Morning News Brief

Apr 16, 2018
Originally published on April 16, 2018 8:13 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Fired FBI Director James Comey has given his first big interview.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. Comey sat down with ABC's George Stephanopoulos for a far reaching, five-hour interview, an hour of which was edited down and aired last night on the network. It will come as no surprise that Comey, who was fired by President Trump, takes a rather dim view of the president's character, and he said so pretty plainly in that interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

JAMES COMEY: A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they're pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person's not fit to be president of the United States.

MARTIN: In the interview, Comey also called President Trump a serial liar and said there is a stain on anyone who works for him. This interview is one of several that James Comey is doing to promote his new memoir, titled, "A Higher Loyalty." In fact, you will hear from the former FBI director tomorrow on this program.

KING: But for the moment, we have Tamara Keith with us. She's NPR's White House correspondent, and she also hosts our Politics podcast. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So there's a lot to talk about today, but let's start with the Comey interview. What were the highlights for you?

KEITH: So there were a lot of highlights. I think in the end what it comes down to is there was a lot for Hillary Clinton supporters to dislike and a lot for Donald Trump supporters to dislike in this interview. One interesting moment is that George Stephanopoulos asked Comey whether he thought that the president should be impeached, and Comey said no, that he thought that that would let the American people off the hook, that he wants the president to be judged through the electoral process. As for Clinton, Comey said that he had to have, in some way, been influenced by the assumption that she was going to win and that his handling of her email server investigation, he says he doesn't remember consciously thinking about that, but it must have been because he was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump.

KING: All right. So just a lot going on in that interview. Let's turn to President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen. He is going to federal court today. This comes after the FBI raided his office and his hotel room last week. What is Cohen doing in court?

KEITH: Yeah. And this is sort of a follow up to a hearing that was last Friday. But, in short, Cohen is trying to keep the government from looking at many of the things that were seized saying that he has attorney-client privilege and that the government shouldn't be looking at those things. Also the judge wants a list from him by this morning of all of his clients whose materials could have been seized as part of those raids.

KING: And I understand attorneys representing the president filed something with the court last night. What was that?

KEITH: Yes, exactly. An attorney representing the president filed a letter with the court asking that the president be allowed to review all of the materials before the Justice Department, before the investigators, to be able to determine whether his client privilege is affected.

KING: Sounds like a big ask.

KEITH: It is.

KING: Tam, before we go, I want to ask you about former first lady Barbara Bush. A spokesperson says her health is failing. What do we know at this point?

KEITH: Yeah. So the spokesperson says that following a recent series of hospitalizations, Mrs. Bush, who's now 92, has decided not to seek additional medical treatment. She's going for comfort care, palliative care.

KING: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. President Trump still wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's according to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who had to put out a statement last night after French president Emmanuel Macron suggested otherwise. Macron and Trump have had several opportunities to speak recently as the U.S., France and the U.K. coordinated Friday's strikes in Syria. And yesterday Macron said in this interview with French TV that he is convinced President - that he had convinced President Trump to stay in Syria long-term, which would have been a major policy shift, obviously.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's with us in the studio. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right. So a lot of back and forth here. As far as we know, what is the Trump administration's future commitment in Syria?

BOWMAN: We don't really know. Of course, the president said he wanted to get out of Syria very quickly, remove the 2,000 troops. The Pentagon and other officials said, listen, they have to remain to defeat ISIS, and it's going to take another six months or so to defeat ISIS. So the president said, OK. Now, after that, military officials say some U.S. troops should stay to stabilize that part of Syria, Northeast Syria, not under the control of the Syrian regime. The president really hasn't said what is the way ahead there. And the president, as we know, also withheld 200 million in aid for this area. And he said he wants American allies, those in the region, Saudi Arabia, contribute a lot of money to rebuilding. So that's kind of where we are now. He had to be talked into keeping troops. He had to be - you know, he's discussing the way ahead after that, and he withheld the money. So it's really kind of this mishmash. We don't know the way ahead.

KING: Mixed messages. Let's talk about these missile strikes. The Pentagon says more than 100 missiles were fired at chemical research and military facilities in Syria. The president then goes on describe this as, quote, "mission accomplished." But he also said this is the beginning of an effort to make sure Syria doesn't use chemical weapons again. In the meantime, though, Tom, a lot of Syrians are being killed without chemical weapons, right?

BOWMAN: That's right. And the reports said just today or yesterday Assad has started attacking these rebel areas with conventional weapons, not chemical weapons. So that seems to be OK. Now, a half-million people already have been killed in this civil war, and the killing does not seem to be letting up. There are still some rebel areas in the east and the north of Damascus that he will be clearing out. But again, the Pentagon says and Trump says if there are any more chemical weapons used, we'll attack again.

KING: Despite the mixed messages and the mishmash, does the Trump administration appear to have a clear strategy when it comes to Syria?

BOWMAN: No. It's only defeating ISIS and preventing chemical weapons from being used. Outside of that, there does not seem to be any kind of strategy, and that's why the Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Ed Royce of California, said, I want to bring some administration officials up to Capitol Hill this week to explain the strategy. And that's where we are.

MARTIN: You know, it's worth noting that Trump's base is not happy about these strikes at all. He may suffer a real political price because of this. Mike Cernovich, an influential guy on the Internet, has lambasted the president for this, is calling it unbelievable, not what we voted for. Also, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones railed against the president for these strikes. So we'll see what comes in the fall.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you so much for joining us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The U.S. is set to announce new sanctions against Russia today.

MARTIN: Yeah. Remember, after the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against people in the town of Douma, President Trump said that Bashar Assad and his allies, including Russia, would have to pay a, quote, "big price." U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley announced these sanctions yesterday, and she described them on CBS's "Face The Nation."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")

NIKKI HALEY: They will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.

KING: All right. A big question now is, how is all of this playing out in Moscow? To help answer that, we have reporter Charles Maynes, who is there. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

KING: Charles, U.S. sanctions on Russia and on individual Russians are nothing new. Are sanctions actually an effective strategy here?

MAYNES: Well, the sanctions have certainly been effective in some ways, in terms of limiting the Russian economy. We've seen the ruble devalue by about 10 percent over the last several weeks. Particularly this last round of sanctions that were against Putin's inner circle seem to have affected the markets here. But if you talk about these sanctions against Syria, this would be the third round in the last month. This time, as you noted, aimed at companies who support Bashar Assad's chemical weapons program. The problem gets to this division between Russia and the West over the whole chemical weapons issue. 'Cause Russia says, you know, these companies don't exist because Assad's chemical weapons program doesn't exist. So one of the questions that I have is how the U.S. will identify these companies, or are they really sanctioning Russian companies that do business in Syria, where Bashar Assad is the leader?

KING: Well, Syria's president, Bashar Assad, hosted a group of Russian lawmakers in Damascus yesterday. What came out of that meeting?

MAYNES: Well, there were certainly words of mutual support. First of all, these lawmakers were there during the actual airstrikes. They were on the ground in Syria. Of course they weren't harmed, which is important, but they were meeting with Bashar Assad. He told this delegation that, you know, that essentially Assad and Russia were together and sort of victimized by this Western campaign of lies and disinformation over these allegations of chemical weapons use. Of course, both say they don't use chemical weapons. Assad also interestingly noted that now Moscow and Damascus were waging what he called, quote, "one battle," not only against terrorism, as we like to say, but now about sovereignty of states. This is an issue that's very dear to Vladimir Putin's heart, as well.

KING: So it's not just Russia and Syria. We also know that Russia's president has been speaking with Iran's leaders. Iran, of course, another ally of Syria. Do you think we could see any sort of retaliatory action from Iran in response to these air strikes, or are they going to stay out of it?

MAYNES: Well, I don't know what Iran's planning to do, coming from Moscow, but I can say that they seem to be on the same page for now. Both Putin and Rouhani talked yesterday by phone, and both expressed real concern. They called these airstrikes illegal. They said that they'd done serious damage to the prospects for peace in Syria. I just think it's important to note that Russia has really been trying to get out of Syria, and certainly they're interested in some of the business that they can develop once the reconstruction of Syria begins, and that's where these new sanctions are certainly bound to affect them.

KING: Interesting going forward. Reporter Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thanks, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.