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DOJ Documents On Page Give Fuel To Critics And Administration Allies

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After getting widely criticized for not coming down hard enough on Russia's Vladimir Putin last week, President Trump read a prepared statement after returning from that summit, clarifying that he did indeed believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The president, though, has apparently changed his mind again. Last night, he tweeted that it's all a, quote, "big hoax." This comes days after his own Justice Department released formerly classified FISA documents related to the FBI's surveillance of one of his former campaign advisers, Carter Page. And this morning, President Trump is piling on with more attacks, again calling the Mueller probe a, quote, "witch hunt." Joining us now is Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for being here.

ADAM SCHIFF: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: So there are dueling narratives here. The president maintains that these newly released documents from the FISA Court vindicate him in the Russia probe. You and other Democrats see something completely different here. Can you explain?

SCHIFF: Well, it's more than dueling narratives. It's really a difference between fact and fiction. The president is out, as you said this morning, contradicting his contradiction from last week, saying now that he believes Russia didn't intervene. It's all a hoax. So once again, the president unfortunately proving that he is our dissembler in chief.

MARTIN: The crux of the president's criticism, and that of many Republicans, has been to target the so-called Steele dossier. He says, even though the documents show that the FISA Court, when it was deciding whether to grant the FBI the right to surveil Carter Page, that the court relied on this dossier, which has never been corroborated. Is there something to that?

SCHIFF: Well, we know that the FISA Court had a great deal of information, some of which is redacted to protect sources and methods in what the FBI just released. But the claim the president is making now, which was, again, a claim made in that false Nunes memorandum, is that the court was never informed that this respected former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele was essentially paid for his work by a law firm that had been hired by the DNC or the Clinton campaign. In fact, though, the FISA judges had been informed that, essentially, he was hired to do opposition research. There was a political motivation. And the court had the information it needed to make a judgment about whether there was sufficient cause to prove the warrant. And bear in mind, again, this was approved by four different judges appointed by three different Republican presidents. They all found the FISA application in order.

MARTIN: Do we know, though, what other sources of information were used for the FISA Court to make up their mind?

SCHIFF: Well, I do. Unfortunately, I can't go beyond what has been disclosed in the FISA release.

MARTIN: Suffice to say, though, can you tell us it was beyond the Steele dossier?

SCHIFF: Yes, it was. It was. But the only testimony that we have that's public about, you know, what weight did the Christopher Steele work have as opposed to others is a testimony of Andrew McCabe, which has been made public in part. And Andrew McCabe said that, essentially, all the parts of the application were important. And we have learned, I think, as the applications and their renewal got longer and longer, that the FBI learned more that it was able to continue to submit in support of the application as time went on.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about public perception of all of this. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 51 percent of Republicans approve of President Trump discrediting the intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Does it just break this way? Is this just the partisan environment we live in right now?

SCHIFF: It's the partisan environment that the president is really stoking and taking advantage of. And it's a terrible shame. And it really puts the country at risk. Basically, the Russians watch us very carefully. And the message they're getting right now is they can intervene in the midterms as long as it will help Donald Trump. And the president will never call them on it.

MARTIN: Adam Schiff, he is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, talking with us this morning. We appreciate your time, Congressman. Thanks as always.

SCHIFF: Thank you.

MARTIN: I’m joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who was listening to that conversation. And, Mara, we heard the congressman there say that, you know, he believes that Donald Trump is exploiting partisan divides, insisting that the Mueller probe is a witch hunt and essentially giving the Russians carte blanche to interfere in the midterm elections again. I mean, in this kind of partisan environment, if Republicans are trying to capitalize on this evidence as evidence that the probe is false, what do Democrats do? I mean, can they - does the Russia issue motivate Democratic voters?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I think the Democrats talk a lot about Russia in Washington and less about Russia on the campaign trail. I'm sure in a general sense it motivates Democratic voters who are already motivated by intense antipathy to Donald Trump. But on the campaign trail, at home, they’re talking about health care. They’re talking about immigration. They’re talking about other things the Democratic voters care about. That being said, Donald Trump’s approval rating in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that just came out today is - among Republicans is 88 percent. That’s his highest ever. So in other words, his base approves of what he’s doing. His base is intense and loyal. The question for Trump is, will that transfer to Republican candidates when he’s not on the ballot? And it comes at a cost. You know, he’s losing independents. He’s gone down seven points with independents since June. And he’s - Democrats are shown as being more and more enthusiastic about this election, much more than Republican voters.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

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