On his Asia trip last week, somewhere over Vietnam on Air Force One, President Trump told reporters he had asked Vladimir Putin again if Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
"He said he didn't meddle," the president said. "He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times."
Trump added: "Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that.' And I believe — I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it. ... I think he is very insulted by it, if you want to know the truth."
Trump once again appeared to be giving the words of an adversary the benefit of the doubt over the evidence presented by the intelligence community of the country he represents.
And speaking of being insulted, Michael Hayden, former CIA director under the last Republican president, took to Twitter to rebuff Trump and side with American intelligence.
After the flight — and lots of backlash later — Trump was asked to clarify what he meant.
"I believe that he feels that he [Putin] and Russia did not meddle in the election," Trump said in Hanoi. "As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership," he said, referring to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Still, Trump's comments set up yet another controversy about Russia, as he returns from his Asia trip this week — and just at the wrong time.
That's because, as NPR White House Correspondent Tamara Keith reports: the Department of Justice special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the election (and more) is moving into the White House.
Sit-downs with the special counsel
Current and former White House aides are expected to sit for interviews with special counsel Robert Mueller's team this week:
- Speechwriter and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller has reportedly already been in.
- Communications director Hope Hicks, who also served on Trump's campaign from the earliest days, is expected to speak with investigators, though her lawyer opted not to provide a comment to NPR.
- White House Counsel Don McGahn is expected to be interviewed or already has been.
- Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and his spokesman Joshua Raffel are also expected to speak with Mueller's team, or may have already.
- And, former press secretary Sean Spicer and former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus did last month.
"The interviews will ideally be completed by Thanksgiving, or shortly thereafter," said White House special counsel Ty Cobb in an interview with NPR. "I mean, it's conceivable they may have isolated people back on issues that they failed to ask them about.... There's been one example of that — lasted about 20 minutes. Boom. I don't know that there's going to be much more. And, right now, I think it's pretty well set."
As to whether the DOJ investigation is nearing its conclusion, as press secretary Sarah Sanders has said, Cobb said that ball is in Mueller's court.
"I have a high degree of confidence that Mueller and the leadership there understands how important it is to the country to bring this to a prompt and decisive solution," Cobb added.
Cobb's approach since becoming the in-house lawyer at the White House handling the Russia investigation has been full cooperation, not holding back on documents or interviews. The hope being that "the truth will put an end to the fantasies that you read about in the press every day."
Already Mueller's team has indicted two former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, on charges unrelated to their work on the campaign. And George Papadopoulos, a low-ranking foreign policy adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts he had with people linked to Russia.
Miller was one of the unnamed people corresponding with Papadopoulos, and Papadopoulos helped edit a major foreign policy address Trump gave in April 2016, according to the New York Times.
These interviews with current White House officials move the DOJ investigation right into the president's current inner circle, but that doesn't indicate what comes next or even the precise direction the investigation is heading. Cobb described Mueller's investigation as quite thorough.
"And I think it's been highly professionally done," Cobb said, "and I think they have moved with an alacrity that they're proud of and that the American people can be proud of."
A crucial week on taxes; GOP struggling to make the numbers work
If Republicans are going to be successful getting their tax overhaul done by the end of the year, this will be a crucial week.
The Senate is hoping to get its version through committee, and the House is aiming for a full House vote on its version by the end of the week.
As NPR Congressional Reporter Kelsey Snell reports: Watch the price tag on the Senate bill. It may sound wonky, but long-term deficits could make or break the entire tax plan.
If you've been watching this debate closely, you know that Senate Republicans are using special budget rules so they can pass the tax bill with just 51 votes. The trade-off is that those same rules say the tax bill can't add more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit. That's actually a pretty tough thing to achieve if you're also trying to seriously slash tax rates.
Senate staffers tell NPR they're having a hard time fitting this massive tax bill into a $1.5 trillion hole — and they have to figure it all out if they want to stick to the goal of passing this out of the Senate after Thanksgiving.