New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt doesn't have a badge or a gun or the ability to compel people to talk to him. Nevertheless, he has found sources to help him break major stories concerning special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into connections between President Trump, his associates and Russia.
Schmidt was one of the Times reporters who reported in January that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation in 2017 into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia against American interests.
"I knew that it was significant," Schmidt says of the story. And yet, he adds, "it's hard to be surprised. ... We have written, or been a part of, or been beaten on stories in the past two years-plus that are things that we had never seen before and never really fathomed."
Schmidt says that amid the "many different tentacles" of the Trump-Russia story, he has a singular focus: "At the end of the day, the facts are my best friend. ... I'm just going to follow the facts wherever they go."
On how a group of reporters in the Times' Washington, D.C., bureau formed right after the inauguration to focus on Trump's ties to Russia
We basically, in hindsight, I think, laughingly, would say that we really didn't know what we were doing at first, because we didn't really know what the story was. But we knew that with the president coming in, there was going to be a lot of different areas to look at. ...
We were initially going to focus on a lot of different issues of what was going on in the administration [and in] other departments. ... What did the Trump administration really look like? What did [the Trump presidency] mean for education policy or housing policy and such?
Very quickly everything we did was consumed by the Russia investigation and by covering that. And that basically became the Russia team. We spent the early part of 2017 trying to feel our way through this story.
On leaks and how he has been able to break so many significant stories
I think that at times there's this notion that we receive leaks ... as if we're sitting at our desks and the phone rings and it's the leaker who has the information. ...
As someone that gets to see this play out every day, or every few days, or a couple of times a week, the reason that a lot of stories are broken [is] because journalists are out there asking people questions. We are not lemmings sitting at our desks who receive calls from folks that are trying to secretly undercut the other side and use anonymity to launch an attack. A lot of times these stories arise because reporters are talking to a lot of different people and taking small pieces of information they're able to glean from one conversation and using it to have another conversation and to build on it.
On Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani going on TV and making contradictory statements and saying things that aren't true
What I've never been able to figure out is whether this is truly something they are doing to confuse people, to muddy the waters ... as a way of sort of helping public opinion in [Trump's] favor, because they have made a calculation that public opinion is the most important thing to them ... that the president does not have legal issues; he has political issues, because the House of Representatives is the only place that can hold him accountable and could impeach him. ...
Their calculation is that public opinion will dictate how the House of Representatives looks at the president's conduct. And part of that strategy has been to throw a lot out there, throw a lot on the wall, to make the average person say, "I'm not really sure what's going on here." And maybe that benefits the president.
On what he expects from Mueller's final report
There is nothing in the rules and laws that allows Bob Mueller to write a report as long as he wants and [to] give it to Congress. All he can do is report to the attorney general about who he prosecuted, who he didn't prosecute and what he found. The attorney general is only required to tell Congress about those instances in which Mueller wanted to take investigative measures or moves, like indict someone and was stopped from doing it. That is the only thing that has to be told to Congress.
The problem is ... that the public really wants an accounting of what went on. They want a 9/11-style commission answer to what happened — but that doesn't exist. So what will happen? How much will Congress get? It's not really clear. It's not like he has this ability just to hand over everything that he found to the Hill and for the Hill to do whatever they want with it. That structure is not there.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Martina Stewart adapted it for the Web.