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It's Been A Tumultuous Week For Donald Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is the face of the contradictions surrounding President Trump. Sessions is a leading supporter of Trump's immigration policies. He's also been snared in a story of foreign influence, Russian interference in the election. Sessions has recused himself from the investigation after admitting he met Russia's ambassador twice during the election year. Last night, Jeff Sessions took questions from Tucker Carlson of Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: Why do you think the Russian ambassador wanted to meet with you a couple of times? What was their objective, do you think?

JEFF SESSIONS: And I didn't have a meeting with him a couple of times, Tucker. I met with him after I spoke, and we chatted...

CARLSON: Right.

SESSIONS: ...On the floor of this meeting. And then he called to meet with me. I literally met with 25 ambassadors during this period.

INSKEEP: Sessions and his staff have said, first, they didn't remember what the meetings were about, and then that the meetings definitely were not about the campaign. Last night, Sessions said he does remember. The September meeting was about Russia's involvement in Ukraine and that he mostly listened. Chris Caldwell joins us next. He's a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and following the Trump administration. Welcome to our studios. Good morning.

CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I should add to this, NPR confirms Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, met with the Russian ambassador, too, during the transition, along with the ex-national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Lots of meetings here - what do you make of this?

CALDWELL: Well, it really all depends on what they talked about, and that's something we still don't really know.

INSKEEP: And we should be fair. It's perfectly reasonable to meet with ambassadors or whatever. It's why they're in Washington in the first place.

CALDWELL: It is. I mean, I think that there are some questions of - there are some transitional questions of whether you have the authority to talk about certain things before you enter office. But I - but in general, I think that there's strikingly little hard evidence that there was anything irregular going on here.

INSKEEP: But there's something strange here in the way that it's been talked about, the fact that Sessions didn't disclose these meetings for example. President Trump last night described all of this as a, quote, "witch hunt." And then this morning, the Russian foreign minister puts out a statement. He also says witch hunt, using the very same phrase, according to a Russian news agency. The president has been described as a nationalist. Why is it so hard for a nationalist to just say this is all very bad, let's investigate, let's get to the bottom of this?

CALDWELL: Well, because I think there is the claim on the side of the Trump administration that there really is nothing there. I mean, that the allegation - the allegation is not - the allegation is basically that Russia hacked the American election. And I don't think that any evidence of that has been presented yet. And that's...

INSKEEP: Hacked the voting as opposed to the - but the actual - the influence is something else.

CALDWELL: Hacked the voting of the election and that this is all - that's how all this began - right? - with allegations like that. And what you have, as we've - as we saw a couple of days ago, is the Obama administration, the - certainly took a role in putting these stories out. Let's say, it's - the intelligence agencies during the Obama administration played a role in making these allegations, but they haven't really hardened around any proofs yet. No one can name any specific ways in which the Russians did hack the election, and until that happens, it does look like a fishing exposition.

INSKEEP: Sessions last night declined to say if he thought Russia had tried to influence the election, which is something intelligence agencies have agreed that they did try to influence the election.

CALDWELL: Well, I would say that sources in the intelligence agencies have said that.

INSKEEP: Oh, no, these are official public reports.

CALDWELL: No. I mean - but if you look at the report - and this is why I hate to take the skeptical side of the Trump administration - but if you look at the actual reports, which seem to have been - the January report of the director of Central Intelligence...

INSKEEP: Where they tried to put out some of the evidence that they had.

CALDWELL: Which seems seems to be the source of the December reports that came out in the press. It's really - that's a 13-page long report, and it's really striking how little there is in it. I would say the first half of it is imputations of motive and the second half is complaints about RT.

INSKEEP: I want to take a moment and move on to one other thing before we lose you here. You've written a very interesting article about the intellectual force behind Trump's nationalism, Steve Bannon, the White House adviser. And you say there's reason to worry about Steve Bannon but that people have him all wrong. What do you mean?

CALDWELL: Oh, yeah, that was an article in - that ran in The New York Times last Sunday. Well, I think that there are people calling Bannon an extremist, but when they complain about his ideology, they're generally complaining about things that he shares with the president, you know, like things like skepticism about immigration. So if you're going to worry about anyone, you'd want to worry about Trump in that. I think that if you really wanted to worry about Bannon as a political figure, you'd worry about some of his theories about the cycles of history. You might worry about the fact that he's a - that he's actually relatively new to politics, that he came to it only after a career in investment banking. And so he might be a sort of an intellectual enthusiast.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that he's - he hasn't figured out the system yet. He hasn't figured out the limits yet, and so he puts - pushes things too hard.

CALDWELL: A little bit of that, yes.

INSKEEP: OK. Chris Caldwell, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it. He's a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of "Reflections On The Revolution In Europe" about immigration into Europe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.