Morning News Brief

18 hours ago
Originally published on August 2, 2018 8:21 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump has been trying to undermine the special counsel investigation from the beginning. But yesterday, he took it to a whole new level.

NOEL KING, HOST:

He sure did. He tweeted that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should halt the investigation, quote, "right now." Now that move could be construed as possible obstruction of justice. White House spokesman - spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later explained it this way.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: It's not an order. It's the president's opinion.

KING: And to be clear, Sessions has recused himself and is in no position to end the investigation. Now Trump calls this probe a rigged witch hunt, even though Mueller's team has secured indictments or guilty pleas from 32 people and three Russian companies. And to top it all off, the president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is on trial this week.

MARTIN: All right. Where is this confluence of events taking all of us? NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro is here. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right. So first, let's start with how the president's lawyers seem to be, shall we say, changing the message on the entire investigation. From the beginning, the overarching theme has been there's no collusion. There's no collusion. There's no collusion. And now, it's changed. The message is collusion's not illegal. There is no law against collusion. That seems significant.

MONTANARO: Well, the president's team has kind of made that long their second argument. You know, they'll say there's no collusion. And then they'll say, even if there was collusion, you know, where's the statute? What's the crime for that? And, you know, that prompted, honestly, a lot of us to begin writing about conspiracy. That is a crime.

MARTIN: Which is a crime. Right.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. You know, sure, that is what Mueller has used against a lot of others who've already been charged in this investigation. And that, Rachel, remains, you know, like we said, the main thing here.

But this is a public relations battle more than a legal one. And the reason I say that is because Mueller is probably not going to charge Trump with anything. The Department of Justice guidelines are very clear that it does not think that you can indict a sitting president and that it would violate the Constitution's separation of power. So that would put anything Mueller finds against Trump in the hands of Congress for impeachment. And that raises the stakes for this year's midterms...

MARTIN: Right.

MONTANARO: ...Because who controls Congress controls impeachment.

MARTIN: So key to the special counsel's investigation - whether or not they end up indicting the president. But they very much would like to sit down with him one-on-one. Robert Mueller wants to interview President Trump. Where does that possibility stand right now?

MONTANARO: Well, it's clearly the next phase in this investigation. There's been lots of back-and-forth for months about the president doing it - whether he wants to. But the sticking point is how, with what questions, who's in the room. Is it by paper? Is it written? Is it - what questions would he have to answer - how deep about obstruction, for example? And apparently, that looks like the thing that the president's team wants limited at this point.

MARTIN: Well, The Washington Post has a new report, we should say, that suggests that Robert Mueller has told the president's lawyers that he might circumscribe that line of questioning.

MONTANARO: It's possible. But again, that is the main thing that everyone's looking at - whether or not this president committed any kind of obstruction of justice, not just in his tweets, but as a broader pattern combined with what he's done privately as it relates to, you know, James Comey's firing as FBI director and a slew of other things.

MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. The federal government faces yet another deadline today in the effort to reunite migrant children with their families.

KING: Yeah. That's right. The government and the ACLU will each file plans to find parents who were deported before they could be reunited with their kids. Around 400 parents were sent back to their home countries without their children. And those kids were part of a group that the government declared ineligible for reunification.

MARTIN: Emma Platoff of The Texas Tribune has been covering this story and is back with us. Emma, thanks for being here.

EMMA PLATOFF: Good morning.

MARTIN: Can you just start off by reminding us how these people - parents were deported without their children?

PLATOFF: So these parents, as you said, are some-400 of the group who were declared ineligible last week by the government. They were deported without their kids. The government says that no one was deported without the option of being reunited, but there are parents who tell a different story.

MARTIN: Is it clear how the government plans to track them down?

PLATOFF: It's not yet clear. The government has been pretty resistant to presiding - providing any information on that point. As you said, they face a court-ordered deadline today. But they've been resistant to both saying how they plan to locate these parents and to providing any information to the American Civil Liberties Union, which, as you mentioned, is also trying to track these people down.

MARTIN: Right. You have reported that some nonprofit groups are already trying to do this. They're already searching for the men and women who've been deported, looking for them in Central America. How hard is that?

PLATOFF: It's incredibly hard. What these groups are saying is that any successes they've had have been haphazard - basically, the result of luck. Maybe the kid in the United States still is old enough to provide some information about the parent's whereabouts. Maybe they were lucky enough to find a relative. But there's not really a clear plan in place for finding these parents. And these groups need more information from the government before they can truly get started.

MARTIN: So earlier, you noted that the federal government said, hey, these folks who we deported, we gave them the option of being reunified with their kids, and they didn't take us up on it. We've got a clip, actually. This is from Matthew Albence of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Let me play this for you.

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MATTHEW ALBENCE: A great many of these individuals do not wish to have their child return home with them. The reason most of these individuals have come here in the first place is to get their children to the United States.

MARTIN: Is that true, Emma, or in at least some cases?

PLATOFF: It's absolutely true in some cases. These parents are fleeing from the most dangerous countries in the world. And for many of them, it's worth saying goodbye to their children, potentially for years or forever, to get them to a safer place. That said, there are dozens of parents who've said, you know, wait a minute. I was coerced, or I was confused. I didn't need to sign away my kids. Even if I have to be deported, I'd rather take them home with me.

MARTIN: So you've described how hard it's going to be to reunite these children with their parents. What happens if they don't find them? What happens to those children who are currently in these detention facilities?

PLATOFF: Well, until those parents are found, the kids stay here in federally contracted shelters or potentially released to other sponsors in the United States. That could be relatives. It could be foster parents.

MARTIN: Emma Platoff of The Texas Tribune. Emma, thanks so much for sharing your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

PLATOFF: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: All right. So President Trump has had some pretty nice things to say about President Erdogan in Turkey, despite Erdogan's authoritarian tendencies. But yesterday, the Trump administration did something different. They put sanctions on two Turkish government officials.

KING: Yeah. At the center of this is an American citizen. He's a pastor named Andrew Brunson, and he's been imprisoned in Turkey. He's being tried on charges related to espionage and terrorism. The U.S. says Brunson did nothing wrong and that these sanctions are about holding Turkey accountable.

MARTIN: All right. Let's bring in NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Hey, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Who is this pastor? What do we know about him? And what specifically is being - is he being accused of?

KENYON: Well, Andrew Brunson is an evangelical pastor. He's lived in Turkey for decades. He ran a church in the western city of Izmir. But in late 2016, a few months after a failed coup attempt here, the government was in the early stages of a big crackdown that's still ongoing. Brunson was arrested. He was charged with aiding two very different terrorist groups, the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK and a group Turkey calls FETO, the Fethullah Terrorist Organization. Those are followers of a cleric, Fethullah Gulen He lives in the U.S. And Turkey accuses him of masterminding the coup attempt.

Washington says it hasn't seen any convincing evidence to support these charges against Andrew Brunson, who's now under house arrest. Those charges could land him in jail for 35 years if he's convicted.

MARTIN: So now you've got the U.S. - the Trump administration - putting these sanctions on two Turkish officials. Who's been sanctioned, and how?

KENYON: Right. It's the justice minister and the interior minister. And according to the White House, they picked those two because they were involved in Brunson's detention. Now the practical effect of these sanctions is not exactly clear. The justice minister has tweeted he doesn't own so much as a tree in the U.S. The other target, the interior minister, added his only property in the U.S. is Fethullah Gulen, that cleric that Turkey wants extradited.

But these sanctions, they do send a message that the Trump administration is quite serious about seeing Pastor Brunson released and returned to the U.S.

MARTIN: So how's Turkey responding? I imagine they've got something to say about this.

KENYON: Well, they do. The foreign ministry says an equivalent response will be coming. They say soon, but it hasn't happened yet. No details so far. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Ankara that remarks coming from what he called the evangelical Zionist mentality in the U.S. were unacceptable. Turkey's judiciary has to be respected.

But the sanctions have sent the Turkish currency slumping at almost an all-time low against the dollar. And the foreign minister has spoken with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo several times about this, and that could happen again as early as tomorrow. There could also be more talks coming between Trump and Erdogan. So things may get resolved. But if not, there are certainly heavier sanctions that could be brought to bear.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul. Thanks so much for your time, Peter. We appreciate it.

KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEASONS' "ASO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.