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A Look At The Latest Turn In The Russia Investigation


There is a dissection going on of the last year, trying to figure out the significance of the latest turn in the Russia investigation, the latest turn meaning the guilty plea on Friday by Michael Flynn about lying to the FBI regarding conversations he had with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Flynn had served as President Trump's first national security adviser. He was fired in February.


One of the people who's been covering this story for a long time is NPR's Tamara Keith. And she is here now to tell us how we got to today. Hi, Tam.


MCEVERS: We know a lot more now, right? You're probably looking at the last year of reporting in a different way, yeah?

KEITH: Yeah. There are a lot of things that we sort of learned about in drips and drops over the last year. Now we can sort of line them all up together. And there are events that happened right next to each other one day after the other in a way that makes this story much more interesting.

MCEVERS: All right, so let's go through some of those drips and drops, right? And it all starts in December just after President Trump's been elected. And he's got a transition team together, right?

KEITH: He's got his transition team together, but they aren't in the White House yet. And the Obama administration is in the White House. So on December 28, they decide that they need to retaliate for Russian interference in the presidential election. So they announce a series of sanctions against Russia.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Russian diplomats are expound, compounds closed as President Obama...

KEITH: That very same day, Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, contacts Michael Flynn. Flynn was the national security adviser in waiting. So Flynn gets in touch with a bunch of transition team officials. And according to court documents filed as part of Flynn's guilty plea, they discussed that the presidential transition team did not want Russia to escalate the situation. Flynn immediately calls Kislyak and makes the case that they don't want Russia to retaliate. Then comes December 30, the next day. Russian President Vladimir Putin releases a statement.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Says Russia will not expel anyone in response to the U.S. sanctions.

KEITH: All of a sudden, there was this big surprise - no retaliation. And President-elect Trump tweets out, great move on delay by V. Putin; I always knew he was very smart - exclamation point.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about January. What happens next?

KEITH: There is a news report in The Washington Post that says Michael Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador about sanctions. Now, the transition team denies this up and down. Mike Pence, the incoming vice president, goes on "Face The Nation" on CBS...


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I talked to General Flynn about that.

KEITH: ...And says Flynn told him, no, this was not about sanctions.


KEITH: It was about Christmas.


PENCE: They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or...

KEITH: What we now know is that on January 24, Michael Flynn sits down to talk with the FBI. And according to his plea deal, he made false statements, one of those statements being that he denied that the conversation with the ambassador was about sanctions. We now know that it was about sanctions.


KEITH: January 26, Sally Yates - she's an Obama administration holdover. She is serving as acting attorney general. She calls over to the White House to White House counsel Don McGahn.


SALLY YATES: I called Don McGahn first thing that morning and told him that I had a very sensitive matter that I needed to discuss with him, that I couldn't talk about it on the phone and that I needed to come see him.

KEITH: And according to testimony that she gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, she says she wanted the White House to know that what the vice president had been saying about Flynn's behavior - that that wasn't true.


YATES: It was critical that we get this information to the White House in part because the vice president was unknowingly making false statements to the public.

KEITH: And there was a concern she raised that Flynn had been compromised by the Russians.

MCEVERS: So we're at the end of January. The White House has all this information from Sally Yates. But they don't fire Flynn. I mean, it's two more weeks before anything happens.

KEITH: Right. Michael Flynn is finally fired on February 13. The explanation coming from Sean Spicer, the press secretary, is Flynn was fired because there was an erosion of trust with the president.


SEAN SPICER: We got to a point not based on a legal issue but based on a trust issue where the level of trust...

KEITH: So that's February 13. February 14, there is a meeting at the Oval Office. James Comey is there. A bunch of other people are there. And then according to Comey's testimony, the president asks everyone else to leave the Oval Office. And so then he's alone in the Oval Office with the FBI director.


JAMES COMEY: My impression was, something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken.

KEITH: And Comey quotes Trump as saying, "he's a good guy and has been through a lot." And then he said, I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.


COMEY: I mean, this is the president of the United States with me alone saying, I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn't obey that, but that's the way I took it.

KEITH: Now, President Trump tweeted just this weekend that he never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn and that it was just fake news and a Comey lie.

MCEVERS: And of course Comey was asked about all of this after he was fired.

KEITH: Right. James Comey is fired on May 9. The White House insists that the reason for his firing was his mishandling of the Clinton email investigation. However, two days later, President Trump goes on NBC News and, in an interview with Lester Holt, says, I knew I was going to fire Comey before I ever got any recommendations from the Justice Department describing his failures on the Clinton matter.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself - I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having...

MCEVERS: All right, so now we are in the present time. Michael Flynn of course has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. He's agreed to cooperate with the special counsel. What is President Trump saying about that?

KEITH: President Trump in a series of tweets has made it clear that he still thinks that Flynn didn't do anything wrong, that the underlying behavior wasn't wrong.

MCEVERS: Tam, thanks so much for reminding us how we got to where we are today. NPR's Tamara Keith - appreciate it.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.