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Stephanopoulos gets exclusive that Mueller couldn't

Stephanopoulos gets exclusive that Mueller couldn't

June 19th, 2019 by Martin Schram in Opinion Columns

America's long-awaited, albeit unofficial, addendum to special counsel Robert Mueller's official report arrived unexpectedly on our news screens last Wednesday evening.

It was the extensive, in-person interview with President Donald Trump about Russia's interference in the 2016 election that Mueller had needed—yet never actually got or even insisted upon having. But ABC News' George Stephanopoulos got it done. Bigtime.

In two days of interviewing Trump, Stephanopoulos asked the president many specific questions that Mueller never got to ask, and pressed him with some significant follow-ups. The Q's & A's produced some troubling presidential responses that may now be news to Mueller, but could have made his final report complete—if he had pressed with his famous determination to make them happen in time for his final report.

Here's some of what our special counsel never got to hear, but we finally did:

Stephanopoulos asked: What would Trump do if a foreign national wanted to give him some information about a political opponent? Trump said he might take the infoand might or might not ever inform the FBI, as FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified to Congress a candidate should do. Trump kept dismissing this as mere "oppo research" that all candidates collect on opponents.

"I think you might want to listen; there isn't anything wrong with listening," said Trump. "If somebody called from a country, Norway, 'We have information on your opponent,' oh, I think I'd want to hear it."

Stephanopoulos followed up: Did Trump really think such foreign "interference" was OK in American politics? "It's not an interference, they have information—I think I'd take it," the president replied. "If I thought there was something wrong, I'd go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong."

At that point Trump questioned his questioner: "You're a congressman, someone comes up and says, 'I have information on your opponent,' do you call the FBI?"

"If it's coming from Russia, you do," Stephanopoulos answered. He added: "The FBI director says that's what you have to do."

"The FBI director is wrong," Trump said firmly.

The backstory here is key: Stephanopoulos had begun by reminding Trump that his son, Donald Jr., was on Capitol Hill at that moment, to testify at a hearing into his now infamous Trump Tower meeting (attended by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and others) with a Russian lawyer who wanted to pass along some dirt on Hillary Clinton. Mueller's report stated that a middleman had emailed Don Jr. that the "Crown prosecutor of Russia offered to provide the Trump Campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia" as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Mueller's report added: "Trump Jr. immediately responded that 'if it's what you say I love it.'" The Russian lawyer never provided evidence supporting her claim that Clinton and other Democrats got Russian money. And all of that Kremlin-scented intrigue has nothing to do with what U.S. politicos call oppo research.

So the president's attempted diversion into a hypothetical yarn involving, maybe, Norway had nothing to do with the reality that his son, when told Russia's Crown prosecutor wanted to dish dirt on Hillary, had said "I love it"—and scheduled the meeting. After detailing scores of contacts between Trump associates and Russia, Mueller concluded there was insufficient evidence that a conspiracy had occurred.

But after ABC News' video of their Trump interview aired, Washington plunged into its traditional partisan patter. Democrats noted it is a crime for a government official to receive anything of value from a foreign government (apparently including "oppo research"). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy began tap dancing on quicksand, yet again, insisting they saw nothing amiss.

But every now and then, a true patriot can be found—even in our nation's capital. And clearly MSNBC found one in former U.S. attorney Greg Brower, a lifelong Republican who was nominated for that post by President George W. Bush, and is experienced in FBI and U.S. intelligence matters.

Now a Washington-based attorney, Brower, warned that a U.S. president's willingness to accept info from foreign government has signaled other governments that they may be able to interfere with, maybe successfully manipulate, America's election campaigns.

"This really presents a flashing green light to our adversaries who are interested in interfering in our democracy," said Brower. "This reality is presenting a significant national security problem."

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