DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK, so we now have the first criminal charges in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian election interference. A big question Mueller is asking is if the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. At least publicly, that remains an open question. The White House gave its public answer yesterday. Here's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: There are no activities or official capacity in which the Trump campaign was engaged in any of these activities. Most of them took place well before the campaign ever even existed.
GREENE: OK, specifically, the activities Sanders is talking about there involved former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an associate. They have been charged with, among other things, unlawful lobbying efforts with foreign governments. But a third figure in yesterday's court filings, George Papadopoulos, was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. He admitted to lying to federal authorities about communicating with people tied to the Russian government. I want to bring in Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, welcome back to the program.
BEN CARDIN: David, it's good to be with you. Thank you.
GREENE: So have you now seen evidence of collusion?
CARDIN: Well, I think that's what the special counsel is investigating. I don't want to draw conclusions. We know there's been many contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. We know that Russia was interested in interfering in our election. We don't know exactly how much cooperation they received from the Trump campaign. And that's what's being investigated.
GREENE: Well, I just want to take stock of where we are. I mean, we now have two examples of Trump campaign contact with Russians claiming to have information that might damage Hillary Clinton. You had Donald Trump Jr. set up a meeting with someone who purported to have information from Russian government officials. Now we have Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser on the campaign, pleading guilty to lying about his relationship with someone connected to the Russian government.
You're saying, though, this is not yet enough to convince you that there was collusion happening.
CARDIN: Well, it's clear to me that the Trump campaign was interested in meeting with Russians in order to get information helpful to their campaign against Hillary Clinton. So it's clear that this was motivated, at least in part, by the Trump campaign's interest in winning an election and getting help from people associated with Russia. That's troublesome. That's extremely troublesome. This is a foreign government. Why would you even have those types of meetings?
So there's a concern here but to the level of collusion is a matter in which the investigators are going to have to see whether there's direct evidence, et cetera. So I don't want to draw a conclusion on that. But I can tell you, this is wrong. There shouldn't have been an effort made by the Trump campaign to work with Russian officials - to Russian associates in order to win a campaign. They set themselves up for trouble. And Russia was deliberately looking for operatives in the United States to assist in their strategies of interfering in our elections. They helped. So this is very, very troublesome.
GREENE: Let me just ask, I mean, you've obviously run campaigns yourself, senator. And I know that in politics, you get opposition research from, you know, often wherever you can possibly get it. Could this be - there be some innocence here in just the campaign trying to gather information wherever they can find it and maybe this will just be a lesson for everyone involved in politics about be more careful about where you get opposition research?
CARDIN: No, absolutely not. You do not go to foreign sources in order to get information concerning an American election. That's something you just do not do. You don't open yourself up for foreign influence into an American campaign, particularly the presidency of the United States. You know that Russia has interests different than ours. No, that crosses the line.
GREENE: Collusion or not, are we learning something in these court documents about just how active Russia really was in trying to change the course of this election?
CARDIN: Well, we're learning one aspect of Russia's campaign against America and that is to get involved directly in our elections to try to influence the results of our elections. Russia is doing so many things through the use of fake news, through the use of propaganda, through use of manipulating records on people and taking action against people that they believe are contrary to the Putin regime's success. I want to make it clear, we're talking about the Putin regime. We're talking about the leaders of Russia.
We're not talking about the Russian people. But they're taking direct actions to hurt America in so many different ways and our European allies and our global interests. So this is just one aspect. And that's why we should have had a full independent investigation of what Russia's doing here in the United States in order to protect ourselves. We still have pigeonholed the different investigations - one by Mr. Mueller dealing with the corruption, one by the Intelligence Committee in both the House and Senate dealing with intelligence issues.
Russia clearly has a game plan investing a lot of resources to affect our democratic system of government, to weaken the democracies around the world, to increase Russia influence.
GREENE: Well, I mean, we have another election day coming next Tuesday, a campaign for governor in Virginia, among other races. What concrete steps have you and other lawmakers taken over the last year to guard against Russian interference?
CARDIN: Well, we have taken direct steps to protect the integrity of the election system itself, that is, the way that people are registered and cast their votes and votes are counted. We have taken direct steps. Where we are not as prepared is in the media, the use of social media, the use of - as we see on the different ads that were taken in the last presidential campaign associated with Russia. Those issues are still vulnerable. We still don't know where dark money comes from. We still don't know where ads are purchased. That is still a vulnerability in our system.
GREENE: I want to ask you about all the chatter and speculation about whether President Trump might try to fire the special counsel, Mueller. Is there any reason to believe that that might happen?
CARDIN: Well, that would just not be allowed to - I know the president has certain powers, but no one is above the law. The American people would not tolerate a president, any president, trying to say that he will dictate how criminal investigations are done.
GREENE: What would Congress do about it if that happened? And we should say, I mean, the White House says that's not even in their thinking. But what would happen?
CARDIN: Well, we have certain tools that we could - we had, of course, the special counsel law that we passed previously. We could renew that. There are things that we could do to counter what the president is doing. But quite frankly, I just don't believe the American people would allow the president of the United States to say, look, I'm going to control how criminal investigations are done.
GREENE: Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. We appreciate your time this morning, Senator. Thanks a lot.
CARDIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.