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Mueller's questions show just how far-reaching the Russia probe is

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /
Image: Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller
Special counsel Robert Mueller leaves after a closed meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2017.Alex Wong / Getty Images file

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WASHINGTON — Yes, the reported list of questions that special counsel Robert Mueller wants to ask President Donald Trump, according to The New York Times, appears to be just starter questions. And yes, the list comes from Trump’s orbit (the Times says the questions were “read by the special counsel investigators to the president’s lawyers, who compiled them into a list. That document was provided to The Times by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team”).

But taken together, the questions underscore the magnitude of the Russia probe — a story that’s been reported in bits and pieces over the last 17 months. (The list has not been verified by NBC News.)

  • They ask if Trump was aware of Russian hacking during the campaign, and if anyone from the campaign reached out to Russia for assistance: What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?... During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?
  • They ask if Trump discussed business with Russian interests during the campaign: What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?
  • They ask if Trump and his team discussed policy with Russians during the campaign: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?... What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?
  • They ask if Trump knew about calls that incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was making to Russia’s ambassador during the transition — so before Trump became president: What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?... How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?... After the resignations, what efforts were made to reach out to Mr. Flynn about seeking immunity or possible pardon?
  • And they ask about Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey: What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?... What did you mean in your interview with Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia [when Trump said: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself – I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”]?

The Russia story has always been complicated. But these questions — taken together — combine all of the different strands of the potential story. And they’re a reminder that the obstruction angle — regarding Comey and Flynn — might be the smallest part of this investigation.

Oh, and one other thing: If Mueller is asking these questions, the possibility exists that he already knows the answers.

This morning, Trump tweeted about the Times’ reported list of questions. “So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were ‘leaked’ to the media. No questions on Collusion. Oh, I see ... you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed, and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information. Nice!”

But as the Times makes clear, the questions came from Trump’s orbit (“That document was provided to The Times by a person outside Mr. Trump’s legal team”), and that it DOES ask questions about possible collusion/conspiracy with Russians (“What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?”)

Trump backs down on tariffs for the EU, Canada and Mexico — for now

“The White House is postponing a decision on imposing tariffs on U.S. imports of steel and aluminum from the European Union, Canada and Mexico for 30 days, avoiding the potential for a trade battle with Europe as the U.S. prepares for tense trade talks in China this week,” the AP writes. “The Trump administration said Monday it had reached an agreement with South Korea on steel imports following discussions on a revised trade agreement, the outlines of which were previously announced by U.S. and South Korean officials. And the administration said it had also reached agreements in principle with Argentina, Australia and Brazil on steel and aluminum that will be finalized shortly.”

More: “The confrontation stems from the president's decision in March to slap tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum. Trump justified the action by saying it was needed to protect American metal producers from unfair competition and bolster national security. But the announcement, which followed an intense internal White House debate, triggered harsh criticism from Democrats and some Republicans and roiled financial markets.”

“Has” vs. “Had”: That’s one big “clerical error”

Tied to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claims Monday that Iran was trying to make nuclear weapon — yep, that’s why the United States and world leaders worked to forge the Iran nuclear deal in the first place — the Trump White House released this statement last night, per NBC’s Peter Alexander:

“This information provides new and compelling details about Iran’s efforts to develop missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”

But after critics pounced on the White House statement, arguing that Netanyahu’s big reveal acknowledged that Iran’s program had ENDED YEARS AGO, the White House issued this revised statement (the emphasis is ours):

“This information provides new and compelling details about Iran’s efforts to develop missile-deliverable nuclear weapons. These facts are consistent with what the United States has long known: Iran had a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people.”

Ooops. The White House called the has/had discrepancy a “clerical error.” But that’s one big clerical error. It also — unintentionally — emphasizes that Iran is abiding by the terms of the Iran nuclear deal.

Move over “Moron”-gate. Here’s “Idiot”-gate

If the fate of Rex Tillerson after “moron” is any indication, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s days might be numbered after “idiot.” NBC’s Carol Lee, Courtney Kube, Kristen Welker and Stephanie Ruhle:

“White House chief of staff John Kelly has eroded morale in the West Wing in recent months with comments to aides that include insulting the president's intelligence and casting himself as the savior of the country, according to eight current and former White House officials. The officials said Kelly portrays himself to Trump administration aides as the lone bulwark against catastrophe, curbing the erratic urges of a president who has a questionable grasp on policy issues and the functions of government. He has referred to Trump as "an idiot" multiple times to underscore his point, according to four officials who say they've witnessed the comments.”

Kelly denied the allegations. "I spend more time with the president than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship," he said in a statement. "He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS. I am committed to the president, his agenda, and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes."

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