Sen. Chris Coons On Russia Investigation And Paul Manafort
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Senate judiciary committee is not going to take public testimony from Paul Manafort after all, at least not right away. President Trump's former campaign chairman faces pressure to give information about his ties to Russia and Russian interference in the election. The committee subpoenaed Manafort for public testimony this week, then took it back, at least for now, when Manafort agreed to cooperate in other ways, which we will discuss with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who is on the judiciary committee.
Senator, good morning.
CHRIS COONS: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why not just have Manafort talk in public today?
COONS: Well, I'm not sure the exact details, Steve, but my understanding is that he's agreed to provide documents and to come and testify in front of the full committee in open session in September. Today, we have a hearing on the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which Manafort - he failed to comply with when he didn't disclose that he'd received $17 million for working for a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian leader a number of years ago.
And what I think we are expecting in September is a broader and fuller conversation, not just about that registration but about the meeting in Trump Tower last summer, in June of 2016, that Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner participated in with a cast of Russians and Russian-affiliated people.
INSKEEP: Oh, OK, so you have questions not just about that meeting, but also about Paul Manafort and his ties to Ukraine. And you're saying that you believe he failed to comply with a specific law here.
COONS: That's my understanding is that he'd received I think $17 million over a number of years - 2012 to 2014 - from a foreign power - from the Party of Regions in Ukraine, and that he'd failed to register that while he was also doing work in the United States. It's a law that goes back to the pre-World War II era and requires anyone who is representing a foreign government or a foreign party and receiving payment for that to register so that the United States can know on whose behalf people are speaking when they're lobbying here in Washington.
One of the issues that's been focused on is that the Republican Party platform and its position on Ukraine changed in the course of their convention, partly at the behest of Paul Manafort and folks representing the Trump campaign. And so there's a concern about the linkage there.
INSKEEP: Oh, your question - that's another of your questions. That's what on my mind is what questions you have. You also have a question about how was it that the Republican Party platform happened to change on that particular issue, of all issues, right as the convention was getting underway.
COONS: And the other thing, Steve, that has been proffered is the reason for that meeting in Trump Tower was, quote, unquote, "adoption." Sometimes when folks say they're meeting for one topic, it's really another. Adoptions were cut off between Russia and the United States as Vladimir Putin's response to sanctions that were imposed, sanctions that were imposed as a result of the brutal killing of Sergei Magnitsky and the adoption of the Magnitsky Act - something that Senator Ben Cardin, with the support of John McCain, passed through the Senate a number of years ago and that sanctions individuals in the Putin government who were responsible for that and a number of other human rights violations.
INSKEEP: Well, since you brought up that meeting, of course, Jared Kushner was in that meeting. And he has already testified before a couple of other committees about it and also made an 11-page public statement and spoken before cameras about it. And this is one key sentence that Kushner had to say.
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JARED KUSHNER: I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so.
INSKEEP: Well, did Kushner's testimony answer your question, Senator?
COONS: Kushner's testimony answered some questions, but it raised even more. We have not had him in front of the judiciary committee. He testified in front of the intelligence committee. And in my view, there's still a great deal of unanswered questions, such as the ones I just raised about Paul Manafort, who was Donald Trump - Donald Trump's campaign manager in the middle of 2016.
The important thing here is that Bob Mueller continues, as the special counsel, to have the resources and the opportunity to fully and thoroughly investigate issues arising from these allegations of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, and that the president not take inappropriate steps to remove him or to threaten him or to constrain his ability to operate. I think we here in the Senate need to be mindful of the ongoing investigation that Bob Mueller's leading.
COONS: And whatever questions we ask, whether it's of Jared Kushner or others, has to not interfere with Bob Mueller's investigation.
INSKEEP: Senator, there's been all these meetings with Russians - some of them not properly disclosed or not disclosed until later - all these questions about Manafort's finances, the president's finances, other people's finances.
But very briefly, can you pull this together for people who are baffled and confused about what it all adds up to? By which I mean, what - what is your theory of the case? What is your idea or allegation of what was really going on here?
COONS: Well, I don't know whether there was intentional collusion between the highest levels of the Trump campaign and the president himself and folks from Russia who were trying to help swing the election his way. But there is a really disturbing pattern by a whole series of very senior Trump campaign officials and Trump family members of failing to disclose meetings, whether with the Russian ambassador, with Russian interests, or with folks seeking to hand to them information about Hillary Clinton. That's concerning. And President Trump's ongoing pattern of seeming to lean towards Russia and to say things, both as a candidate and now as president, and to do things that seem to move the United States in the - in the direction of Russia's priorities and interests rather than our own.
COONS: And I think, Steve, you've seen a striking response by Congress - by an overwhelming margin. First the Senate, and yesterday the House, have now passed tougher Russia sanctions. And the next step in this drama is that the president's going to have to decide whether or not to sign a tougher Russia sanctions bill.
INSKEEP: Senator Coons of Delaware, thanks very much.
COONS: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's Senator Chris Coons. And now let's bring in another voice. NPR's Geoff Bennett has been listening along with us. Geoff, what did you make of what you just heard?
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: I think your interview with the senator points to the fact that Paul Manafort really is a central figure in this broader Trump-Russia investigation. You know, whereas Jared Kushner paints a picture of himself as a naive top staffer who is new to politics, who is having sort of these benign contacts with thousands of foreign officials, including some Russians during the campaign, the same cannot be said about Paul Manafort, given his lengthy lobbying and consulting career. The senator pointed to his interactions with Ukraine.
And so - and that is one of the reasons why congressional investigators have been clamoring to speak with Paul Manafort. The other thing I'll point out is that we understand Paul Manafort shared his contemporaneous notes from that now-infamous Trump Tower meeting last year with Senate intelligence committee investigators. Whereas Jared Kushner left that meeting after about 10 minutes, Paul Manafort was there for the entire thing, we understand. So his notes from that meeting will be crucial.
INSKEEP: Manafort well-connected in Washington as well as Ukraine - and the two Russian figures as well. Geoff, thanks very much.
BENNETT: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Geoff Bennett this morning.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX HAHN'S "LONG AGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.