Morning News Brief

Aug 23, 2018
Originally published on August 23, 2018 10:40 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So are President Trump's legal problems about to multiply?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Two of his closest former aides now stand guilty of serious crimes. One of them, the president's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, directly implicated President Trump in criminal wrongdoing.

GREENE: All right. Let's talk this through, first with reporter Sam Baker. He covers legal issues for the new site Axios, and he's in our studios in Washington this morning. Hi there, Sam.

SAM BAKER: How are you?

GREENE: I'm good. A lot to cover here. So let me start with Michael Cohen, President Trump's former lawyer. He is not technically a cooperating witness, according to his plea agreement. But his lawyer Lanny Davis was on our air yesterday saying he has a whole lot to say to state and federal prosecutors, including to the special counsel Robert Mueller. So square that for me.

BAKER: That's exactly right. Cohen himself, and through his representatives, very much including Lanny Davis, has - is just trying to make it as clear as he possibly could that if Mueller wants to cut a deal, he'll cut a deal. They keep talking about, you know, the story he has to tell.

And it does seem like he was involved in a lot of Trump's business - obviously, these payments that are at the heart of the legal proceedings that just wrapped up earlier this week. But, you know, his involvement goes much deeper than that. And they're very much trying to make a deal with Mueller, but so far, it seems to be the Mueller team that's not biting on that.

GREENE: Yeah. And we should say Cohen knows a lot about a lot when it comes to Donald Trump. And actually, this morning, he's been subpoenaed in New York state in what sounds like a separate probe of the Trump Foundation. I'm sure we'll be following that.

But let's focus on the payments. I mean, Cohen says that during that campaign, Trump directed him to pay off two women who say they had affairs with the president. He denies that. It was in an effort to preserve his chances of winning the election. Could prosecutors make a case that Trump broke the law? And do we know whether, even if they had the evidence, they would indict a sitting president?

BAKER: Those are two really good questions, obviously. Let's take the second one first.

GREENE: Yeah.

BAKER: Probably, they would not indict a sitting president. That's not - you know, the Supreme Court hasn't said, for example, that that can't be done, but it is the internal Justice Department position not to indict a sitting president. So in order to challenge that, you'd probably really need to see extraordinary circumstances, even more extraordinary than this.

That said, if you just sort of set that aside and think about this more hypothetically, I guess, yes, I think that's why that statement by Cohen that he did this at the president's direction really took - caught people off guard, seemed so significant, because it does - practically speaking, it does implicate the president. And then that opens up sort of new questions about whether, legally speaking, that could ever implicate the president.

GREENE: Some have suggested that maybe it's possible to indict a sitting president but hold off on the trial till the president is out of office. Is that an option that's come up?

BAKER: It is an option. You know, we're in uncharted waters here...

GREENE: Yeah.

BAKER: ...Or very little uncharted waters here. So that's an option. Impeachment is an option.

GREENE: A word that a lot of Democratic lawmakers don't want to discuss at all right now, but I think there are some voters out there who are putting pressure on them.

Let me just turn briefly to Paul Manafort, the president's former campaign chairman. He, of course, was just convicted of eight crimes tied to financial fraud. One juror on this trial told Fox that they would've convicted him on all 18 counts if not for one holdout juror. So could there be a retrial here?

BAKER: Well, he's already coming up on a new trial on different charges in Washington. And Manafort just really seems to have put all of his cards in the hope-for-a-pardon basket rather than try to win in court.

GREENE: OK. Sam Baker covers legal issues for Axios. Thanks so much for coming in this morning. Really appreciate it.

BAKER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro here to talk about the political reaction to all of this now that it's had a day or so to play out. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: You've been calling this a split-screen response because so much of it depends on what party you're sort of listening to. Say more about that if you can.

MONTANARO: Well, and there's a new kind of split screen because of the types of issues people are focusing on. You know, Republicans here are mostly staying quiet on this or really backing up the president, we saw yesterday, trying to separate Trump from Manafort and Cohen. You know, like Trump is saying that these charges weren't about Russia or the campaign or about him. It seems that Republicans on Capitol Hill, for sure, are having that sort of same reaction.

Instead, what's gotten a lot of attention in conservative circles is the suspected murder of a 20-year-old college student in Iowa, Mollie Tibbetts. Authorities say an immigrant from Mexico admitted to killing her. And emotions around this case, obviously, have been high.

GREENE: Sure.

MONTANARO: But her death has become a political flashpoint. We've seen the president mention it at a rally in West Virginia just this week, and in a video yesterday filmed outside the White House, released on social media, trying to tie what happened to lax immigration laws. He said that Americans need to vote in more Republicans this fall to tighten those laws because of situations like this.

You know, there's a clear political strategy here, David. You know, just look at what former House speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, said yesterday. He said that if Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble.

GREENE: Well, Democrats, of course, are pushing a different message right now - talking about Manafort, talking about Cohen, talking about corruption and wrongdoing - what they say is corruption and wrongdoing among Republicans. Is that a message that will work for Democrats?

MONTANARO: So Democrats are trying to paint this picture of Republicans as stuck in corruption and ethics scandals. It's something that worked for them in 2006 when it helped them take back the House. We saw more voters in 2006 say that that was very important to their vote - corruption and ethics scandals - as opposed to even the Iraq War - higher than that because of the Page Scandal that took place back then.

Of course, you know, Democrats have their own issues. We've seen Bob Menendez, for example, in New Jersey face tougher-than-expected re-election after facing charges of corruption that ended in a mistrial. And, you know, Democrats are hoping, though, calling attention to, you know, not just Manafort and Cohen and some of these other pieces of the Russia puzzle, but also some things, you know, more related to, you know, a whole host of other - you know, indicted Republicans, for example. That - like, we've seen two this month.

GREENE: And what about the I-word, impeachment? I mean, we were talking to Richard Blumenthal - Blumenthal, the Democratic senator from Connecticut - yesterday. I brought it up. He seemed to not want to talk about it at all.

MONTANARO: Right.

GREENE: I mean, is that going to be part of the Democratic message maybe?

MONTANARO: Most Democrats in Washington are trying to say that they need the Mueller investigation to play out. And on the campaign trail, they're talking far more about health care costs and wage disparities. But it might be hard to kind of hold off the Democratic base on this as more of this kind of information from the investigations comes out.

GREENE: OK. Domenico Montanaro is NPR's lead political editor. Domenico, thanks.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. I think it's safe to say time is running out on Britain's plans for an orderly Brexit.

MARTIN: Right. And it looks like the chances that the U.K. will crash out of the European Union without a trade deal are rising. Today, the U.K. government is going to start issuing guidance to businesses, citizens and public organizations about how to prepare for something that was once unthinkable. NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering this from London and joins us now. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, I don't want to go too far back in time, but it is important to remember how all this came about, right?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it is. You know, if you remember after the Brexit vote in 2016, officials said, oh, it's going to be really easy to work out a new relationship with the EU.

MARTIN: Right.

LANGFITT: That has turned out not to be true at all. And the U.K. government basically overestimated the power that it had to get its way. Now we're about seven months out from leaving the EU, and the U.K. does risk walking away from this giant market in the European Union without any arrangements, which could be a big shock to the economy here.

MARTIN: So can we walk through, like, the best and worst scenarios? I mean, what's the worst-case scenario here?

LANGFITT: Well, right now, it's the incredible uncertainty. There doesn't seem to have been much planning for how this would all work if everything just falls apart. And there's a concern that it could really be a mess. You know, right now, the U.K. trades inside the EU kind of the way the states in America trade. It's seamless. It's a great arrangement.

But if they leave at the end of March, World Trade Organization rules could kick in, and that would mean, maybe, tariffs for everything from cars to dairy products. Customs checks would go up. You could have long lines of trucks at ports. If you talk to people in the ambulance services at hospitals here in England, they're worried about medicine and medical device shortages.

And today, what's going to happen is the government's going to come out and try to calm people down - give some guidance, as you were mentioning in the beginning, to some sectors about how this can be handled, what they should do to prepare.

MARTIN: Right.

LANGFITT: That'll also include banks and insurance. It's very important because London's Europe's financial capital.

MARTIN: So that would be the best-case scenario is that everyone's just better prepared? More information will help ease the transition?

LANGFITT: Yeah. The best-case scenario would actually be getting some kind of deal. And then there would be a long transition period so they could work this all out. The real fear is if this all falls apart, you know, this has been a relationship over decades - an economic relationship that's been very fruitful for the European Union and the U.K. economy. The fear is that it all just goes to pieces.

MARTIN: Right. And that's how it's looking because the EU and the U.K. actually met earlier this week, and it didn't go so great.

LANGFITT: No. And it doesn't really because they're really - basically, there's a basic disagreement. The U.K. still wants to kind of stay in the club and be able to trade goods and agricultural products seamlessly. And the EU keeps saying that isn't how the club works. You also will have to take immigrants - people from the EU. Brexit vote was a lot about stopping immigration, slowing it down.

Michel Barnier - he's Brussels' chief negotiator on this issue - he was responding to a question after the latest round of talks - this was earlier this week - explaining why the EU just won't budge.

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MICHEL BARNIER: You said that we haven't changed our principles over two years. But why would we? How can you change principles on which the European Union is based? Why would you? The U.K. is leaving the European Union. It's not the other way around.

MARTIN: So what do Brits think about that?

LANGFITT: Well, they - they're also - there's a certain amount of brinkmanship here. They're saying that if this falls apart, that this could cause a rift between the U.K. and the continent that could last a generation, and that it could really hurt Europe overall. The EU says negotiations have to wrap up in October or November at the latest. The U.K., of course, is scheduled to leave in - at the end of March.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from London on the latest EU-Brexit-U.K. machinations. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel.

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