just acting out of naivete, that - or, you know, fealty to President Trump but that he was also doing it in his own self-interest.

CHANG: Carrie?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. These prosecutors say that Michael Cohen wanted people to think that he was acting out of blind loyalty to Donald Trump that - but that he had skin in the game. He stand - he stood to make a lot of money...

CHANG: Sure.

JOHNSON: ...If Trump became the president...

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...And this project came to fruition in Moscow. And he also stood to have a lot of influence if Donald Trump became president, which came to pass.

CHANG: OK, we just received also another document - right? - about Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Tell us about that document, Carrie.

JOHNSON: So we know that Paul Manafort met with the special counsel team 12 times. And this is new, Ailsa...

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...That he actually testified before a grand jury twice.


JOHNSON: But the problem is authorities say he lied. He lied about a lot of things to them. He lied about contacts with a business associate of his who special counsel prosecutors think has ties to Russian intelligence. He also lied about another Justice Department investigation. We don't know what that investigation is.


JOHNSON: And maybe most intriguing...

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...He lied about his contact with administration officials. Remember; Paul Manafort was charged last year. He pleaded guilty only in September of this year. He agreed to cooperate...

CHANG: Right.

JOHNSON: ...With authorities. But authorities now say that Manafort was in contact via text messages as late as May 2018 with an administration official and that he himself was talking to an unnamed senior administration official through February. Remember.


JOHNSON: There have been reports that Manafort's lawyers were coordinating with or keeping in the loop lawyers for Donald Trump in the White House.

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: The president has said a pardon is not off the table for Paul Manafort. The question is, is that what they were discussing all this time?

CHANG: And do we have any detail about the content of these alleged communications between Manafort and members of the administration?

JOHNSON: No. A lot of things are still under seal or redacted in that case. The important thing, as far as prosecutors say tonight, is that they are able to prove that he lied because of emails, text messages and other information, evidence they have amassed.

CHANG: OK. Now, of course President Trump was anticipating all of these documents getting filed today. He started pretty early this morning - right, Tam? - launching some pre-emptive strikes against the Mueller investigation. Can you just recap for us, Tam, the flurry that we saw on Twitter earlier today?

KEITH: Yeah, so my alarm didn't go off this morning, but my Twitter alarm did...

CHANG: (Laughter).

KEITH: ...At 6:18...

CHANG: Oh, I'm sorry.

KEITH: ...When the first presidential tweet came. And then they just kept coming and coming and coming. He tweeted a total of seven times this morning about the Mueller investigation, saying that Mueller and his team that he's working with are totally conflicted and also talking about James Comey, the former FBI director, and saying that if there ultimately is a Muller report that is filed, that Trump's lawyers will file a rebuttal report. And he said they've already started, and it's already 87 pages long.


KEITH: Also, I just want to add really quickly...

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

KEITH: ...That we also have a statement from Sarah Sanders regarding Manafort. And what she says is that the government's filing in Manafort's case says absolutely nothing about the president. It says even less about collusion and is devoted almost entirely to his lobbying-related activities. So that is the White House position on the Manafort filings.

CHANG: OK. Well, in the middle of this swirl of news, Trump did make some personnel announcements today, including for a nominee for attorney general, William Barr. Tam, can you tell us a little bit about William Barr?

KEITH: Yeah, so he is a former attorney general under George H.W. Bush. He's seen as an - a sort of a Republican establishment lawyer. President Trump said that he didn't know him until this process began but that he was his No. 1 choice all along. And, you know, he is seen as someone who is an institutionalist by some, but others are saying, hey, look at his record of public statements, that he has said that President Trump was totally right to fire James Comey and also that he has a pretty expansive view of executive power.

CHANG: He's also seen as kind of a criminal justice hard-liner, I understand. And, you know, there's interest now in the White House, Carrie, to get criminal justice reform done. How might Barr affect those efforts, do you think? Is it too early to tell?

JOHNSON: No. As of last night, when Bill Barr's name was getting floated, I was hearing from a lot of sources of mine in the advocacy community, people who have been working on these issues since the 1994 crime bill and earlier.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

JOHNSON: And they pointed out that Bill Barr has taken a hard line on drugs going back 25 or 30 years. And they expect him to be as tough if not tougher than Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, has been on drug issues and on sentencing generally. So...

CHANG: That said, is there an argument that the '90s were just a different time, that people were just much more pro-law enforcement then and maybe Bill Barr's views have evolved over the decades?

JOHNSON: His views may have evolved. One other interesting factoid, Ailsa, is that his daughter currently works for the deputy attorney general, Mary Daly.


JOHNSON: She's in charge of the Justice Department's opioid efforts. So it seems to run in the family. This is something that's interested both of them for a long time.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Carrie Johnson and Tamara Keith. Thanks to both of you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.