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News Brief: Mueller Investigation Charges And Reaction; Fake News In Italy


Let's review what we have learned about the special counsel investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election.


All right, so here's the review. Charges have been filed against President Trump's former campaign chairman and his deputy. These are charges about things that happened a while ago. His chief of staff, John Kelly, said on Fox News last night...


JOHN KELLY: I know that the gentlemen were indicted today. All of the activities, as I understand it, that they were indicted for was long before they ever met Donald Trump or had any association with the campaign.

GREENE: And the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, says, in effect, so what?


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: We've been saying from day one, there's been no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, and nothing in the indictment today changes that at all.

GREENE: But prosecutors also revealed a third man pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. His name is George Papadopoulos, and he advised then-candidate Trump on foreign policy. So a question - what led investigators to him in the first place?

MARTIN: Let's ask Tamara Keith. She covers the White House for NPR.

Good morning, Tam.


MARTIN: Explain why George Papadopoulos is so important.

KEITH: Well, he is a young guy, a foreign policy adviser to President Trump. In March of last year, President Trump shouted him out, mentioned his name when he was listing his foreign policy advisers to The Washington Post in an editorial board meeting. There's a photo that the campaign tweeted out of a foreign policy meeting where Papadopoulos is right there in the center of the photograph. However, the White House is saying he's a minor player. That said, he is no longer a minor player because he pled guilty to lying to the FBI.

And why that is significant is that he's cooperating with investigators. And when you have someone who's cooperating, that's a big deal. If you look at some of the documents that the Justice Department put out yesterday, it's clear that not only did he have connections to Russians and ongoing conversations with people connected to Russia, but he kept delivering information about those conversations back to his contacts at the campaign. We don't know exactly who those contacts were, but they were listed as senior campaign officials.

MARTIN: So now the White House is in a bit of a bind because, I mean, for months, the president has been trying to place some distance between himself and Paul Manafort, in particular - but also defending him. I mean, what is the White House line when it comes to trying to explain away what these three people did for President Trump on the campaign?

KEITH: Well, the White House line is that George Papadopoulos was just a volunteer. Interestingly, similar things have been said about Paul Manafort in the past.

MARTIN: The campaign manager.

KEITH: Yeah, Paul Manafort, who was the campaign chairman and served on the campaign from March until August of last year. Rick Gates actually continued on in the Trump orbit - through this year, was involved in President Trump's inaugural committee and has - is - has reportedly visited the White House this year. But what the White House is saying is, don't mind these guys, this - you know, this was not - you know, Manafort and Gates, the things they were doing were not related to their work on their - on the campaign or their association with President Trump.

MARTIN: Which is true - according to the indictment, this - especially on the Manafort-Gates stuff, this is about their operations - their financial operations in Ukraine.

KEITH: Exactly.

MARTIN: So at the same time, the special counsel investigation continues. There are investigations happening in Congress. And today and tomorrow, we're going to hear from big-name companies. Facebook, Google, Twitter executives - they're all coming town to explain how their platforms were used in the campaign by Russia, exploited. This is awkward because they have to be honest about the extent to which those platforms may have been abused, but they don't want to suggest their platforms are so vulnerable, right?

KEITH: Yeah, and NPR has obtained Facebook's testimony. And they estimate that approximately 126 million people may have been exposed to news stories that were put out there by Russian actors in an attempt to divide Americans.

MARTIN: Tamara Keith - she covers the White House and hosts NPR's Politics Podcast. Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

MARTIN: All right, let's move from social media to media media.

GREENE: (Laughter) Media media.

MARTIN: Media media.

GREENE: ...And particularly conservative media. Conservative talk show hosts have been expanding on one of the White House's talking points here. They are arguing that the real story the media ought to be covering involves Hillary Clinton. Here is Rush Limbaugh.


RUSH LIMBAUGH: If Hillary had been elected, none of this would be happening, other - they'd try to still put Trump in jail as a message to the next outsider, don't dare try this.

GREENE: So interesting to see how the Mueller story is playing across the political spectrum.

MARTIN: All right, I'm joined now by North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann. He's been looking at this. Hey, Brian. Do we have Brian Mann on the line?

GREENE: Is Brian Mann there?


GREENE: There's Brian.

MARTIN: Hi, Brian. So Brian, I mean, perhaps unsurprisingly, even though the news is about these three former campaign advisers to President Trump, Hillary Clinton is the target in the conservative media - not a big surprise.

MANN: Yeah, it's really hard to overstate, Rachel, just how big a figure she still is for right-wing media and their audience. They think she should still be the center of this story, not Paul Manafort or President Trump.

MARTIN: So what's the line? What's the line of attack on Hillary Clinton?

MANN: So the loudest narrative right now involves a deal the Obama administration approved in 2010 when Clinton was secretary of state. It allowed a Russian company to take financial interests in some of America's uranium reserves. And if you tuned in to Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, this Uranium One deal, they say, threatened national security. They claim there were big kickbacks to the Clinton's charitable foundation. And they say this is a much bigger deal than Russia's meddling in last year's election.

MARTIN: So you've been looking into that story. What have you found? What - why doesn't that allegation hold water?

MANN: Well, this Uranium One story has been fact-checked again and again, from Snopes to PolitiFact to The Washington Post, and so far, it just doesn't add up. There's no evidence the Clintons swayed that Obama decision. It was made by a panel of nine senior officials. Experts also say this Russia company's involvement in the uranium industry just isn't that big a deal.

But again, it's important to say that for millions of people in Donald Trump's political base, the story they're hearing, and reading and seeing on TV is really different. This is the focus for them. This is the scandal.

MARTIN: So it's not that the indictments aren't being covered. They're just part of the story.

MANN: They're being framed against what people say is the bigger scandal, and they're saying that Hillary Clinton is sort of being left out of what should be the chief investigation. There were a lot of calls yesterday for a new special prosecutor targeting her.

MARTIN: All right, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann. Thanks so much, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.


MARTIN: All right, as we mentioned earlier, tech companies are going to be talking to Congress today.

GREENE: Yeah, this is about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and how fake news was spread on social media. But this is not just the United States where this goes on, Rachel. Italy takes fake news so seriously, it is teaching high schoolers to spot it. I don't remember that coming up when I went to high school.

MARTIN: Right, and it shows.

GREENE: But I would love to know how this exactly happens. Maybe it should've, right?

MARTIN: OK, let's ask journalist Christopher Livesay. He went to a classroom in Italy to find out about this. He's on the line now.

Hey, Chris.


MARTIN: So before we get to what this looks like in the classroom, just lay out the thinking behind this new curriculum and how long it's been around.

LIVESAY: Well, the new curriculum actually launches today in 8,000...

MARTIN: Ooh, not long.

LIVESAY: In - yeah, exactly. It's fresh, and these kids are really the guinea pigs in what the government is calling a program to create fake news hunters - so hunters that not only spot fake news, but then blog about how they debunked it and then post and share about it with their friends on social media platforms like Facebook. So you can consider it a kind of fake news neighborhood watch for high schoolers.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting. And so then the education is spread, and other people learn how to spot fake news. So how do they do it? I mean, that's, like, the $64 million question. But what does this look like in the classroom?

LIVESAY: Well, it's to be determined. I mean, today is the day that it gets rolled out. But we're told by the Italian speaker of the house, Laura Boldrini, who came up with it, that students are going to be given the tools to identify the source, to fact-check it and to cross-check it with other sources that are reporting on the same program.

And what's very interesting is that they're actually teaming up with Facebook in this program. And now, I asked the chief of public policy of Facebook in Italy, does this mean Mark Zuckerberg is going to start putting warning labels on fake news articles like what we see on cigarette packs?


LIVESAY: Absolutely not, was her answer. Facebook does not want to be in the game of, you know, arbiter of truth. That's still going to be up to the students. But if they're of high school age, they can expect to see promoted posts popping up in their news feed with tips on how to fact-check an article and cross-check it with other sources.

MARTIN: So is there any potential backlash here? I mean, is there any fear that, you know, the government could get involved and start using the fear of fake news to start censoring material?

LIVESAY: So I spoke to some media experts on this topic, and they don't like the feeling of government getting involved in the fake news identification business. They fear that this could be a slippery slope where the government says, well, this is news, this is not news, or this is truth, this is not truth. But so far, the government is adamant about not being involved at all in determining what is true and what is false. It simply wants to give students the tools to determine that on their own.

MARTIN: All right, so far, the truth is in the hands of Italian high schoolers. Use your power wisely, students. OK, journalist Christopher Livesay - thanks so much for your time, Chris, and sharing your reporting.

LIVESAY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEROCHE SONG, "EARTH DRUID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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