House Foreign Affairs Chairman Pushes To Hold Hearings On Trump-Putin Relationship
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Two reports over the weekend raised new questions about President Trump's relationship with Russia. Last night, The Washington Post reported that President Trump sought to conceal details of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Post said that on one occasion, Trump took away the notes of his interpreter and instructed the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials.
Earlier, The New York Times reported that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president to determine if he was acting on Russia's behalf. On Twitter and in a Fox News interview, the president dismissed the reports and again called special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation nonsense.
Members of Congress want to know more. The Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel of New York, says he will be holding hearings on what he called mysteries swirling around Trump's bizarre relationship with Putin and his cronies. And Congressman Engel joins me now.
ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: What was your reaction to seeing this weekend's reports?
ENGEL: You know, part of it was shock. But part of it is we're so numb that we're not shocked by anything we hear anymore. I mean, I just think that ever since the presidential election in 2016, when it became apparent that the Russians were interfering in our election, the question was, was the Trump campaign in collusion with the Russians? We really still don't have the answer to that. The president had a meeting with Putin in Helsinki many, many months ago. Nobody knows, as far as I know - I certainly don't know - what happened there, what they discussed. I mean, Putin is not a friendly person.
And from the beginning of the presidency, President Trump has seemed to hold Putin in high regard. It's just absolutely amazing. So I think that it's very important that the Congress - and I always point this out - we're not subservient to the president or the chief executive. And I think that it's important enough that we try to get to the bottom of it.
MCCAMMON: And, Congressman, you've said your committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, will hold hearings to investigate the president's relationship with Russia and Putin. What witnesses do you expect to call?
ENGEL: Well, we haven't really decided on it because the committees are a little bit late - all the committees - in getting organized. So we don't yet know all the members on our committee. So we're going to wait until we can constitute the whole committee, which should be a matter of days, I hope. And then we're going to move.
MCCAMMON: As you noted, after the president met with Putin in Helsinki this summer, the administration didn't give very much information about what was discussed. U.S. officials appeared to be in the dark themselves. There was talk about having the American interpreter at that summit testify before Congress. Might you subpoena her?
ENGEL: Well, I would do that really as a last resort. We don't want to really get into a situation where it becomes a precedent for interpreters to give in their notes. I would hope we wouldn't have to do that.
MCCAMMON: Whoever you call to your committee, Congressman, are you worried about hitting a wall if the White House decides to cite executive privilege and prevent administration officials from testifying or complying?
ENGEL: Well, I think if we hit a wall, and it became obvious that the administration was stalling, I would let the American people be the judge. I would hope, if there's nothing to hide, that they would care about Congress doing its job.
MCCAMMON: And finally, Congressman, do you have any worries that constant oversight hearings in the House might feed into the president's narrative that Democrats are just out to get him because they're angry that he won the 2016 election?
ENGEL: Well, I know he's said that before. But that's really nonsense. I mean, the narrative from the White House or from the president has always been that the Democrats just want impeachment. And I can tell you that's not the truth. My attitude is, let Mueller do his work. Impeachment is certainly not a goal of mine. It's a last resort. Of course, one of the ways we could avoid even any talk of that is if the president cooperated with Congress and didn't try to block everything that Congress wants to do. And, you know, it just - it doesn't pass the smell test. The Putin-Trump connection - it just makes you scratch your head. We're going to get to the bottom of it.
MCCAMMON: That's New York Congressman Eliot Engel, now chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
ENGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.