MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK, let's get a take on all this from Capitol Hill. We reached out to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is running one of three investigations by Congress into Russia and the 2016 election. No Republicans made themselves available to speak with us, but Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse did. He's on the line now from his Hill office. Senator, thanks for taking the time.
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
KELLY: Today's developments - I mean, between Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, how significant are the charges we are learning about today?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, I think first of all, it tells you that the investigation is continuing to move forward as you might expect a big investigation would. Customarily you try to identify the universe of players and figure out their connections and figure out how the finances flow through that universe. And then you start to focus in on who you can develop by way of a voluntary cooperator, and then peripheral or ancillary charges that might develop more cooperators, which is I think what's happened here. And I think there's going to be a strong incentive for Manafort particularly to testify truthfully and hope that he'll get a better disposition at sentencing if he's found guilty.
And then from there, the next step is ordinarily that you start bringing people into the grand jury. And that's where it's going to get really grim for the White House because then you're in the moment when, you know, somebody's chair next to you in the West Wing is empty because he's spending a day or two in the grand jury and coming back ashen-faced and silent.
KELLY: We'll stay with this question of the White House for a minute because I want to ask, in your view, do today's developments get us any closer to this central question of collusion, whether there may have been collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, it does in the sense that it shows that this investigation is moving forward in the way you would expect it to, that it appears to be very professionally handled, and that they have developed massive evidence behind both the plea and the indictments. They're very clearly laid out.
KELLY: Although the White House spokesperson...
WHITEHOUSE: It also shows...
KELLY: White House Spokesperson Sarah Sanders said today none of this is about Trump. And it's true that the indictment against Manafort and Gates does not reference the Trump campaign, although the Papadopoulos court papers do.
WHITEHOUSE: Well, there's certainly plenty about the Trump campaign in the Papadopoulos statement and plenty for folks to look into there. But I think the point more is that the investigation itself seems to be going forward very professionally. These are the first charges that have been brought. This is what I would call the end of the beginning of the investigation. And the things that you would expect, particularly false statements charges, have figured very, very prominently in all of this.
So you have to be looking at people like Mike Flynn, who clearly made false statements to the FBI, and wonder quite what their position is in this all. But I think it gives a lot of confidence that this is a well-run investigation that is gradually building a case and preparing to turn people who may very well have very damaging information into government witnesses.
KELLY: What about the man at the center of this, special counsel Bob Mueller? You have co-sponsored a bill that would make it really hard for the president to fire him. White House says that is not in the works right now but, you know, it remains a possibility hanging over this. How many Republicans would be on board with that?
WHITEHOUSE: Well, we've got several on the two bills in the Judiciary Committee that are competing with one another to accomplish the same purpose. And I think that there'd be a huge - I don't know the House very well, but in the Senate I think there'd be a terrible backlash against the president for doing it. It would be very much, I think, seen as an admission of guilt and a desperate, evasive measure. And similarly, if he started pardoning people like Manafort in order to lift the prosecution's leverage for them to testify truthfully, that perhaps even becomes another count in an obstruction of justice complaint.
KELLY: But just very briefly in the seconds we have left, how concerned are you about the possibility that some action may be taken against Mueller?
WHITEHOUSE: Desperate people do desperate things. But it'll create massive blowback against Trump.
KELLY: Senator Whitehouse, thank you.
WHITEHOUSE: Of course.
KELLY: That's Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.