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Morning News Brief: Congress And Constituents React To Comey And Health Care


FBI Director James Comey is out. But the investigations into Russian meddling continue.


At least a Senate intelligence committee investigation continues. The committee subpoenaed records from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who, as you may recall, was fired for lying about his contacts with Russia. The future of the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling is not known. James Comey told senators he was seeking more money for that probe soon before he was dismissed. Former CIA Director Leon Panetta is telling Rachel today that he doubts President Trump's reasons for Comey's firing.

LEON PANETTA: I think this is a little bit of a game of looking for reasons to probably dismiss the FBI director because that's what the president wanted to do.

INSKEEP: But for now, the department is in the hands of acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who will take Comey's place in an intelligence committee hearing today.

MARTIN: OK, so lots of questions to work through this morning. To help us do that, we are joined by NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So is a special investigation looking more likely this morning?

DETROW: You know, honestly, at the moment, it's not looking that much more likely than it was at the beginning of the week. You know, Democrats are calling for this in near unison. And a handful of Republicans are as well. That number's growing. But the key thing to make that happen would be Republican leaders getting onboard with the idea, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan. And as of yesterday, both of them said no.

They continue to have confidence in the House and Senate intelligence committee investigations and, even in the wake of Comey's firing, the FBI investigation. But, you know, public opinion can change fast on that. And I think people like Ryan and McConnell are always monitoring it. They could change their minds. At the moment, they just haven't.

MARTIN: Even some Republicans are saying at this point that President Trump himself needs to get in front of a microphone and explain to the American people why he fired James Comey. Any signs that that might happen?

DETROW: Well, Rachel, it's President Trump. So you never know what the next Twitter push notification is going to bring you. So he could, but at the moment, all we have is a brief statement he gave in the Oval Office yesterday, saying that Comey just wasn't doing a good job. The White House's timeline has shifted a bit on this. They're now saying that President Trump had lost confidence in Comey over the course of months but that this really came to a head Monday and Tuesday, when he met with the attorney general and deputy attorney general and discussed the issue.

But, you know, NPR and other outlets were told from Hill staffers yesterday that just before Comey was fired, he had asked for additional resources for the Russia investigation. That is something the Justice Department is denying, though.

MARTIN: All right. So meanwhile, the congressional hearings are pushing forward. The Senate intelligence committee, investigating Russian interference in the election, issued a subpoena for records from former national security adviser Michael Flynn. What are they looking for?

DETROW: It was a pretty broad request for all documents related to their inquiry. But this is a big deal. It's a sign the Senate investigation is getting more aggressive. Up until now, they had only been making informal requests for appearances, not subpoenas. And a lot of the investigation had been kind of passive, just taking in the information the FBI was bringing to them. So an independent subpoena I think is a pretty significant deal that the Senate is stepping things up.

INSKEEP: Let's bear in mind that a moment is coming up where critics or people who are concerned about Comey's firing will have some leverage because when President Trump names Comey's replacement, he needs to get Senate confirmation. You need 51 votes in the Senate. Republicans do have 52, but a bunch of them - several of them, anyway - have expressed grave concerns. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Senator John McCain, Susan Collins, several others are raising questions here. And they will have an opportunity to raise them as that process goes forward.

MARTIN: OK, so Scott, stick with us because we're going to stay in the realm of the political. Americans are still trying to process the president's decision to fire James Comey and what it all means. Some of that processing was rather intense at a particular town hall last night.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. It was a meeting called by Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur. He's in New Jersey, represents New Jersey. He is an architect of an amendment that saved the Republican health care bill in the House. He was all over the news - the MacArthur amendment. And then last night, for more than four hours, he faced questions about the health care plan as well as the firing of the FBI director. Here's voter Kimberly Stewart (ph).


KIMBERLY STEWART: We seem to have a pattern that most people who are investigating it seem to be getting fired.


STEWART: Do you support an independent group investigating Russia's ties into the 2016 election?


MARTIN: OK, and Detrow's pulling double duty for us because you were there - right, Scott? - at this town hall. Did things start out pretty tense? Or did it build over those four hours?

DETROW: Oh, it started off tense right off the bat. I think we all got a sense of what the mood was going to be like when MacArthur started talking about a daughter who died at age 11 from serious medical issues. And the room started to boo him and jeer him, saying that he was using her as a shield when it came to health care issues. I mean, that gets tense pretty quickly.

This was a Democratic part of MacArthur's district. He repeatedly pointed that out. But a lot of people had very specific concerns about his key role in getting this health care bill past the House. MacArthur said that what he's trying to do here is save the current health care system.

MARTIN: So was this primarily about health care? I mean, we heard that clip about the the Russia investigations. At what point did that come in?

DETROW: For two hours, the only questions - I kept track of this. It was health care, Russia, health care, Russia - just going back and forth between those two questions. Nothing else was asked about until flood insurance more than two hours into the - into the hearing. But a lot of...

INSKEEP: Didn't MacArthur express great relief, Scott Detrow - finally, some question other than Russia, health care?

DETROW: He did. He said, I'd love to talk about something else, you know, at hour three of this meeting. But you know, a lot of people came up and told very personal stories about health struggles they had, about the fact that a spouse had, you know, breast cancer or something like that. And they said, I'm just terrified that if I lose insurance and lose my job, I'm going to have to pay more for a preexisting condition because of the language you've put into place. He repeatedly said that is not the case, that this will not take away preexisting conditions. But as we've reported, you know, people with preexisting conditions could, under certain circumstances, pay a lot more for health care under this bill that just passed.

MARTIN: So Scott, do these town halls change minds. I mean, they've been getting so much attention in recent months. Are they just an opportunity to vent? How do Congress members see - see these things?

DETROW: You know, they're a real imperfect measurement of public opinion. But I think what they can tell us is who is enthusiastic and engaged enough to take the time to, you know, spend five hours yelling at a congressman. And I think that can tell you who might show up at the polls. One thing that struck me is how informed and detailed these questions are. We often think that voters aren't paying close attention to Congress, a lot of details about amendments, a lot of details about investigations here. I was - I was impressed at the detail of the questions.

INSKEEP: And it is energizing when, in cases like this, politics becomes for people a participatory sport.

MARTIN: (Laughter). So thanks so much. NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow. Thanks as always, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.


MARTIN: And we're going to move from politics to bullying, which - let's be honest, Steve - may not be such a big leap.

INSKEEP: Sad but true. We're talking here, though, about the kind of bullying that happens in the schoolyard. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics examined bullying. And researchers followed more than 100 schools in Maryland for this study over a decade. And they concluded that bullying is much less accepted than it was.

MARTIN: NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz is on the story. Hi, Anya.


MARTIN: Bullying isn't - is less accepted? Is this just wishful thinking? I imagine you're going to tell me that there's some data here.

KAMENETZ: Yes, absolutely. So this is an annual survey in the state of Maryland. And many states are adopting similar kinds of school climate surveys. And they asked students, in the last 30 days, has something happened to you, like pushing and shoving, rumors, cyberbullying? And the incidents dropped so dramatically - 28.5 percent in 2005 down to 13 and - 13.4 percent in 2014, which is the last year - so more than half over a decade.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask you why. But first, how are they - bullying can be a whole lot of things. And you mentioned a couple. But was there a specific definition of what bullying is in this?

KAMENETZ: Well, I mean, it's up to the students' interpretation. And it might be different in fourth grade than 12th grade. But they tried to arrange it across, you know, the physical behaviors that might be more common among boys, over to the sort of relational forms of bullying, like rumors - spreading rumors or saying something negative, insulting people. But it was - really was a wide range. And, you know, specifically, they asked, did you experience this yourself in the last month.

MARTIN: So the big question - why, why the change?

KAMENETZ: Yes. So Catherine Bradshaw, one of the authors of the study, she's a dean at the University of Virginia. And she has been studying the evidence-based practices that she says are leading to this positive social change. So what we've seen and particularly in the last administration, we heard that the Obama administration really used their bully pulpit as well as funding research.

MARTIN: Bully pulpit.

INSKEEP: Did you just say that? You said that.

KAMENETZ: I did, yes. Oh, no.

INSKEEP: OK, please, continue - bully for you.

KAMENETZ: Oh, no I did not think about that (laughter).

MARTIN: Keep going.

KAMENETZ: So to try to spread the word, spread the message that we can do better, and we will do better. In fact, Obama participated in a social media campaign called, It Gets Better, which was for LGBT youth. And I think we have some sound of that. Is that right?

MARTIN: Let's listen to it.


BARACK OBAMA: We've got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, that it's some inevitable part of growing up. It's not.

KAMENETZ: Right, so...

MARTIN: So the president saying, it gets better, and apparently it has.

KAMENETZ: Well, exactly. And so it's interesting because the researchers are cautious. They don't want to over-interpret this. Or - you know, it's hard to talk about positive social change, I guess.

MARTIN: Sounds like a good step in the right direction. NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thanks so much, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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