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Trump To Demand Review Of Surveillance Tactics In Russia Probe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump is ordering the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate itself. You can think of his move over the weekend as counterprogramming. The president, of course, has faced a stream of awkward headlines. Just in the last few days, the Republican head of the Senate Intelligence Committee has affirmed that Russia worked to elect President Trump. On Friday night, The New York Times reported that Saudi interests met with Trump's son in 2016 and offered to help, too.

But the president is pushing a counternarrative in which the effort to track foreign influence is an effort to target him. On Twitter on Sunday, the president demanded that the Justice Department look into whether it and the FBI infiltrated his 2016 campaign. It is the latest effort to expose FBI sources, and it drew a rebuke from the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

MARK WARNER: I find it outrageous that the president's allies are, in effect, playing fast and loose with confidential information. And don't take my word. Take the president's own FBI director Mr. Wray, who said - if you go out and start exposing classified information about informants, that you will make America less safe.

INSKEEP: All right, NPR's Tim Mak has been covering this story. He's in our studios.

Tim, good morning.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So how unusual is it for the president of the United States to direct a specific investigation on a matter that directly involves him?

MAK: Well, look, it's a serious departure from the way previous White Houses have conducted business and handled investigations. Since Watergate, presidents have gone out of their way to not appear like they're involving themselves in Justice Department investigations. So it's safe to say both that this investigation and this president and the way he's handled it are unprecedented.

INSKEEP: OK. So the president is saying there's some kind of question about infiltrating his campaign. What is the basis, if any, for this story about some kind of source on the inside in the campaign?

MAK: It seems to be a little bit muddled. Right? The president's call comes as various news outlets have reported that a U.S. intelligence source assisted with the investigation into Russian meddling regarding the 2016 election. So the Washington...

INSKEEP: It sounds like - well, of course you have sources. I mean, you're gathering intelligence. But go on. Go...

MAK: Well, so - exactly. The Washington Post reported last week that the source was a retired American professor. And he had contacts with three Trump advisers during the 2016 campaign - that's Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis, foreign policy adviser Carter Page and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute - this is a professor who knew these guys and gave information, allegedly, to the FBI? But the president said there was some kind of embedded informant. Is there news about an embedded informant inside the campaign?

MAK: Well, the president has made a big show of saying that there was some sort of embedding. But we don't have evidence of that, and the reporting doesn't show it. And that's what I mean by saying this has gotten a little muddled.

INSKEEP: This is - in charge - the investigation is overseen by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. How's he responding to the president's demand?

MAK: Well, the president said he would make a formal request today. And the Justice Department actually does seem to have taken his tweet that he made on Sunday afternoon as direction enough, essentially. Rosenstein said that the Justice Department would refer the matter to its inspector general and asked the IG to determine if there was any impropriety or if politics played a role in how the FBI investigated this Russian interference.

INSKEEP: Rosenstein has said repeatedly before Congress that he would be independent of the president. Why isn't he just saying no to this request?

MAK: Well, that would set up a showdown, essentially, between the president, who has the constitutional right to ask the Justice Department to look into these sorts of matters, and the Justice Department's own internal regulations as to whether it's proper to have the president make these sorts of political directions. And so what they're doing is, in essence, avoiding this showdown in a way by referring the matter to the inspector general.

INSKEEP: Kicking it over to the inspector general to see what comes up.

One other thing I want to ask about, Tim. Roger Stone - presidential friend, former formal adviser, still an informal adviser - said yesterday he is prepared if he is indicted by the special counsel. Why would Roger Stone be indicted?

MAK: Well, you know, it's interesting. It may be that he's indicted. Roger Stone has himself said that he's prepared if such an occasion would arise. I spoke to him a couple of days ago. Here's what he said about that net appearing to close in on him.

ROGER STONE: Look, I think that they're at the end of their probe and they have no evidence of Russian collusion. I can see how they might feel some obligation to check it out. They will find, after exhaustive investigation, that there is no evidence because none of that happened.

MAK: But even Stone understands that he's in hot water at this moment and he could be charged on issues related to, say, his business or things unrelated to the issue of collusion.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak, thanks very much.

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