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Sen. Rubio Wants To Know Why Sessions Didn't Disclose Russian Meetings


Florida Senator Marco Rubio is on the line. He's been talking about the United States and Russia. Rubio is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia's interference in the U.S. election. The FBI is investigating too, which explains the intense interest in some news overnight. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who oversees the FBI, met with Russia's ambassador during the election and then failed to disclose it at a confirmation hearing. Senator, welcome to the program.

MARCO RUBIO: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I guess we should say there's no doubt about the meetings first reported by The Washington Post, independently confirmed by NPR. Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador before the election and then afterward testified I did not have communications with the Russians. What do you make of that?

RUBIO: Well, we need - I need to learn more about it beyond the media reports. I'd like to talk to the attorney general personally, and I'm going to try to do that here in the next couple days. From what I read, it sounds like one of the meetings was an incidental contact after an event at the convention. The other sounds like a sit-down meeting in the Capitol, which is not unusual, although perhaps it is, though, for the Russian ambassador. And I think the third point here is to - beyond what was discussed in those meetings, which is important, is why did he not disclose that when asked specifically about it at the hearing. And you know, obviously that is something that's important and needs to be addressed.

And then the secondary issue - or the second issue - not secondary - is if in fact after our investigation is complete there are facts that would support it - and I'm not prepared to say that yet. We're not finished. We've just started. But if there are facts that show that there should be some further action, Justice should be looking at something, it could potentially call into question whether or not, you know, the attorney general can do the job or whether an independent counsel would be necessary. We're not at that stage yet. These are valid issues, but I would caution everyone to - let's take this one step at a time. But this is certainly a relevant story. I want to learn more about it, and I want to hear from him directly.

INSKEEP: Has it gone far enough, though, that the attorney general should recuse himself from the FBI investigation, making decisions about it?

RUBIO: Well, that's a - again, the FBI does not discuss which investigations are ongoing and which ones are not, so they just have never, as a matter of course, ever done that. I would say this - if and - I need to learn more about what those meetings were about and why it wasn't disclosed. There is certainly a valid question that needs to be answered here, and it is potentially the case that there's going to be Justice Department recommendations or referrals based on anything regarding the campaign that, depending what more we learn about these meetings, it could very well be that the attorney general - in the interest of fairness and in his best interests - should potentially ask someone else to step in and play that role. Again, we're not there yet. I mean, the - but we could be, and so we just need to start thinking about those things.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just be clear on what we know because it's certainly legitimate to limit ourselves to what we know. The attorney general has issued a rather narrow defense. He said, quote, last night "I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign" - so not denying the meeting, seems to deny only that the specific purpose was to discuss issues of the campaign. But he's meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. And we talked with Adam Entous of The Washington Post who broke this story earlier in the program, and he talked about what the Russian ambassador was doing during the election year. Let's listen.

ADAM ENTOUS: Kislyak the Russian ambassador, was making a concerted effort in 2016 to spend time with several of Trump's top aides - Mike Flynn, who was the national security adviser, was another one. And again, you know, you had a similar sort of moment with Flyn.

INSKEEP: Isn't there a point, Senator, where regardless of exactly what may have been discussed in the meeting, this has just gone too far? Attorney General Sessions is close to the president, campaigned for the president, has met with - I mean, he's close to all the parties here, it seems.

RUBIO: Yeah, so no one's been tougher on the Russia issue than I have, I believe, and I'll continue to be. Let's be frank. This is what all governments do. That's why they have ambassadors. They want to get close to the administration. They want to influence people that are close to the administration. That's what ambassadors do. That's what our ambassadors do. That is separate from the notion that they were somehow participating in interference in our elections and in trying to undermine policy. So we need to see if these two things - these two lines cross. So there's one thing to say the ambassadors in America are trying to get close to people that could be influential in the new administration. I think every ambassador is trying to do that.

The problem is that this is - regards Russia and it regards their potential interference, or what I believe is their actual interference in our election process. So it is concerning, but I want to make sure we're fair about this but also that we are clear, that we are transparent. The American people deserve to know everything, and that's why I said this investigation that we're doing on the Intelligence Committee is so important. We want to put out all the facts, and I've said this repeatedly - I'll say it again - I'm not interested in being a part of a witch hunt, but I also will not be a part of a cover-up. We're going to put the facts out.

INSKEEP: Couple of quick questions about that Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. The chairman of the committee is Richard Burr, a Republican of North Carolina. He's acknowledged in recent days that he helped the White House to try to push back on a news story which raised questions about his independence. Do you still have confidence in Chairman Burr's ability to investigate independently?

RUBIO: Well, I do because it's not just the chairman. It's the entire committee that's going to have access to this information. That said, I think the best policy is for none of us on the committee to be out there talking to the press about details of the investigation or any aspect of it until we are completed and done with it just so that there is no question about its credibility. This is really important. This committee has an important job to do. We have to put out a report that's factual and is clear and brings clarity to this. It's in the best interest of everyone. It's in the best interest of the Trump administration. It's in the best interest of Congress. It's in the best interest of the American people.

INSKEEP: A couple of rapid-fire questions here if I can. Do you want public hearings - and it's been discussed that there may be public hearings - that would question Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, or even Attorney General Sessions?

RUBIO: Well, I think that could be appropriate at some point here or later on. First of all, I mean, part of it is we need to gather information first because we need to know what to ask. And you're going to be - you're going to have a much better hearing if you're informed by information that you've gathered beforehand. It's like, you know, you don't put a witness on the stand, for example, until you know what the answers to the questions are.

INSKEEP: That leads to my next question. A Senate source tells us that the committee is now reviewing documents that have been obtained as part of this investigation. Are you learning anything?

RUBIO: Well, I'm not going to comment on the work of the investigation until it's complete for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say, we're working hard. I spend a significant amount of time everyday on aspects of it, and it's one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, I've done in my six years and two months in the Senate. And you know - and we're going to do a good job. And if we don't, I'm going to let everybody know that it wasn't a good job because, as I said, to me this is beyond partisanship. This is about our republic.

INSKEEP: In a sentence or two, how would you rank the danger of Russia to the United States right now?

RUBIO: Well, it is a geopolitical danger. There's no doubt. Obviously, we face numerous dangers, but Russia is a significant threat to our national security. And I say not the Russian people - Vladimir Putin and his government.

INSKEEP: OK, Senator Rubio, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

RUBIO: Thanks, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Marco Rubio is a United States senator from Florida, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECONDITE'S "LEVO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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