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Words You'll Hear: 'Collusion'


Now it's time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand an upcoming news story by digging into a key word or phrase. Our phrase this week is collusion. And we're focusing on that because three different congressional committees and a special council are still trying to figure out whether people very close to President Trump colluded with the Kremlin to damage Hillary Clinton's candidacy and the 2016 election. To that end, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and a senior adviser, is scheduled to make two appearances on Capitol Hill this week to meet privately with the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort are going to provide documents and sit down with Senate judiciary committee members and staff also privately. But this is a change. These were supposed to be public meetings. NPR's Geoff Bennett is here to help us understand more about what is happening and why. Geoff, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So, Geoff, just to be clear, there is no crime called collusion, am I right?

BENNETT: That's right. I mean, the word is thrown around a lot as if it has some sort of specific legal meaning or consequences but it doesn't. What matters legally is whether someone in the Trump campaign joined a conspiracy or aided or abetted a crime or even, for that matter, concealed a crime. That's a particular focus of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. But, you know, as the congressional investigators speak with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner this week, they're going to be particularly focused on their participation in that Trump Tower meeting last year in which you - well, you all remember, Trump Jr. agreed to meet with someone described as a Russian government attorney because he got this offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton.

And so we now know there were actually eight people present at that meeting - three Americans and five Russians or Russian advocates. And, you know, Jared Kushner has the added issue of initially failing to disclose encounters with Russian nationals and failing to disclose some financial assets on his security clearance application as the law requires. So the congressional staffers who are going to speak with him will certainly want to know more about that.

MARTIN: OK. So I wanted to ask a little bit more about what exactly the committees are trying to get at. And why is Congress holding these meetings privately, rather than publicly, which had been the expectation when these meetings were announced previously?

BENNETT: Well, it's a case of the committee leaders feeling that something was better than nothing. And so for the Senate judiciary committee, the threat of trying to force Trump Jr. and Manafort it to testify publicly and the threat of that subpoena were enough, it appears, to get an agreement from them to provide those records and to sit for interviews much more quickly than we understand the two of them otherwise would have liked. And so the threat of a public spectacle, that open hearing, was enough to bring Trump Jr. and Manafort to the negotiating table. But Chuck Grassley, who's the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, says those private interviews will still be on the record.

MARTIN: And so I think we have about a minute left. So in that time, can you tell us what is the difference between these hearings and the investigation being led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the special counsel?

BENNETT: Well, they have different goals, Michel. I mean, the congressional investigations are primarily fact-finding investigations. And they're expected to end in bipartisan public reports of their findings. But the special counsel investigation, the special counsel has the power to bring criminal charges if he finds wrongdoing. So the big difference is that Robert Mueller can put people in prison if that's where his investigation leads.

MARTIN: That's Geoff Bennett. He reports on Congress for NPR, speaking to us from Washington, D.C. Geoff, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BENNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Bennett is a White House reporter for NPR. He previously covered Capitol Hill and national politics for NY1 News in New York City and more than a dozen other Time Warner-owned cable news stations across the country. Prior to that role, he was an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition. Geoff regularly guest hosts C-SPAN's Washington Journal — a live, three-hour news and public affairs program. He began his journalism career at ABC News in New York after graduating from Morehouse College.