BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soon after his must-see testimony, Michael Cohen confirmed that he would return to the house for another round of questioning on March 6. Meanwhile, quietly in the background, Special Counsel Robert Mueller pursues his two pronged investigation into whether the president, his family or his aides colluded with Russia to help him win. And whether they've interfered with any investigations into election related activity. Overwhelming and extremely difficult to parse filled with misfires, false alarms and intoxicating intrigue, the press have turned the saga of Mueller's secret investigation into the best, worst crime drama never written. To date the press have reported on nearly 150 characters in the Mueller probe including politicians, investigators, policemen, petty criminals, offspring and erstwhile Trump aides. All potential clues with potential roles in the special counsel's forthcoming final report. And so, to help you make sense of the rumors and revelations to come, we bring you the latest of our Breaking News Consumer's Handbooks: The Mueller Edition. Eric Umansky is the deputy managing editor at ProPublica and a co-host of Trump, Inc. a podcast produced by ProPublica and WNYC. Eric, welcome to the show.
ERIC UMANSKY: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So start by taking a look at some of the reporting on Mueller that's led us astray.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Remember big picture. We all knew Paul Manafort had a long and extensive links to the Russian government affiliated oligarchs. What is new tonight is this reported meeting with that other group you don't want to have contact with, WikiLeaks–specifically its leader Julian Assange. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was first reported by The Guardian in November of 2018. And the Guardian has never retracted the story. Other outlets picked it up. Why should we question its veracity?
ERIC UMANSKY: I put that story into the category of the permanent exclusive. An exclusive is a wonderful thing to have. You get the information before everybody else. Then what you want is for other people to conclude the same thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now other people picked it up.
ERIC UMANSKY: Right. But here's a key distinction, if another place is picking it up. If they're just crediting the Guardian, 'The Guardian reports X,' well that doesn't mean that they have corroborated it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us to another bombshell.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump is facing new scrutiny today over a report that he told his personal attorney to lie to Congress about his business dealings with Russia. That is according to a BuzzFeed News report citing sources in the Southern District of New York. [END CLIP]
ERIC UMANSKY: What was really explosive about the Buzzfeed article was, according to two sources, Michael Cohn has given the goods in some fashion or another to federal prosecutors. Has BuzzFeed seen the evidence? Not at all clear. Some people at the special prosecutor's office may well have told Buzzfeed reporter something. I can't imagine that the BuzzFeed reporters are lying about that. That doesn't mean that it is actually true or that the evidence exists for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The special council spokesperson, Peter Carr, said that BuzzFeed's description of specific statements and characterizations of documents and testimony were not accurate. Does Michael Cohen's testimony Wednesday changed that for you at all?
ERIC UMANSKY: Michael Cohen said, on the one hand, 'I was never instructed by the president to lie.' On the other hand, he made it very, very clear to me what he wanted by constantly asking about the business in Russia, about their tower deal while literally saying, 'you know, Michael there's no tower deal.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a way, the BuzzFeed story may be wrong in the details but right in its conclusion.
ERIC UMANSKY: Yes, it is a quantum physics scoop. It is both simultaneously right and wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think at this point it be useful to define our terms for anybody who's been reading this coverage and will in the future. Links to Russia, that's a phrase we just talked about. But there are 50 shades of collusion, right?
ERIC UMANSKY: Yeah. In fact, 'Links to Russia,' whenever I see that kind of thing, it means almost nothing to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
ERIC UMANSKY: Right? It Is so vague.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have links to Russia. I reported there for 3 years.
ERIC UMANSKY: As does my family when they were in the shtetl. The US has a long glorious history, as do most countries, of foreign boogeyman. It's currently Russia is in that spot with plenty of evidence suggesting it should be. But again, it's not a shortcut for diligence. The collusion vs. conflicts of interest, I think is crucial and I think is not appreciated enough. There's lots of stuff that's deeply problematic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
ERIC UMANSKY: Before collusion. Just take what we know. The presidential candidate was working on a deal in another country, secretly, that he later lied about. That his colleagues lied about under oath. Why is that problematic? Well, you know, Trump's operating in his own interests, which turns out as it happens potentially to be foreign adversary of the United States' interests.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are those who would have you believe that the Mueller investigation is a big sham. Many of the president's party in the Senate, the president himself and, of course, many of his allies in the media. So let's listen to some of the language they use to discredit the indictments of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and political operative Roger Stone.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And his indictment is not even for a violent crime. It has nothing to do with Russia or collusion. It's a process crime. You keep asking the same questions over and over and over hoping they'll be a mistake. And when there is you indict.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Can't get him on an actual crime so the old perjury trap always becomes the fall back in the Mueller camp of Democratic donors. [END CLIP]
ERIC UMANSKY: Now what do they mean by process crimes. You now have the president's former campaign manager, the president's national security adviser, the president's former lawyer all busted for lying. So I guess you could take that perspective that, 'gee, all they're being busted for is lying.' OK. Nobody has been charged with active collusion. The other way to think about that is, 'wait a second, why are all these guys lying?'.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obstruction and cover ups were how they got Al Capone, President Nixon, There's no end to people who are apprehended on obstruction because it's easier. It's low hanging fruit. What they're really after is the tree.
ERIC UMANSKY: And it raises substantive questions. I mean, you don't lie to prosecutors, you don't lie to Congress. It's a really bad idea, right? And it's illegal. So I guess you could dismiss all of that or you can say, 'well gee, that's really worthy of further digging into why they did it.'
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Mueller means many things to different people. To many people, Mueller represents a deus ex machina, a way to get us out of this mess.
ERIC UMANSKY: And this may be a bummer for people, but when they think, 'when is the Mueller report going to come?' They're really thinking like, 'when can I like open up my laptop and take a look at it.' You may not be able to do that for a long, long time. It is not going to be made public initially. It goes to the attorney general.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Attorney General Bill Barr.
ERIC UMANSKY: Appointed by, nominated by President Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a little history behind how special prosecutor reports can be released and this really goes back to Ken Starr's investigation of Bill Clinton.
ERIC UMANSKY: Right. So after that and all the salacious details that we were all fixated on, Congress felt a little bit icky about it, ultimately, and change the law so that it doesn't necessarily become public in all glorious detail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's a highlight reel that goes to Congress, that's mandated. But it's the attorney general who decides what those highlights are and if Congress wants to get hold of the full report, I guess they have to subpoena it.
ERIC UMANSKY: They could and then we're in a whole fakakta legal battle about getting it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's quite possible that those of us hanging on the Mueller report will never ever see.
ERIC UMANSKY: And by the way, that's only the first tier of why Mueller should not be considered, as you said, the deus ex machina. Mueller’s job isn't to look at everything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He is just a piece in the Rube Goldberg investigative contraption that is now at work on Trump–just a piece.
ERIC UMANSKY: By the way, a lot of times you'll see in stories that say federal prosecutors in Manhattan, right? That is not the Mueller people. That is the Southern District of New York who have their own multiple things they are looking into including the inauguration. They're looking into Trump's businesses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
ERIC UMANSKY: It's a whole different group of folks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You want to go through them?
ERIC UMANSKY: So then keeping with the New York theme, you have the New York attorney general looking into the Trump Foundation. Then you have New York tax authorities and the question of evasion of taxes. There's the New York Times remarkable story.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The president has always portrayed himself as a master businessman using the art of the deal to turn a small loan into a global empire. But now a New York Times investigation claims he was actually given a fortune from his father's real estate company often through quote, 'dubious tax schemes.' [END CLIP]
ERIC UMANSKY: Then you have the Manhattan D.A. looking into Manafort--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former campaign manager.
ERIC UMANSKY: --who is are already likely to be staying in governments housing for free for the rest of his life, if you know what I'm saying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mmhm.
ERIC UMANSKY: Then you move down the coast a little bit to Maryland and the District of Columbia. They have an emoluments lawsuit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: My personal favorite.
ERIC UMANSKY: Just because you like the word emoluments?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I do.
ERIC UMANSKY: The emoluments clause that bans foreign governments from giving free things to the president, right? And then the congressional investigations. Wednesday, Michael Cohen was speaking at the House Oversight Committee, but that is not the only committee digging in to Trump. You have Judiciary, Ways and Means and Intelligence. I'm sure I am missing others, and I'm sure there are others that are coming that we haven't gotten to yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have to be skeptical when some people say Mueller is done.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Robert Mueller report may land, literally, at any minute. Now whatever you think of all of this, things are getting very serious, very quickly. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's in it and how soon it comes out, all of that stuff is purely fueled by rumor and anybody who's interested in the story really ought to know that by now.
ERIC UMANSKY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've always felt that there was too much coverage of the Mueller report. I think one of your points for news consumers is don't sweat the small stuff. Huge cast of characters, confusing plot lines. How can you possibly tell the difference between small scale stuff and big, small stuff and enormous stuff, other than by keeping up with everything?
ERIC UMANSKY: There are lots of people paying attention to this. There are people who are paid to pay attention to it.
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ERIC UMANSKY: We will synthesize all of this stuff. We will put together the big picture. You know, it's like following a little kids train tracks that twist all in a million different ways, but still are going to end up at the door. And if you want to pick up the train at the end just wait at the end.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Haha. And thank you very much for coming on the show.
ERIC UMANSKY: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Mansky is a deputy managing editor with ProPublica and a co-host of the Trump Inc. podcast from ProPublica and WNYC Studios.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: And always, you can find our Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Mueller Edition at OnTheMedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, journalism is good. History is good. So together they must be perfect. Not necessarily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media.
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