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Sen. Chris Coons On Protecting Robert Mueller's Investigation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are rafts of new material for special counsel Robert Mueller to pick through in his Russia investigation. Now, that's one of several Russia probes in full swing. Congress is also investigating, including the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Chris Coons is a member. He's a Democratic senator from Delaware. He is co-author of one of two pieces of legislation protecting the special counsel if the president tries to fire him. Good morning, senator.

CHRIS COONS: Good morning.

KELLY: Thanks for coming on. Give us an update on your bill to protect Bob Mueller. You've got a hearing scheduled next week? What are you hoping to learn? Who's testifying?

CHRIS COONS: Well, that's right. Senator Thom Tillis and I introduced this bill just before we went out of session for the August recess. And Senator Graham and Booker also introduced a roughly similar bill. And the Senate Judiciary Committee has just noticed that we will have a hearing next Tuesday morning. There will be a series of three witnesses from more conservative or more progressive perspectives, credible legal experts, but folks who are going to comment on the bill.

Some folks have raised a question about the constitutionality of restricting the president's ability to fire someone in his own agency in the Department of Justice, a special counsel. Others think this is obviously constitutional. And I think it's important that we have an open and constructive hearing on the bill. I have no doubt about its constitutionality.

KELLY: So you're going to drill down on the legal issues. How real a possibility do you think it is that the White House would fire Mueller?

CHRIS COONS: Well, President Donald Trump has already fired former FBI director Jim Comey to get himself rid of the troublesome matter of the so-called witch hunt, as he's described it, of the ongoing investigation. So a number of us, on a bipartisan basis, have thought that it was important to strengthen the special counsel, not just for this time and for this period, but to reassert the independence of the Department of Justice and the function of any special counsel.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the man that Bob Mueller appears to have in his sights. This is former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. We knew already that the FBI searched Manafort's house over the summer. Now some news organizations are reporting that Manafort was wiretapped by U.S. investigators. How significant a development would that be?

CHRIS COONS: I think that's a fairly significant development, if nothing else because it suggests that a court approved a warrant. And so there was some grounds for proceeding with a wiretap. And it would have gathered a significant amount of information from him at a time when he was the Trump campaign manager and moving into and out of that role.

KELLY: And The New York Times is adding a couple of new details to this Manafort plotline. They are citing people close to the investigation who have told The Times that the FBI picked Manafort's lock while he was upstairs in bed when they carried out the raid this summer. They are also reporting that Mueller's team told Manafort they are planning to indict him. Can you confirm that?

CHRIS COONS: I can't comment on that. And it is troubling to me there continues to be leaks from various sources. I can't comment on anything like that that is confidential about an ongoing federal investigation.

KELLY: But it would seem, as you say, that if Manafort was indeed being wiretapped - and I want to stress, NPR has not confirmed those reports - that that suggests that prosecutors have something significant that would enable them to get a FISA warrant - a foreign intelligence surveillance warrant.

CHRIS COONS: That's correct. You know, the point in our legal system of requiring a showing of probable cause before a judge is to make it very difficult to get someone on a wiretap unless you're able to persuade a judge that there's a national security or a criminal investigation reason to do so. And as I said earlier, the timing of exactly when he is alleged to have been the subject of a wiretap would make it particularly relevant to Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation.

KELLY: All right, another thread to note. Yesterday your colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee summoned Michael Cohen. This is President Trump's longtime lawyer, longtime confidant - summoned Michael Cohen to testify in open session. Am I right in thinking he would be the most senior member of Trump's inner circle to face questions in a public hearing?

CHRIS COONS: Well, you know, you've got members of his family. You've got members of his campaign team and now members of his sort of business leadership, all of whom at different times have been questioned. I think you're right in terms of...

KELLY: But we in the public haven't gotten to see most of that.

CHRIS COONS: That's correct.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHRIS COONS: That's correct. But I think all of those different sessions where judiciary and intelligence, the two committees in the Senate that are working - have had people in, are all in preparation for later public testimony.

KELLY: Last thing to get your take on is the Russia juggernaut steams ahead. And this is the revelation that Facebook sold ads to a Russian company, created political ads which seem to have been designed to influence the U.S. election. What questions do you have for Facebook?

CHRIS COONS: My core question is why it took them so long to come forward with that information and why they're still not fully cooperating. It is important...

KELLY: They're still not fully cooperating with your investigation?

CHRIS COONS: Well, my understanding - this is through news reports, my understanding is that requests for information and requests for a broader understanding of how these were bought, by whom they were bought and for what purpose are not yet being fully complied with, that there's a lot we don't yet know about how Facebook was managing this. I'm very concerned about it because, although it was a small (unintelligible) - only a hundred thousand - by some reports it may well have influenced tens of millions of Americans.

KELLY: Always difficult to know how exactly you track what had influence over Americans thinkings or votes. But that's a point to maybe - that we'll maybe hear from if public hearings do in fact come about for Facebook and we get these questions answered in public. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, thanks very much.

CHRIS COONS: Great. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.