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News Week Spotlights Trump, Putin And Russian Interference

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to some other big stories in the news these past few days - a flood of new insider books on the president, a government whistleblower complaint and a detailed report on hackers by Microsoft. And what do they have in common? All are related to President Trump, Russia and potential threats to U.S. elections in November. Meanwhile, the president was again promoting his relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Here's Trump at a campaign rally Thursday in Michigan mocking his critics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He gets along with Putin. That's a terrible thing. No, it's a good thing if I get along. That's good. He likes me. I like him. Not so bad.

MARTIN: We thought it would be helpful to pull all this together, so we asked NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre to walk us through what happened and why it matters.

Greg, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. Let's start with that report from Microsoft, the software giant. What did they have to say about Russia and the election?

MYRE: Well, Microsoft says it's seeing a ton of Russian online activity. And the report they put out reads a lot like a CIA document.

You'll recall that hackers with Russian military intelligence who've been nicknamed Fancy Bear got ahold of Hillary Clinton's campaign emails back in 2016. So Microsoft is saying the same group has been ramping up their efforts this past year, and they're much more sophisticated this time around. It's harder to track them. So they are targeting both presidential campaigns, political parties, political consultants, think tanks. It appears there've been thousands and thousands of attacks, but according to Microsoft, so far, no signs of success.

MARTIN: Well, you know, tech companies got a lot of flak for not recognizing how they facilitated disinformation in 2016 - not telling the public more about it, not doing anything about it. It does seem like they're being more active this time. Why is that?

MYRE: There's certainly self-interest involved here. The tech companies don't want to be blamed again. And Facebook and Twitter - we've heard them announce that they're taking down fake accounts. And the intelligence community says there has been a dramatic shift in the past few years. There are good lines of communications, regular contact between the government and the tech companies.

And in the past, you might have thought something like this, election security, would be considered the exclusive domain of the government. But tech companies see hacking and intrusion and breaches in their networks that the government doesn't see and vice versa. So there is now this strong sense that the government and tech companies need to work together, that it's in everyone's interest to have multiple players inside and outside the government looking for bad actors.

But we should also note that this comes at a time when the Democrats are complaining that the Trump administration is not sharing enough information about potential threats.

MARTIN: Yes, exactly. We've been reporting on that as well. So that brings us to this whistleblower report. An official at the Department of Homeland Security filed a formal complaint this week saying Trump political appointees told him to stop reporting on Russian interference in the election. How significant is this?

MYRE: It's significant. So the official we're talking about is named Brian Murphy, and he ran the intelligence branch at Homeland Security until he was demoted at the end of July. Now, he says he was told twice by the acting head of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, to withhold any reports about Russian interference.

And he's making some additional allegations. He said he was told to emphasize danger from China and Iran. And when looking at domestic threats, he says he was instructed to make sure it was in line with the president's public comments. And Murphy said he was told that these instructions were coming straight from the White House.

The White House, Homeland Security - they deny this, and they describe Murphy as a disgruntled employee. But Democrats are saying there's a larger point here, and that's a pattern of the Trump administration putting loyalists in key intelligence positions and politicizing intelligence, particularly Russian intelligence.

MARTIN: So, Greg, before we let you go, you know, a couple of big books came out this week. One is by journalist Bob Woodward, called "Rage," the other by Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, called "Disloyal." And another is by the former FBI agent Peter Strzok. It's called "Compromised."

Now, you know, obviously these books all have different points that they want to make about, you know, Trump's behavior internally, how he treats people - you know, his history and so forth. But there is a throughline to all of them, and they all touch on Trump's relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia in one form or another. So just focusing on that, what did we find out?

MYRE: Well, Bob Woodward had something interesting tucked in his book. He writes about Dan Coats, who was Trump's handpicked director of National Intelligence. And Coats found this praise of Vladimir Putin and his refusal to criticize him inexplicable. Coats couldn't seem to quite shake the feeling that Putin had something on Trump.

Now, we should stress there's no indication he found anything. But also in this book, former defense secretary Jim Mattis is quoted as calling Trump dangerous and unfit. And we certainly heard the same from others. Former national security adviser John Bolton had a book of his own that came out recently almost entirely critical of Trump's handling of national security.

MARTIN: And while, of course, Bob Woodward has a deep background in reporting on national security issues, as, you know, Peter Strzok certainly has a background in national security, Michael Cohen doesn't. I mean, obviously, Michael Cohen was an intimate of President Trump's before he got to the White House. But does he have something to say about this as well?

MYRE: Yeah. He seems to sort of get Trump at a gut level. And Cohen says, look - it's not that complicated. Trump sees Russia as a business opportunity, not as a national security threat. But Cohen says Trump didn't even expect to win in 2016 but did see it as a great way to promote the Trump brand. And that's why he was sent - Cohen - to Russia to work on a possible Trump Tower in Moscow.

And he said Trump wanted to give Putin the top floor of this tower. And he said, why? Because that would make all the lower floors worth that much more money. So Cohen's message is, stop overthinking this. It's simple. It's all about money and real estate.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Greg Myre.

Greg, thank you so much for sharing your reporting.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.