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In A Story With Many Twists, Congress' Russia Election-Meddling Probe Takes Another

Mar 31, 2017

Former national security adviser Mike Flynn has said he'd testify to congressional committees investigating Russian election meddling in exchange for immunity from prosecution. President Trump encouraged him to try to make such a deal to protect himself from what Trump called a "witch hunt."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington where an ever-widening probe is taking new turns by the hour. It's the investigation into Russia's meddling in the presidential election and what role, if any, the Trump campaign had in it. NPR national security correspondent David Welna has been following the latest developments. Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with an update. What do we know today that we didn't know yesterday?

WELNA: Well, today's story is Mike Flynn. He, of course, is the retired lieutenant general who lasted about three weeks as President Trump's national security adviser. He was fired after news reports revealed that he'd misled the White House about conversations he'd had with the Russian ambassador.

Now Flynn's lawyer is saying that he has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it should circumstances permit. Translation - he wants immunity to testify.

SHAPIRO: Right.

WELNA: Now, the committees in Congress - the intelligence committees of both the House and Senate have not agreed to immunity yet. Some are saying it's too soon to do that. President Trump himself weighed in this morning about this with a tweet. He said, Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt excuse for big election loss by media and Dems of historic proportion. And his spokesman, Sean Spicer, says Trump is not giving legal advice but that he is not afraid of Flynn giving damaging testimony.

SHAPIRO: Is this crazy, or is it crazy like a fox? How much of a risk is the White House taking by urging Flynn to testify?

WELNA: It's hard telling. I think Trump probably wants it to appear that he has nothing to hide. But, you know, if Flynn says he has a story to tell, they'd better know what that story is going to be. He'd be the first person from inside the White House to take the witness stand on the Hill.

And this kind of recalls the Watergate hearings from 44 years ago when a White House lawyer named John Dean agreed to testify. And then he told the panel that he'd warned President Nixon that there was a cancer growing on his presidency.

I talked with Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer today about the perils of putting a White House insider on the witness stand, and here's what he had to say.

JULIAN ZELIZER: The John Dean testimony was certainly one of the most shocking parts of the hearings for many Americans when they heard someone from within the administration speak poorly about the administration and confirm some of the worst fears that people had. We don't know if that's going to happen even with Mike Flynn asking for immunity in exchange for his cooperation. We don't really know what his testimony might look like.

SHAPIRO: If we don't know what he'll say, do we have any idea when he'll say it? I mean, if a deal is worked out, when might we hear from Michael Flynn?

WELNA: Well, I think we would not hear from him before we hear from former acting attorney general Sally Yates. She was also fired by President Trump. But reports are that she went to the White House shortly after Trump was inaugurated telling them, warning them that Mike Flynn might be blackmailed by the Russians because of the conversations that he had. And they want to hear about that first.

SHAPIRO: Obviously, the White House is having trouble moving past this story. What seems to be their strategy here?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think it's mainly to shift the focus from Russia and Trump to the leaking of information, like the revelation that Flynn had these conversations. The White House continues to insist that Trump was right when he tweeted that President Obama ordered that he'd be wiretapped.

And the irony is that it now appears that White House officials themselves were leaking intelligence intercepts to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes. And the White House claims this routine monitoring of communications revealed the identities of some of the Trump transition team. Here's - it's not terribly clear exactly where this is going, but here's Sean Spicer this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN SPICER: What the president's talking about is very clear. There is an ongoing pattern and more and more revelations that what we have seen is that something potentially was very, very bad was happening and people are using classified information not with respect to Russia, but to surveil people during that cycle.

WELNA: And, you know, the White House has lately seized on a TV interview with former Pentagon official and Russia expert Evelyn Farkas. And she said in that interview that she'd urged people in the Obama administration to get as much intelligence about Russia's meddling as they could before Obama left office. But, of course, she had already left the Obama administration a year earlier, so it's kind of hard to pin that on her. I guess the strategy of the White House is that if you don't like the subject, change the subject.

SHAPIRO: NPR's David Welna, thanks.

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