Saturday Politics: Trump And Hurricanes, Manafort, Kavanaugh

Sep 15, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The White House says President Trump will tour a storm-damaged area sometime next week, once it's clear that his visit won't distract from the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts. But even a deadly storm doesn't entirely distract from the political turbulence in and around the White House this week. That's where NPR's Scott Horsley comes in. Scott, thanks so much for being with us.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: We haven't seen much physically - publicly of the president in the last couple days, his meetings with emergency responders on Thursday and Friday behind closed doors. He has been active online. But first, why hasn't he come before the cameras?

HORSLEY: Well, it's a good question. Ordinarily, the press staff would invite cameras into his briefings so the public could see for themselves that the president's on top of the situation. He could shine a spotlight on everything the federal government is doing to help respond to the storm.

But Trump's briefings both Thursday and Friday were off-camera. It could be that his aides are worried that if reporters were there, the president might be goaded into talking about some of the more controversial stories in the news this week.

SIMON: And the president called federal efforts to assist Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria an unsung success. But, of course, as we know, 3,000 people died. And then, the president said that his critics had just cooked up that number. And that - we have to say it - that's just not true.

HORSLEY: That's right. Now a lot of those deaths did not take place directly during the storm. Rather, they took place indirectly during the painfully slow recovery. Remember, it was only last month that electricity was finally restored throughout the island. So if this is a success, Trump is in a very lonely chorus singing about it.

In Florida, some of the president's fellow Republicans tried to distance themselves from Trump's comments. Candidates like Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis - they know that downplaying the scale of that disaster is not the way to make friends in Florida. A lot of Puerto Rican transplants have relocated to that state, and many of them will be voting in November.

SIMON: And turning to the political news of the week, which is important. The president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty yesterday to felony conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with Robert Mueller's investigation. Do sources in the White House believe Paul Manafort has a lot to dish about on Donald Trump and/or the Trump campaign?

HORSLEY: Publicly, the White House is stressing that Paul Manafort's guilty pleas have nothing to do with his work on the Trump campaign. Press secretary Sarah Sanders said, quote, "this has absolutely nothing to do with the president." And that is true. If you read the information, it's not about the time that Manafort spent on the campaign.

But, look; he was running the Trump campaign during the summer of 2016. He was present for that infamous meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian delegation that had offered to dish dirt on Hillary Clinton. So if he is going to cooperate with Mueller's team, as he said, he could be a valuable source about any possible contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign.

SIMON: Finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote next week on the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court. There were grave charges this week that surfaced, alleging that Brett Kavanaugh committed a sexual assault during high school. What do we know about this?

HORSLEY: According to The New Yorker, a woman who knew Kavanaugh in high school notified her congresswoman, and also Senator Dianne Feinstein, that at a party back in the early '80s, Kavanaugh had held her down and tried to force himself on her. Now Kavanaugh emphatically denies that, and Feinstein didn't bring this up during the confirmation hearings.

The White House suggests this is an eleventh-hour stalling tactic. And yesterday, Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, released a letter signed by 65 women who say they knew Kavanaugh in high school and testifying to his good character.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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