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U.S. Must Probe The Extent Of What Russia Did, Sen. King Says


In the space of hours, the White House made a statement about President Trump and Russia, and then new information contradicted it. First, let's hear the denial from White House spokesman Sean Spicer, questioned here by ABC's Jonathan Karl.


JONATHAN KARL: Back in January, the president said that nobody in his campaign had been in touch with the Russians. Now today, can you still say definitively that nobody on the Trump campaign, not even General Flynn, had any contact with the Russians before the election?

SEAN SPICER: My understanding is that what General Flynn has now expressed is that during the transition period - well, we were very clear that during the transition period, he did speak with the ambassador.

KARL: I'm talking about during the campaign.

SPICER: I don't have any - I - there's nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.

INSKEEP: So nothing has changed, he said. And then hours later, a New York Times report was headlined "Trump Aides Had Contact With Russian Intelligence." That report cites U.S. intercepts of communications said to be between Trump aides and senior Russian intelligence officials. And at least one of those aides, Paul Manafort, has refuted the allegations. He said he did not knowingly have any contact. The many voices we're hearing this morning include Senator Angus King of Maine, who's an independent aligned with Democrats and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks for coming by our studios.

ANGUS KING: Absolutely, Steve. Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: What do you want to know about this?

KING: Everything - the short word is everything. First, we want to know the extent of what the Russians did, how they did it. And this is consistent with what the Russians have been doing around the world. It's not surprising in terms of the hacking, the disinformation and all of that. But the questions that have arisen in the last few days have been, from the beginning, a part of the investigation that our committee's going to conduct. And that is, were there contacts between either of the campaigns, in this case the Trump campaign, and the Russians?

And that's a very important part of this story.

INSKEEP: Slightly different - very important difference, though - question, were there contacts? The New York Times says, yes, citing intelligence sources. But then the other question is, was there collusion? And here, The New York Times says, according to their sources, so far, no. Do you have any different information?

KING: I do not. And that's exactly where we're going to begin. We had a meeting yesterday discussing where the investigation's going to go. We'll be talking to Michael Flynn. We've identified a number of people that we need to talk to, a large trove of documents that we're going to be looking at. But we have to get to the bottom of this. And I think it's important. The Intelligence Committee usually does its work in secret because of trying to protect sources and methods. We don't want to betray how we're getting the information.

On the other hand, I'm going to be pushing for as much public discussion of this as possible because one of the things that has to come out of this is the American people need to know how the Russians are trying to play this game. One of our defenses is if the people know this is standard Russian technique. I met with people from Eastern Europe. I said, how do you defend yourself because the Russians are doing this all the time?

They said, because our public knows it's happening. And they say, oh, that's just the Russians. We need to get to that point. And that's why this investigation has to be as public as possible given our responsibility to protect sources and methods of gaining intelligence.

INSKEEP: We're talking with Angus King, senator, member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. And you gave us some interesting information just now, Senator. You said you're going to be talking with Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who resigned this week after saying that he'd given incomplete information, his phrase, about phone calls with the Russian ambassador. That was after the election. What are your questions for Michael Flynn?

KING: Well, one of the questions is, what was in those conversations? But one of the questions is, were there contacts before the election? He was involved in the campaign from the beginning. He has a bit of a history with Russia in the sense of having been a commentator for Russian television. One of my questions is, was he paid when he worked for Russian television? He was at a - just about a year ago, a little over a year ago, he was at a banquet sitting right next to Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

What's that relationship all about? What was the relationship during the campaign and subsequently? And, of course, some questions - the White House yesterday characterized his interactions with the Russian ambassador as kind of routine, pre-transition. If that was the case, why did he mislead the vice president? Why was it hidden and covered up until it finally came out in the last few days?

INSKEEP: Now, we've heard other voices on the program today about this, one of them Republican Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who's on the House Judiciary Committee. And he is raising a different concern. His concern, he says, is not what Mike Flynn did or didn't do but the leaks, the fact that we're finding out about this. And it is true. We're sitting here discussing sensitive - extremely sensitive communications intercepts by the United States government.

Is this something that should not really be discussed in public?

KING: We have to discuss the subject matter of it, the substance of it. I think the leaks is a legitimate issue. It's one that needs to be examined because it is disturbing when this information is released publicly. On the other hand, we don't know where it came from. We know that the White House knew about this for the last two and a half weeks, and the Justice Department knew about it and the intelligence community. So this White House hasn't exactly been famous for being hermetically sealed over the last couple of weeks.

Some of these leaks may have come out of the White House itself. We don't know that. I consider the leak investigation as significant and one that should be on its own track. But I see that as separate from the underlying investigation of the substantive issue of Russian attempts to influence the American election and whether one of the campaigns was in contact with the Russians during this period. This is something that's never happened in American history. This is very, very, gravely serious stuff.

And, yes, the leaks are important, but that shouldn't be used as a diversion to say, wait a minute, we're not going to talk about what came out here.

INSKEEP: We also asked Congressman Johnson about Democratic concerns that a Republican-controlled Congress was not really holding oversight, meaningful oversight, over a Republican president. Rand Paul, senator from Kentucky, said last night that he didn't think Republicans should spend so much time investigating Republicans. But there you are, Senator King, on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has said on a bipartisan basis it's going to investigate. Are you?

KING: Yes, and as I say, I think the Republicans on the committee - I know them well. I've sat in that same room with them for four years. And I think they're serious about this. Chairman Burr is serious about it. And they're also...

INSKEEP: Richard Burr of North Carolina.

KING: Richard Burr, he's the Republican chair. It's a committee that's very carefully balanced. It's 8 to 7. And generally, we act in a nonpartisan basis - not always, there've been cases. The torture report, unfortunately, turned into a partisan issue. We're going to be working very hard to see that that doesn't happen this time. And everybody - we had a long meeting talking about it yesterday. And we're going to follow the evidence where it goes.

And I understand that there are calls for an independent commission and those kinds of things. The problem with that is, as I see it - and I understand the impulse for that - is they - it would take them months to get where we already are in terms of identifying documents, identifying people, working with the agencies we have. We work with the intelligence agencies historically. So I understand that concern. I can tell you one thing. I'm not going to be part of any kind of cover-up or whitewash or anything else.

This is probably the most important work I've ever done in my life. And I'm going to take it seriously. And it's - I'm going to be a real loud problem if I see any evidence of trying to avoid digging into this.

INSKEEP: Just a couple of seconds left here. It's been weeks since the committee announced its investigation. Are you already making progress?

KING: Yes. We've identified staff who are working on it. We've been in touch with the agencies. We're now working out things like where the documents will be and those kinds of things. Yes, we're moving forward.

INSKEEP: Senator Angus King of Maine, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it.

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