Morning News Brief

Aug 7, 2018
Originally published on August 7, 2018 8:41 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The star witness in the trial of onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort will take the stand again today.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah. Rick Gates used to be Manafort's deputy and business partner. But now he's testifying against Manafort, who's facing charges of bank and tax fraud. Yesterday, Gates testified that he and Manafort committed a lot of crimes together.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Ryan Lucas has been covering this trial in Alexandria, Va. And he joins us this morning. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So let's just step back. We should remind people - I mean, Manafort, known for chairing the Trump campaign in 2016. But all of this in this trial is dating back to his own business dealings well before then. Right?

LUCAS: That's right. It's about his political consulting and lobbyist work that he did in Ukraine from around 2005 or so to about 2015 and what he did with the money that he made from that work.

GREENE: OK. So the big testimony yesterday was Rick Gates, his former business associate. Tell us exactly how this played out.

LUCAS: Well, Gates told jurors that he began working for Manafort in about 2006. Over time, he became Manafort's right-hand man. They talked on the phone all the time - texted, emailed, were in constant contact. So Gates also told jurors that he and Manafort committed crimes together. He says that he helped Manafort falsify tax returns. This was at Manafort's direction. He says that they misled accountants and bookkeepers. They hid millions of dollars of income that Manafort had in foreign bank accounts - that then didn't declare these foreign bank accounts to U.S. tax authorities. And they did all of this, Gates says, so that Manafort would pay less in U.S. taxes.

GREENE: Now, we should say, this testimony was really the big one that everyone was expecting. So I mean, what was the atmosphere like in that courtroom when Gates actually showed up and started saying this stuff?

LUCAS: Well, we'd been told earlier in the day that Gates would take the stand. And still, there was this gasp in the packed courtroom from members of the public when the government actually called Gates in. And this testimony - as you said, this is kind of that moment of high drama in this trial. You have Gates, who worked very closely with Manafort for a long time. They were actually indicted together. And then you have Gates walking into the courtroom yesterday, clean shaven in a blue suit and yellow tie, raises his right hand and takes the oath to testify against his former business partner.

Now, up on the stand, Gates did not look at Manafort at all. Manafort, on the other hand, had a laser-like focus on Gates the whole time. And you know, while Gates is testifying against Manafort, he did say at one point that Manafort was the most politically brilliant strategist that he's ever worked with.

GREENE: Well, so he is - Gates is testifying - I mean, as you said, he testified himself that he broke the law. He's testifying under this plea deal. Did that fact come up at all yesterday, his credibility?

LUCAS: Absolutely. You know, Gates pleaded guilty in February to false statements and conspiracy. And that plea deal with the government includes the possibility of a reduced prison sentence. He loses that possibility if he lies when he's up on the stand. Yesterday in court, he acknowledged that he'd committed crimes on his own behalf as well, said that he'd misled a mortgage company and a credit card company. And he said that he'd embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort by filing false expense claims.

So it's no coincidence that Manafort's attorneys have made Rick Gates kind of the centerpiece of their defense strategy. They want to put Gates on trial here. They've placed the brunt of the blame for Manafort's troubles on Gates. They say he abused Manafort's trust, stole from him and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors when he got caught and wanted to save his own skin.

GREENE: OK. And as we said, this is just the beginning. Gates is going to be back on the stand when that trial resumes today.

NPR's Ryan Lucas covering that trial in Virginia. Ryan, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. I guess, in a way, we could consider today, like, the final tune-up before a huge game. Right?

KING: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. Across the country, there are elections tonight that could give us a read on two things. The first thing is, how excited are Democrat voters ahead of the November midterms? And the second thing is, does it pay right now for Republican candidates to be all-in with President Trump? Now, Ohio's governor, John Kasich, says no. Here he is on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." And he's talking about a very competitive race in Ohio's 12th District.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

JOHN KASICH: The Democrats have a weak candidate 'cause there's no message. So it's likely in the end that Balderson should be able to win narrowly, but it's pretty surprising. But it really doesn't bode well for the Republican Party because this shouldn't be contested.

KING: All right, Kasich was talking there about Republican state Senator Troy Balderson.

GREENE: And let's talk about that race and others with NPR's Sarah McCammon. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, there.

GREENE: All right. So Kasich saying there that this district in Ohio shouldn't even be competitive, but it is. Is that what is making it so interesting to follow here?

MCCAMMON: For sure. I mean, normally, a race like this wouldn't even be on the list. It's a special election, first of all, in what used to be a solid Republican district, Ohio's 12th. And the seat's been vacated by Congressman Pat Tiberi, who's one of the many Republicans to resign recently out of apparent frustration with the political climate in Washington. So David, running for that seat is Troy Balderson, a Republican state senator endorsed by President Trump. Trump campaigned for him over the weekend, and he's really been playing up his ties to the president.

GREENE: And so is the Democrat weak, as Kasich suggested? Who is the Democrat who Balderson's running against?

MCCAMMON: His name's Danny O'Connor, and he's seen as a moderate - so someone who might be able to appeal to suburban swing voters. This district is in the Columbus area. And Tiberi, who represented it before, is considered a fairly moderate Republican. So you know, this is a big year - expected to be - for Democrats. This will be one test of whether a moderate Democrat can win out over a heavily pro-Trump Republican.

GREENE: What about the other primaries happening today? And how are both parties sort of testing out messages that I guess we might be hearing about through the fall?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Lots of Midwestern states - and also Washington - having primaries of various kinds today. I'll just tick through a few. In Michigan, the gubernatorial primary there - really, in both cases, you have a handful of candidates in races that pit establishment candidates versus either, on the one hand, the Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party, the more progressive wing, versus Trump-like candidates and others. So sort of a test there of what's going on in both parties.

In Missouri, longtime Democratic Congressman William Lacy Clay faces a primary challenge from Cori Bush who is endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, of course, is that democratic socialist from New York who surprisingly won...

GREENE: Has been making headlines everywhere now.

MCCAMMON: Right, right. And in Kansas, all the congressional districts are held by Republicans. Democrats are hoping to change that in at least one district.

GREENE: And really interesting Republican primary for governor in Kansas as well - right? - with a pretty recognizable name.

MCCAMMON: Yep. Kris Kobach is the state attorney general. He's up against the incumbent governor, Republican Jeff Colyer. Kobach, he's well-known for leading Trump's voter fraud commission that really didn't find a lot. If he wins, Democrats are hoping he might be easier to sort of pick off. And they're running - likely Democratic nominee Laura Kelly is seen as potentially having an edge over Kobach. So that's an interesting race to watch as well.

GREENE: It's sounding like an election year, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Just a little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Sarah McCammon, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: OK. At midnight, the United States reimposed some economic sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under that multination nuclear deal.

KING: Yeah, the deal was made in 2015. The U.S. and other countries eased sanctions in return for limits on Iran's nuclear program. But President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in May, and now he's warning other countries that they could get cut off from doing business here in the U.S. if they trade with Iran.

GREENE: OK. Let's start with some of the basics here with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's been covering this. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So what exactly are the sanctions that kicked in at midnight last night?

KENYON: Well, they cover a range of things. Bringing U.S. dollars into Iran would be penalized, also keeping or spending large amounts of the Iranian currency outside Iran. Then there's sanctions on gold, copper, steel, coal, the auto sector, all the way down to familiar products such as Persian carpets or pistachios. Now, Washington says it's trying to achieve maximum pressure on Iran to bring it back to the table for more talks on its behavior in the region - Yemen, Syria, Lebanon - on its missile program and other things, even perhaps negotiating a tougher nuclear deal.

GREENE: And so the Iranian government, Peter - I mean, the whole motivation for them coming into this deal was to get rid of these sanctions. That was so important to them.

KENYON: Yeah.

GREENE: So how are they responding to these reimposed sanctions now?

KENYON: Well, they've already charged the U.S. with violating the existing nuclear agreement. And President Hassan Rouhani gave an interview last night where he dismissed the Trump administration's offer of direct talks, saying the U.S. can't be trusted - why should we talk now? Up to this point, Iran has not itself walked away from the deal. It's still complying. The question is, can that last as the sanctions begin to bite?

Meanwhile, the economy already was suffering, and it will likely get worse. There have been street protests that began late last year. They were over economic issues. They're continuing and even growing now in some areas. Washington says it's trying to pressure the Iranian regime, but it is the public, especially the low-income public, that is mainly feeling the pain. We should note, though, that these protests are about Iranian mismanagement, not outside sanctions - at least so far.

GREENE: Peter, one of the looming questions here that we've talked about is whether other countries that were part of this deal - I mean, Germany, Britain, France, China, Russia - could keep trading with Iran once President Trump followed through, reimposed these sanctions. So is now where we're going to start seeing the answer to that question?

KENYON: Well, the Europeans, Russians, Chinese as well as India all want to keep doing business with Iran. What needs to be seen now is what this aggressive enforcement of sanctions Washington is talking about really means, how effective it is and how effective a European blocking statute that's active today would be at protecting companies that want to keep doing business with Iran - a lot of questions. And then in November, the big ones - oil sanctions - are due to kick in as well, which will raise the stakes even higher.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting for us this morning in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAN RYOKO'S "UTAKATA")[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: This podcast misidentifies Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach as Kansas' attorney general. In fact, Kobach is the state's secretary of state.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.