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News Brief: Navy Aircraft Crash, Flynn May Be Cooperating With Russia Investigation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States Navy says it's done what it can. The Navy ended a search for three sailors aboard a cargo plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Japan.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. And it's a tragic end to a story that, at first, was very hopeful. Most of the stories who were on that plane were rescued. Here's what Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD SPENCER: Eleven people on board. Eight have been rescued so far. Full search mission is underway.

KING: But now that the mission is suspended, there are real questions about what caused this crash and why this fleet has had several accidents this year alone.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now to talk about this. He's based in China.

Rob, good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Or good evening, I suppose I should say, since you're in China.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) Yeah, it's evening here.

INSKEEP: How broad was the search?

SCHMITZ: Well, I mean, this search was enormous. I mean, the 7th Fleet, which this aircraft and its crew belong to, you know, hasn't elaborated on why they wrapped it up in two days. But they did dedicate significant resources to the search. They had three guided missile destroyers, two Japanese helicopter carriers, three Japanese destroyers, along with a bunch of helicopter squadrons. And all of them searched an area of around a thousand nautical miles before the search was called off.

In a statement issued today, the 7th Fleet's Rear Admiral Marc Dalton said their thoughts and prayers are with their lost shipmates and their families and that they are thankful for the rapid response that led to the rescue of their other shipmates who were on board when their cargo plane crashed on Wednesday.

INSKEEP: OK. So some kind of conclusion that they've done all they could do...

SCHMITZ: Right.

INSKEEP: ...And then there's the question of what really happened.

And we should be clear - it takes a while to figure out what happened with any plane crash, especially when you don't have the plane to look at. But what details are available?

SCHMITZ: Not many. I mean, all the Navy is saying at this point is that the crash is under investigation. But here's what we do know. This aircraft, a C-2A Greyhound propeller plane, was on its way from a base in Japan to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier when it crashed. Japan's defense minister told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. Navy had told him that it was likely an engine failure. But the 7th Fleet has not confirmed that yet. The U.S. Navy hasn't yet released the names of the three sailors who were lost at sea or of the eight others who survived yet.

INSKEEP: Does this crash offer some kind of window into this fleet that's off the coast of China and near North Korea?

SCHMITZ: It does. I mean, this has been, as you mentioned in the lead there, a really rough year for the 7th Fleet. This is a fleet that has up to 70 ships navigating both the Pacific and Indian oceans. And this year alone, they've had two major collisions, both involving guided missile destroyers, the USS John McCain in August and the USS Fitzgerald in June. And those two accidents killed 17 sailors.

All of this has led to the removal of the fleet's commander as well as seven other top brass. Crew members in this fleet have publicly complained about being overworked, dysfunction in the ranks, low morale. And so we need to also, though, keep in mind here that this fleet has been called on to respond to the threats in the past year coming out of North Korea. So the fleet has been just really busy engaging in exercises to counter that threat. And this latest accident is yet another reason why 2017 has just been a very difficult year for the 7th Fleet.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Rob, thanks very much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Schmitz.

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INSKEEP: Here's one of those little signals that outsiders use to try to track the progress of the Russia investigation. It involves President Trump's one-time national security adviser Michael Flynn.

KING: Yes, Michael Flynn is one figure at the center of the FBI's probe into Russian interference in last year's election. Flynn lawyered up. President Trump lawyered up. But now, according to numerous news reports, Flynn's lawyers have stopped sharing information with White House lawyers, which raises a big question - is Flynn making a deal to cooperate with investigators instead?

INSKEEP: NBC White House correspondent Geoff Bennett - former NPR correspondent...

GEOFF BENNETT: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Is now in our studios.

Geoff, good morning. Welcome back.

BENNETT: Great to see you.

INSKEEP: Good to see you, too. What's your reporting say about this?

BENNETT: Well, as Noel said, we know that Flynn's team has informed President Trump's legal team that they will no longer share information. Now, defense teams, when there are these sort of complex investigations, do often share information - do often collaborate. The revelation that Mike Flynn's team has informed President Trump's team that they'll no longer work together doesn't prove that Mike Flynn will now work with Robert Mueller, but it is the clearest indication yet that he might be.

INSKEEP: This is basically going on logic here. The reason you would stop - or a reason you would stop cooperating with Trump's side is because you're switching sides. Right?

BENNETT: That's right. And it helps explain some reporting earlier on. NBC had reported that we knew that Robert Mueller's team had enough information to bring charges against Michael Flynn but for whatever reason had chosen not to. This helps explain one reason why that might be the case.

INSKEEP: And again, we just should be clear this is a degree of conjecture here.

BENNETT: That's right.

INSKEEP: But the conjecture would be - if Flynn is under pressure, thinks he's about to get indicted, this is the moment when he might say, OK, I'm going to cooperate with you to try to get a better deal as Robert Mueller tries to figure out what connections there were between Russia and the Trump campaign. Is that right?

BENNETT: That's right. And Michael Flynn would know better than most. He was an early hire for President Trump during the campaign. He helped Donald Trump hash out his America First campaign slogan and the campaign platform. He of course was involved in the transition. And then he had the briefest of 10 years as national security adviser, some 24 days before he ultimately resigned for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the then Russian ambassador.

INSKEEP: Geoff, what's it like to cover this White House where a number of figures seem to be directly involved in this investigation and where the president is thinking always about this investigation and you hear stories about people running out of money to pay for lawyers and everything else?

BENNETT: One does get the sense that - I keep coming back to the TV show "Homeland," where, you know, Carrie Mathison had in her house the index cards with the strings in between them to try to keep track of who was doing what and who was who in the overall scheme of things.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BENNETT: I feel like I need to start doing that at some point because it is hard to keep track of all the people and all the connections.

INSKEEP: And are they just tense over there at the White House all the time about this?

BENNETT: I don't get that impression. Dealing with the people that I deal with more often than not - the Trump lawyers, the press staff - the work really continues as it had from day one. But of course, you know, you'd imagine that the president, of course, and his inner circle are having conversations that we're not always privy to.

INSKEEP: OK.

Geoff, thanks very much. Glad you came by.

BENNETT: Yeah. Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: Good to see you again - NBC's Geoff Bennett.

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INSKEEP: OK. Turkey's foreign minister was in Rome yesterday offering reassurances that his country intends to remain part of NATO.

KING: That's right. The foreign minister also said Turkey is not drifting away from Europe. But some veteran Turkey watchers see the country's relationships with D.C. and the West as the worst they've been in decades.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about this with NPR's Peter Kenyon. This is one of those situations where if you have to deny that relations are getting bad, it might be a signal that things are kind of bad.

Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hi, Steve. Yeah, I think...

INSKEEP: How bad is it?

KENYON: ...You might be onto something there. I've been talking to diplomats, politicians, people on the street, analysts. And the answers basically range from bad, very bad, it's worse than you think. I mean, one analyst told me there's a serious erosion of trust over - that he hasn't seen for many decades.

I mean, if you're out on the street, it's very common for a Turkish person to tell you, yes, of course America was behind this failed coup we had here last year. Washington has denied that of course. But the Turkish people say - well, why then don't they give us back Fethullah Gulen? He's this cleric living in the U.S. that Turkey says was behind the coup.

And then from the other perspective, you look from the U.S. point of view, and they see an ongoing state of emergency, tens of thousands arrested. There was just another set of warrants for 80 more teachers issued this week, many more sacked from their jobs. Turkey's buying Russian missiles, storming out of NATO exercises.

And there's a lot of fear here in Turkey over some of these trials that are happening in America, especially one involving a possible evasion of Iran sanctions. So it's just a...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. What are...

KENYON: ...Troubled time.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are the trials? I think those are less known than the other things you mentioned.

KENYON: Yeah. Well, there's one - there's indictments against security guards who beat up some protesters in Washington on a trip by the Turkish president.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

KENYON: But the more important one at the moment seems to be this case - it's known here as the gold for oil scheme. A Turkish-Iranian trader named Reza Zarrab and others are accused of conspiring to evade Iran sanctions that the U.S. had put in place.

And now the problem here is that similar charges came up here in 2013. There was this explosive anti-corruption probe. Turkey says this is all tied up together, and it's accusing the U.S. justice system of being infiltrated by the supporters of this cleric. So it - and there's worries that maybe wiretap evidence might be used that would implicate officials. So there's a lot of nervousness here.

INSKEEP: So I want to step back from some of these news events you mentioned, Peter. There's obviously a number of irritants that you've gone through and even conspiracy theories that you've gone through. But fundamentally, Turkey is a country that has, for decades, tried to align itself with the West, that wanted to be an ally of the United States, that did become part of NATO. Are Turks beginning to see their future in some different way that's not nearly so connected to the West?

KENYON: I would say yes. Many more Turks are now seeing it that way. There is a sense that they would like to repair this relationship. But there are two very strong-willed leaders in charge. It's not clear they're going to want to make any conciliatory moves. And the longer this goes on, the more people who do want to turn things around get worried.

INSKEEP: Is Turkey's president, Erdogan, in any way sympathetic to or with President Trump? They're both populists, to say the least.

KENYON: There's been a lot of hope that the two would hit it off, and there's talk that they do have good chemistry together. The policies, however, seem to tell a different story.

INSKEEP: OK. Peter, thanks very much. Good to talk with you.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECT PABLO'S "CLOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.