Morning News Brief

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 8:47 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's fair to say President Trump had a tough week last week combating a lot of negative criticism of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So last night, President Trump turned the page to Iran.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. He tweeted at Iran's president. And we should say that President Trump was responding to a speech that Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, gave on Sunday. Rouhani warned the U.S. that a war with Iran would be, in his words, the mother of all wars. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also delivered a hard line on Iran. He talked about economic corruption there. And then there was this tweet from President Trump last night, in all caps, that said, essentially, the U.S. will not tolerate threats from Iran or anyone else. Now, this is all happening after some U.S. sanctions are about to go back into effect on Iran after the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

MARTIN: Right. OK. Let's dig into all this with NPR's Peter Kenyon, following developments on this story from Istanbul. Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: I'm going to let you do the honors and read President Trump's tweet for us 'cause I think it's worth hearing every word.

KENYON: I'm not going to do the whole thing, but I'll give you - if tweets could yell, this would be a loud one.

MARTIN: OK.

KENYON: As you mentioned, all caps. He said, never, ever, threaten the United States again, or you will face historic consequences like no one's ever faced. He added that the U.S. would no longer stand for what he called Iran's demented words of violence and death. Some have already gone on social media to point out that you can't really do all caps in Persian. That doesn't quite translate. But no mistaking the threatening nature of the message.

MARTIN: So this presumably was in response to a speech that Hassan Rouhani gave. What exactly was so controversial in what Rouhani had to say?

KENYON: Well, President Hassan Rouhani gave a speech mainly about Iran's ability to defend its own interests and its security, but also with some threatening language of his own. Here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Now, besides warning that war with Iran would be the mother of all wars, Rouhani said, don't play with the lion's tail. You'll regret it. He also made the reference to oil shipping lanes, like the Strait of Hormuz. A lot of the oil goes through there every day. It's not the first time such threats have been made, and not clear Iran could disrupt oil shipments for any big length of time. But it's the kind of tough, harder line rhetoric Rouhani's been using lately. And, meanwhile, we had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with his own harsh rhetoric to throw in.

MARTIN: Right. He was giving an address over the weekend. But, I mean, wasn't Pompeo, he was taking a more diplomatic line than President Trump, though?

KENYON: Well, depends on what you'd call diplomatic. He described Iran as riddled with corruption from the top leadership on down through the IRGC. That's the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Here's a bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: Ayatollah Khamenei has his own personal, off-the-books hedge fund called the Setad, worth 95 billion, with a B, dollars. That wealth is untaxed, it is ill-gotten and it is used as a slush fund for the IRGC. The level of corruption of wealth among Iranian leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government.

KENYON: Now, we've got U.S. sanctions kicking in, banking sanctions next month. We got oil sanctions in November. And the question is, will that hurt the Iranian government or the general population?

MARTIN: All right. We'll keep following this. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting this morning from Istanbul. Peter, thanks so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK. Despite efforts to change the public conversation about Russia that has been plaguing President Trump, the news on that front keeps on coming.

KING: Yeah. We learned new information over the weekend about why the FBI was keeping tabs on President Trump's campaign adviser Carter Page. These documents had been classified, and their release shows the government's reasons for wanting to keep Page under surveillance. They show that the FBI had strong suspicions about Page's ties to Russia before the 2016 election. Now, Page says he was not working for Russia, and some Republicans say his surveillance was not justified. But these 400 pages, which are very heavily redacted, do tell a story.

MARTIN: OK. Here to help us make sense of that story, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. Explain what exactly these documents are and how they're different than what we have seen before on this.

LIASSON: What's important about these documents, as you said, they're heavily redacted. But now the public can decide for itself, what were the reasons that the government asked this secret intelligence court - FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - for a warrant to wiretap Carter Page? Republicans say the entire Russia investigation was illegal because the warrant relied on this dossier compiled by the former British intelligence agency. But these documents show that actually the government had reasons to think that Carter Page was either an agent of Russia or being recruited to be an agent all the way back to 2013.

MARTIN: But we did see some of this stuff before, in the battle of the memos. Remember the Republicans and the Democrats were at it because they each had different opinions about how much of this information should be revealed. And we found out that there were these suspicions about Page.

LIASSON: Right. And now we have the actual documents heavily redacted. The reaction to them has been different, of course, depending if you're a Republican or a Democrat. Donald Trump tweeted that this proves his campaign was illegally spied on - although, there's nothing illegal about a FISA court approving a wiretap. He also seems to have come full circle now. He said, quote, "it's all a big hoax," referring to the Russia investigation. So it sounds like he's gone back to dismissing his own intelligence community's conclusions about Russian interference.

MARTIN: Carter Page went on the defensive. He was making the rounds on some of the talk shows. I want to play a bit of tape of him on CNN's "State Of The Union." He's responding to a question from Jake Tapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

CARTER PAGE: That's - it's really spin. I mean, I sat in on some meetings. But, you know, to call me an adviser, I think, is way over the top.

MARTIN: So the question had been, aren't you an adviser, haven't you yourself characterized yourself as an adviser to Vladimir Putin? So Carter Page denies this out right. But what about this allegation from Page and other Republicans that say too much of this FISA application relied on this dossier that was compiled by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele? I mean, this dossier has never been corroborated. Right, Mara?

LIASSON: That's right. And now the big argument is going to be, how heavily did the government rely on the dossier when they asked for this surveillance, permission to do it? We know now that they had other reasons other than the dossier. So I think the argument is going to be whether they relied heavily on the dossier, did they rely mostly on the dossier or didn't they? Both sides are going to use this to bolster their own arguments.

MARTIN: Which we're seeing right now. And we'll see for days to come, I'm sure. Mara Liasson, national political correspondent, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. Noel, we're going to switch gears and talk about some news out of Syria now, specifically news about those rescue workers in Syria who have become famous there. They are called the White Helmets.

KING: The White Helmets are this group of hundreds of rescue workers from the Syrian civil defense group. They are backed by the United States. And, for years, they've been risking their lives to save civilians who are targeted in the civil war. But recently, the White Helmets themselves got trapped. They were trying to escape an offensive by President Bashar Assad's regime in southern Syria, and they got stuck along the border of the Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel. So the Israeli military said it acted on a request from the United States and from other countries to help get them out. The White Helmets and their families are now safely in Jordan. And, ultimately, we've learned, they'll be resettled in Canada, Germany and in Britain.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following the story and joins us now from just outside Beirut. Ruth, what can you tell us about how these White Helmet rescuers came to be in this position?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, it was they were fleeing this intensive government offensive on the region. And as the rebels are surrendering there, the countries that support the White Helmets decided they had to get them out. I reached one source who was close to the evacuation in Jordan just in the hours after the rescue. He asked not to be named publicly because he doesn't really have permission to speak. And, the line's a bit unclear, but I asked him how he feels.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Both tragic that it has happened at all and incredible joy that it took place. It was a night of rescuing the rescuers. It's payback for what they've all done for so many others for so long.

MARTIN: Rescuing the rescuers.

SHERLOCK: He tells me - yeah. So he tells me that they put out a call to tell all the rescuers, look, if you can get to this one place to be evacuated, come. He said it was a Hail Mary operation. This is a war zone, and some people's journeys were so dangerous, they were moving around regime front lines and also avoiding ISIS, who's expanded in the area. About 800 rescuers were meant to come out, but in the end, about 400 - Sorry - 800 rescuers and their families. But in the end, it was 422 people who made it out.

MARTIN: So the White Helmets are rescue workers, right? They're not combatants. So why did they need to leave an area when it's taken back by the regime?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Syrian government considers them foreign agents, and they've accused them of staging chemical attacks and blaming those attacks on the Syrian government. And the United Kingdom, which also supports the White Helmets, said one of the reasons they had to be evacuated is because they were targets for attack. And in the past, the White Helmets have been captured and imprisoned and tortured. There's been a deal made with the rebels in this area whereby the rebels get out by going to another rebel-held province in the north, but I'm told that deal wasn't extended to the White Helmets there.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Ruth, what is the state of play in Syria right now? I mean, is the regime back in control of the country? Can we say that?

SHERLOCK: We can't say that yet. There's a lot of territory in the north they still haven't taken, and there's still lots of White Helmets people there. There's about 300 rescue workers from that group still in Syria currently.

MARTIN: Ruth Sherlock reporting on this from Beirut. Thanks so much, Ruth.

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