Philip Ewing | KERA News

Philip Ewing

Philip Ewing is NPR's national security editor. He helps direct coverage of the military, the intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and other topics for the radio and online. Ewing joined the network in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously he served as managing editor of Military.com and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.

Updated at 10:31 a.m. ET

So President Trump sought to fire Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller last year — but the White House's top lawyer wouldn't go along. Does that mean Mueller is safe?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The news about Trump's desire to get rid of Mueller only weeks after the president dismissed FBI Director James Comey — but his unwillingness to press the matter — could mean Trump and his advisers feel it's too dangerous to attempt the same play twice.

Updated 5:35 a.m. ET Friday:

President Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller last summer — but McGahn refused and threatened to quit himself if the president went ahead, according to an explosive report in The New York Times.

Trump, in brief remarks as he entered the conference hall at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, dismissed the story in what has become his characteristic fashion.

Updated at 12:04 p.m. ET

Attorneys for President Trump are emphasizing how much they've cooperated with investigators as negotiations continue over how and when he might talk with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

Lawyers for the president on Thursday released a list that they said detailed the information and access the White House and Trump campaign have given to Mueller's Russia probe and congressional inquiries.

Last week in the Russia investigations: Will "infiltration" be the new "collusion" or "obstruction?" Another skirmish over executive privilege? Is the Russia imbroglio about the money-go-round? And will the shutdown disrupt Mueller's investigation?

The inside game

How much did Russia "infiltrate" political organizations inside the United States as part of its attack on the 2016 presidential election?

This week in the Russia investigations: President Trump rows back on a potential Robert Mueller interview, Sen. Dianne Feinstein releases a big transcript, and Steve Bannon is headed to the House Intelligence Committee.

The exile

Once upon a time, Steve Bannon was among the princes of the universe. Loved by his allies and hated by his foes, he was, most importantly, feared by both.

The infamous Russia dossier was not the sole basis for the FBI's investigation into Donald Trump's ties to Russia, according to a newly public document that notched a tactical win for Democrats inside Washington, D.C.

This week in the Russia investigations: Big problems for Sessions, Bannon cut adrift and Republicans search for more weapons to fire.

Living on the edge

A lighthouse can stand safely on a barrier island one morning and then when a big storm blows through, be teetering at land's end by the next.

Following the heavy cyclone of news this week, dawn in Washington, D.C., on Saturday found Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the slippery sand — and that could also mean peril for Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

If 2016 was the bravura opener and 2017 the tension-building second act, 2018 could deliver an action-packed conclusion to the Russia imbroglio.

Or this story might still be getting started.

Even without knowing every surprise the saga might bring in the new year, there are already enough waypoints on the calendar to confirm that 2018 will ratchet up the volume yet again.

Here are four big storylines to watch.

This week in the Russia investigations: The Mueller Wars rage behind the scenes, Republicans may get their Clinton uranium inquiry, and the Senate Intelligence Committee looks into Russia and the Jill Stein campaign.

The sharks are circling

President Trump says Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller is safe. Reporters shouted a question about whether he was planning to try to fire him:

"I'm not," Trump said Dec. 17.

International influence campaigns have been around for centuries, but 2017 made clear how much they remain a part of daily life.

Through court documents, congressional testimony, press reports and other sources, Americans learned not only about the extent of the "active measures" — as they're known to intelligence officers — that Russia waged against the U.S. through the presidential election.

This week In the Russia investigations: Downshift from strategic war to knife fight, top G-Men on his back foot as lawmakers engage in oversight, Trump Jr. clammed up in Congress.

Now, a knife fight

Not long ago, this saga was about Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's surveying the battlefield like a general and with one swift coup — getting Michael Flynn to turn state's evidence — changing the whole strategic picture.

Updated at 4:08 p.m. ET

Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly subpoenaed Trump family financial records from the German financial giant Deutsche Bank, a move that could signal a major new direction for his inquiry.

Updated 11:34 a.m. ET

This week in the Russia investigations: Flynn makes a deal ... What other dominoes could fall? ... Donald Trump Jr. has another date on Capitol Hill.

The missing middle act

Donald Trump's campaign was frenzied and frantic, people at the top have said — descriptions that could be highly consequential for the White House and to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

For former campaign officials who've come into the administration, the descriptions of their work last year are meant not only to strengthen their denials regarding collusion with the Russian government in attacking the election, but also to emphasize how much of a miracle it was they made it through.

Last week in the Russia Investigations: The feds sitting down with White House aides. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stays the course. And will DOJ special counsel Robert Mueller give a "toothless" old law new fangs?

Knock, knock: It's the feds

White House officials are expecting some unusual guests in the short workweek before Thanksgiving: investigators from the FBI.

Last week in the Russia investigations: More pressure on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, more details about Russia's personal outreach to Trump campaign aides and more questions about Trump Jr.'s meeting with Russians last year

More questions for Jeff Sessions

The bad news for Attorney General Jeff Sessions: He is due back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to talk about the Russia imbroglio, this time before the House Judiciary Committee.

The good news for Sessions: He'll be before the House Judiciary Committee.

The White House says it is playing ball with Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, but some administration supporters in Congress want him out of a job.

A small number of House and Senate Republicans are at work building a storyline about Mueller that would oblige him to at least give up his role in the Russia imbroglio and, at most, become subject to investigation himself.

Last week in the Russia investigations: Mueller removes all doubt, the imbroglio apparently costs a man a government job and lots of talk — but no silver bullet — on digital interference.


Mueller time

How many more thunderbolts has Zeus in his quiver? Where might the next one strike? Who does the angry lightning-hurler have in his sights — and who will be spared?

A former Trump campaign official has withdrawn from consideration for a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after being pulled into the imbroglio over Russia's interference efforts against the U.S. in the 2016 presidential race.

Sam Clovis said on Thursday that he would not go forward in trying to become the USDA's undersecretary for research, education and economics.

There appears to be no quick patch for the malware afflicting America's political life.

Over the course of three congressional hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, lawmakers fulminated, Big Tech witnesses were chastened but no decisive action appears to be in store to stop a foreign power from harnessing digital platforms to try to shape the information environment inside the United States.

Nearly a year after Election Day, Americans have the clearest picture yet about the extent of the influence campaign Russia ran against the United States in 2016.

The operation had a clandestine side and an overt side, and aspects that moved from one into the other. It involved a number of Russian government intelligence officers and cyber-operatives within Russia, as well as at least a few operatives working in the West.

And, according to at least one former top U.S. spymaster, it went better than its authors could have possibly imagined.

Black leaders have condemned the Russian efforts in the 2016 election cycle that apparently sought to divide African-Americans both from whites and from each other, but nothing about those efforts is new.

Russian and Soviet influence-mongers have spent decades pressing as hard as they can on the most painful areas of the American body politic, from the days of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the current era of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nations waged campaigns of influence against each other for centuries before Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and nothing is likely to stop them anytime soon.

Congress could mandate more "disclosure" for foreigners buying ads on U.S. social networks, but that wouldn't stop the ads from being sold, nor would it address the covert part of the Russians' playbook — the cyberattacks, snooping and dumping of embarrassing information.

Last week in the Russia investigations: Washington, D.C., gears up for the big show; Trump campaign data firm's guru tried to link up with WikiLeaks; and Clinton, DNC helped pay for infamous dossier on Trump.

Get Ready For The Big Show

After weeks of buildups, letdowns, surprises, scoops and headlines, this is it: Three central players in the world of Big Tech are set to face off across the witness table this week from members of Congress.

Updated Oct. 25 at 1:42 p.m. EDT

Twitter has promised more disclosure about its advertisements as members of Congress put the big social networks under a microscope in investigating Russian interference in U.S. politics.

The San Francisco-based microblogging service said Tuesday that it plans to unveil an "industry-leading transparency center" through which it will "offer everyone visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads" and tools through which users can respond.

This week in the Russia investigations: Facebook hits Washington with a P.R. blitz, the imbroglio sucks in more tech giants and the White House weighs how nicely — or rudely — to treat Robert Mueller.

Sandberg leans in to damage control mode

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is a billionaire titan of Big Tech who looks down on the world from the peak of empire — but she tried to sound as contrite as she could this week in Washington.

Shortly before Election Day last year, some helpful-looking posts began popping up on Twitter: No need to stand in line or even leave home, they said — just vote by text!

The messages, some of which appeared to come from Hillary Clinton's campaign, had versions in Spanish, with gay pride flags and other permutations. They were also 100 percent false.

Where did they come from?

This week in the Russia investigations: A progress report — sort of — from the Senate Intelligence Committee; Robert Mueller meets the author of the dossier; and Donald Trump Jr. may have a date on Capitol Hill.

Russian hackers stole top secret cybertools from a National Security Agency contractor in yet another embarrassing compromise for U.S. spy agencies, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

The NSA contractor is believed to have taken highly sensitive official software home to a personal computer in 2015. His machine was running a Russian security program made by Kaspersky Labs, which can be exploited by Russia's intelligence agencies, the Journal reported.

Updated at 2:17 p.m. ET, Oct. 3

Facebook said on Monday it has given Congress thousands of ads linked with Russian influence operations in the United States and is tightening its policies to make such interference more difficult.

"Many [of the ads] appear to amplify racial and social divisions," it said.

The social media giant confirmed that it discovered the ad sales earlier this year and gave copies to Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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