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Politics News Of The Week

Dec 9, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We got a lot more puzzle pieces this past week into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. But it's still hard to tell what the whole picture is. President Trump has said, quote, "no collusion." But others have noted that the president has been implicated by his own Justice Department in potential crimes committed by his former lawyer. Our own Mara Liasson is here. She's NPR's national political correspondent. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you see?

LIASSON: We see a lot more dots that need to be connected by someone. We see there were a lot more contacts earlier on between Trump campaign officials and the Russians, including during the primaries. And for some reason, no matter who it is, whether it's Trump's personal lawyer or his former campaign chairman, they just don't tell the truth to investigators about these contacts. We also know that while Trump in the past has said he had nothing to do with payments to two women to keep them silent about alleged extramarital affairs with him. Now he has been accused of directing his personal lawyer to commit two campaign finance felonies to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's quite a shift. And while you're saying we've got a lot more dots, as you mentioned, quite rightly, we still don't know a lot. What are you still waiting to find out?

LIASSON: Well, we still don't know if there is evidence that the president conspired directly with the Kremlin. We know that he - according to the investigation, he wanted Russian help to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Russia wanted Trump to win the election. People in Trump's campaign seemed to be very willing and eager to take any help that Russia offered in the campaign. But we don't know yet if Trump himself broke any laws.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. And the president's reaction.

LIASSON: Well, he tweeted, totally clears the president. Thank you. That is - so far - no evidence of collusion with Russia. But certainly, the government has presented evidence that he did direct his own lawyer to commit two campaign finance felonies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Here's another thing President Trump said yesterday, Mara.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He's a great guy. John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The exit of John Kelly has been long foretold. What's going on?

LIASSON: Well, one explanation - the simplest one is just that the president's decided that he needs a more politically adept chief of staff as he heads into the 2020 re-election campaign. The other explanation is that he and John Kelly became like oil and water. The president really chafed at Kelly's attempts to impose discipline on his schedule, on his interactions. You know, in a lot of ways, Trump likes to be his own everything - his own chief of staff, his own press secretary, his own communications adviser. And people in the White House will tell you that it really is a fool's errand to try to contain him or control him. And it means that whoever takes over from Kelly is coming in at a very fraught and difficult moment because what we learned on Friday is even though he says everything's great, the political and legal cloud over the president is not disappearing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, Mara, there's been some analysis that the exit of John Kelly might bode ill for Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the last of the generals standing from that...

LIASSON: Right...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Initial group.

LIASSON: ...The last of the generals standing. There was, early on in the administration, a kind of conventional wisdom that Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster were the, quote, "adults in the room," some people joked. They were called the Committee to Save America. And the idea is if Trump wanted to fire one of them, all of them would resign in solidarity. That has not happened. They're gone one by one. One takeaway from Kelly's departure is that it is bad news for Mattis. They were very close. But now the secretary of defense doesn't get along as well with John Bolton, the new national security adviser, the way Mattis got along very well with H.R. McMaster or, for that matter, the former secretary of state Rex Tillerson. So I think the bottom line is with Kelly gone, Bolton is ascendant. Mattis is diminished.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a pretty difficult moment to take over as chief of staff for whomever is next, right?

LIASSON: That's right. There are a lot of changes for the White House. There are new worries about the economy. There's the 2020 elections. And, of course, in January, we've got a Democratic House. Those are all going to be big, big changes for the White House. And for all - from all accounts, they're not quite prepared for that. You've got a staff shakeup. You've got no new chief of staff. And the president pretty much calling the shots based on his gut.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you.

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