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Morning News Brief

May 22, 2018
Originally published on May 22, 2018 6:05 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump is broadening his demand for the Justice Department to reveal information about its investigation of his own campaign.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. So again, all of this revolves around the federal probe into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign. News reports have revealed the FBI had an informant who spoke with several Trump campaign advisers back then. Intelligence officials have now agreed to let congressional leaders see highly classified information about the informant and other sources. In a meeting with top officials, the president himself demanded the information about the investigation of his campaign. Officials obeyed this demand, even though some lawmakers have been warning that blowing sources could endanger lives. The Justice Department has also agreed to investigate the president's complaints.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Detrow joins us in the studios once again.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So as best you can tell, after this afternoon meeting at the White House, who gets to see the classified information?

DETROW: A lot of that is unclear right now. And I think the people invited to this meeting could tell us a lot about the intentions of this meeting. Devin Nunes and a couple other House Republicans have really gone after this investigation in every way that they can, going back to that initial unproven claim from early last year that there was a wiretap in Trump Tower. No proof of that from authority after authority, but it's something that President Trump talked about and some of his House Republican allies talked about. Repeatedly, they've tried to discredit this as partisan and as unsubstantiated investigation.

And there's a lot of concern in the law enforcement community that this meeting is another step in this process. That's why you have Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanding that this group of lawmakers be bipartisan.

INSKEEP: Because that's what's supposed to happen here, is that congressional leaders of some kind - some set of members of Congress and Senators is supposed to be let in to view this classified information.

Now, let me ask - we have the president who feels that he himself is being investigated in a way, although this is an investigation of Russian influence that seems to have touched his campaign. What would make the president's demands about the investigation of himself an abuse of his power as president of the United States?

DETROW: Well, we have here - and I've got a flowchart. It's radio, so this won't help so much (laughter).

INSKEEP: OK.

DETROW: But we've got - you've got an investigation of an investigation. And it's all circular because President Trump is asking questions about a probe that is, in turn, looking into his campaign. And we've seen signs that it's looking into obstruction of justice that may or may not have committed at the White House itself. So the question is - is President Trump, is the White House trying to politically influence an investigation into themselves?

Now, the issue here is that presidents do not do this. Presidents have tried to step away from the FBI, from the Department of Justice and create a firewall. But that is one of the many things that is more of an understanding, more of a set of norms as opposed to hard-and-fast law.

INSKEEP: Since Watergate or so, presidents have avoided commenting to the Justice Department about specific investigations, much less investigations of the president himself.

DETROW: Yeah (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: So this is - you're saying that this might be legal since he does direct the Justice Department, but it's not normal. That's what you're saying?

DETROW: In the end, the president is the chief executive. The Department of Justice falls under his influence. And I think that's one reason why you see DOJ officials doing what they can to say, OK, we'll look at that with the inspector general. We'll have a meeting here. They're doing what they can.

INSKEEP: Without quite totally giving in is what it sounds like.

DETROW: Exactly - I mean, the investigation is ongoing.

INSKEEP: OK. Scott, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

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INSKEEP: Next question - can the Trump administration keep the effort to make a denuclearization deal with North Korea on track?

GREENE: Well, the world's going to be watching for any signs at the White House today as President Trump is going to be meeting with South Korea's president Moon Jae-in. President Moon, I think you might say, is playing a bit of a mediator role in the lead-up to this big June summit between Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. Now, that summit is still planned for June the 12 in Singapore. But North Korea threatened to back away from those talks last week.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elise Hu joins us now from Seoul. She's covering all the excitement.

Hey there, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey, there.

INSKEEP: Is this big meeting going to happen given the recent North Korean complaints and threats?

HU: Well, things are sounding a little bit more precarious than they were, say, two weeks ago, before North Korea made this shift in tone. South Korea is saying it's currently trying to understand North Korea's position, given that Pyongyang isn't as open as it was sounding following the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South that happened on April 27.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HU: But North Korea signaling one thing and then doing another is quite North Korean. This White House seems to be a little bit more taken aback about it. But this, you know, is kind of North Korea's negotiating or pre-negotiation strategy.

INSKEEP: I guess what they've been saying - they said in this communique the other day, we're not going to do unilateral nuclear disarmament. That seemed to be saying they would not be doing the very thing the United States wants out of North Korea. But maybe there's room in that word unilateral. What does that mean? What do they want in return? We don't really know if this is a threat to disrupt the whole summit or just the North Koreans saying what they think the terms of debate ought to be.

HU: Right. The suspicion is that North Korea wants to see concessions from the U.S. and South Korea in exchange for maybe a more phased denuclearization. But we really can't know until we get into the weeds on this. And what's happening in this case is the summit is so close now, in terms of the calendar...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

HU: ...That there's not going to be the typical pre-head of state meeting nitty-gritty and weeds work, you know, negotiation by bureaucrats happening in the lead-up.

INSKEEP: Oh.

HU: There's just not enough time.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. Good point. Normally, you'd have lower-level people work everything out. And the presidents just show up to shake hands and maybe do a final detail or two.

But we do have this preliminary meeting between the South Korean leader and President Trump. What's their strategy as far as you know?

HU: No strategy really, just one main objective, which is Moon's objective of trying to make sure a summit between Trump and Kim still happens. The Blue House here in Seoul says, with this Moon-Trump meeting, the heads of state have no set agenda. They're just going to talk things out given the fluid situation with the North. Moon, of course, spent all that time with Kim Jong Un on April 27. And in conversations on the 27, we understand that Kim spoke about Trump and asked about Trump. And so Moon's going to convey - you know, Moon and Trump are, you know, leaders of countries that are longtime allies. So ostensibly, Moon's going to convey a lot of insight about that to Trump in person.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Elise Hu. She's reporting today from Seoul, South Korea, on an impending summit between President Trump and North Korea's leader as well as today's meeting with the South Korean leader.

Elise, thanks very much.

HU: You bet.

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INSKEEP: OK. There's another major foreign policy story that we're following. This one involves Iran and the future of its nuclear program.

GREENE: Yeah, European partners to the Iran deal are sorting through the implications of a speech yesterday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He laid out a range of harsh demands for Iran. Those demands include Iran abandoning all nuclear activities, withdrawal from Syria, also a promise to stop all aggressions against Israel and Saudi Arabia. And if Iran does not agree, well it will face, quote, "the strongest sanctions in history."

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MIKE POMPEO: Iran will be forced to make a choice, either fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad. It will not have the resources to do both.

GREENE: Now, Iran's president Hassan Rouhani was dismissive, asking Pompeo and the Trump administration, quote, "who are you to decide for Iran and the world?"

INSKEEP: Let's check in with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who has covered Iran for years.

Hey there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: So Pompeo makes this list of 12 demands. How realistic is it that Iran would ever comply?

KENYON: Well, it is quite a list, isn't it? Stop backing Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and on and on. One ambition seems to be to reimpose these painful sanctions that were put together by the U.S. along with Europe, Russia and China - but this time, at least so far, without the support of any of those other countries. The most colorful reaction so far came from a Revolutionary Guards commander. He says the Iranian people, quote, "will deliver a strong punch to the mouth of Pompeo."

But more substantively, Iran says it wants to keep a military presence in Syria, just days after its own ally Russia said foreign militaries should get out. So that suggests Washington is pretty far from reining in what it calls Iran's malign behavior.

INSKEEP: I want to investigate that phrase strongest sanctions in history. That's what Pompeo is promising. Up to now, the strongest sanctions we've seen against Iran came - I don't know - seven, eight, nine years ago when the United States coordinated sanctions that gradually got more and more intense that involved European allies as well as China and eventually even Russia. Could anything like that happen again?

KENYON: Well, so far, the reaction from Europe certainly has been overwhelmingly negative. The Europeans say curbing Iran's missile program - good idea but not at the cost of scrapping the nuclear deal. Germany's foreign minister is going to meet Pompeo tomorrow. Now, whether Europe could keep the deal going is a big question. The French oil company Total, shipping giant Maersk are both saying, we're out of Iran unless we get waivers. If that continues, Tehran may conclude there's no point in restricting its nuclear program.

INSKEEP: One other thing I want to ask about, Peter Kenyon - Pompeo, after this list of 12 demands, made a few offers to the Iranians, including the possibility that at the end of all of these demands, Iran could get restored diplomatic relations with the United States. I haven't heard a U.S. official say that in recent times. How big a deal will that be?

KENYON: Well, it would be a huge deal - haven't had them since 1979. The question is, how do you get to there from here? And he didn't explain that.

INSKEEP: OK. Peter, thanks very much.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAID'S "THE BEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.