News Brief: New Trump Tower Meeting Documents, NAFTA, Burundi Referendum

May 17, 2018
Originally published on May 17, 2018 7:12 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today is the anniversary of an investigation. It was exactly a year ago when Robert Mueller was named special counsel in the Russia investigation.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, and you could say a lot has happened since.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Papadopoulos is arrested for lying to FBI agents about his Russian contacts...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: When FBI agents raided the hotel room and office of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump's personal lawyer, they were looking...

MARTIN: President Trump supporters, though, like his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, argue that the entire special counsel has been a big waste, with a whole lot of nothing to see here folks, move along. Giuliani told CNN yesterday Mueller's team has acknowledged they can't indict a sitting president. According to Giuliani, all Mueller's team can do is, quote, "write a report."

GREENE: OK. Let's bring in NPR's Tim Mak, who covers national security and politics. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

GREENE: So could we start by fact-checking Giuliani's comments. Can Mueller indict a sitting president?

MAK: So since the Nixon administration, the Justice Department has said that it cannot indict a sitting president. Now, there has been some question about whether Mueller and his team could challenge those guidelines but appears now that they're not going to do that. They can still write a report, though, and that's nothing to sneeze at. They can refer any issues that arise in the course of their investigation to the House. And of course, the House of Representatives has that process outlined in the Constitution - impeachment - that's in Article II. And they can impeach a sitting president and the Senate can convict.

GREENE: OK. So options there but, of course, the president's legal team suggesting that there's nothing that would even bring the special counsel to that moment. But we'll obviously see how this plays out. I want to ask you about a development yesterday. The Senate Intelligence Committee comes out with this bipartisan statement saying - and this is both Republicans and Democrats saying they agree with the intelligence community's assessment under the Obama administration that Russia was trying to help Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Is this significant?

MAK: I think it absolutely is significant. It shows that there's bipartisan buy-in on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now, if you recall, immediately after the election, this - the intelligence communities put out a statement saying, look, we conclude that the Russian government and Vladimir Putin specifically tried to intervene in the election to support Trump and try to hurt Hillary Clinton. There's been some questions raised by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that question some of the methods and basically said there were unspecified problems in the analytic process.

What we have yesterday is the Senate Intelligence Committee on a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats, saying actually, no, when we are conducting an investigation in a bipartisan manner, we conclude that the intelligence community was right to make this assessment and did the proper analysis in coming to that conclusion.

GREENE: OK. So we're a year into Mueller's probe. Can you just remind us of - you know, let's use this as a snapshot. Where do things stand?

MAK: OK. Well, there are a number of indictments that we've got so far. Four former Trump campaign officials - Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, George Papadopoulos - plus 13 Russians and three companies, including the troll farm the Internet Research Agency, has been indicted. There's still a lot of investigation left to go. And because Mueller's investigation is such a black box, it's hard to see exactly where we're headed next.

GREENE: All right.

MARTIN: And even though the Trump administration may want it to be over, no signs that it is yet.

MAK: That's right.

GREENE: No sign that it's going to be over anytime soon. A lot to cover, and we know you'll be covering it, NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks a lot.

MAK: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. So a newly renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to land on the desk of House Speaker Paul Ryan by today.

MARTIN: Right, a new NAFTA, but it looks like that's not going to happen, at least not right now. Negotiators can't seem to bridge the gap between the U.S. on one side of the table and Canada and Mexico on the other.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who has been watching the progress on NAFTA talks, or I guess lack of progress, Scott, it sounds like. Is this a big deal if they miss this deadline?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's not a hard and fast deadline, David. It's more of an aspirational target. What House Speaker Ryan did was say...

GREENE: (Laughter) What's a deadline really?

HORSLEY: (Laughter) This is Congress we're talking about.

GREENE: Yeah.

HORSLEY: What Speaker Ryan did was say, look, if you want to have a vote this year in this Congress on a new NAFTA, there are certain milestones you have to meet along the way. It takes time to codify any agreement, and then lawmakers need a certain number of days to review it. So he counted backwards from year's end, and he said, well, you need to have at least a rough outline of a deal by now. But it's very much a self-imposed target, and the GOP-controlled Congress could certainly grant this president more time if they choose to. A couple other milestones on the horizon, though. Mexico has an election coming up July 1. After that, there will be a new negotiating partner south of the border. And then depending on what happens in the midterm elections, it could be a different Congress that winds up reviewing a deal if it stretches into next year.

GREENE: Well, so where are we, Scott? Because, I mean, President Trump was insisting on something new or he was going to pull out. Canada and Mexico seemed open to, you know, updating a deal that's more than two decades old. So why can't the sides agree here?

HORSLEY: One big change that the Trump administration wanted was to tighten the rules around the way cars are built in North America. Over the last quarter-century, there's this integrated supply chain that has grown up where cars and car parts moved freely back and forth among the three NAFTA countries as their vehicles are being assembled with no tariffs along the way. Initially, the Trump administration wanted to say a certain percentage of those cars has to be made in the United States to get that duty-free treatment. Over the course of negotiations, that has morphed a little bit to now the U.S. is saying they want a certain percentage built in high-wage countries, so that could be either the U.S. or Canada but not Mexico unless wages in auto plants there come up. So there has been some movement on that but no agreement yet.

Other bones of contention - the Trump administration wants to change the way disputes are resolved when multinational companies clash with local laws or regulations. That's actually a divide between the Trump administration and some of the president's fellow Republicans. And then the administration also wants to put a sunset provision on any new NAFTA so it gets reviewed after five years.

GREENE: Interesting that all of these trade talks are happening and you also have the U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, occupy this week with trade talks with China that are not insignificant.

HORSLEY: Yeah, it's a big week for the trade team. One observer I talked to said it's like running the Boston and New York marathon together at the same time.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: You can't do that.

MARTIN: Yeah, it's actually impossible.

HORSLEY: We're already in, you know, a trade skirmish with China, and we'll see if it grows into a full-blown trade war. There are divisions within the Trump administration about just how hard to push. The U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, is considered one of the hard-liners; Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin more accommodating. And of course, with all of this, you have the backdrop of North Korea and China's cooperation needed there to address the nuclear program. So there are national security considerations as well as economic ones.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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GREENE: Let's turn now to potentially a tense day and an important vote in Central Africa.

MARTIN: Yeah. People in Burundi are voting on a referendum that would allow their president to extend his rule until the year 2034. The run-up to this vote has already been marked by violence. There are fears this controversial referendum could unleash more.

GREENE: And NPR's Eyder Peralta has been covering this from his base in Kenya. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So fears of violence. What do we know so far about how this vote is playing out?

PERALTA: Well, we know that people have begun voting, and so far, you know, we haven't heard any reports of major violence, but a colleague in the capital, Bujumbura, tells me that at least one effort from people to vote no has been stopped by police. And, you know, as you said, the run-up to this has been intense. Opponents of the referendum have been beaten, tortured and even killed. And over the weekend, the government said terrorists crossed the border from Congo and killed two dozen people in a small village. The government didn't say if this had anything to do with the referendum, but it gives you an idea of the kind of tension and fear in the country.

GREENE: Well, so officially this is about whether or not to extend the presidential term limit. But is this about more than that?

PERALTA: It is. I mean, you know, first of all, it's really controversial because, you know, the president's decision, President Pierre Nkurunziza, to seek a third term in 2015 already resulted in a coup attempt and a lot of violence that displaced more than 450,000 Burundians. But it also gives the president a lot more power over intelligence agencies and over legislation. And it starts to remove some of the protections that had been given to the minority Tutsis. Analysts I've spoken to see this referendum as a dangerous power grab that undermines - that they say undermines the compromises that brought peace to this country.

GREENE: OK, so compromises that brought peace to a country that was suffering through a bloody ethnic war. How does the current state of things - how does this referendum and the potential violence relate to that, and could this bring the country back into that war?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, that's certainly always been the fear, that it would send this country back into that (unintelligible). You know, Burundi has some of the same dynamics as Rwanda. It has the same ethnic groups. And back in 2015, right after the attempted coup, there was a real fear that Burundi could become the next Rwanda. But this is a little different because this referendum doesn't only attempt to lock out the Tutsi minority out of power but pretty much everyone else. For example, if someone from the ruling party wants to run as an independent, they have to take a one-year break. And so, yes, there is a danger of ethnic violence in Burundi, especially, you know, given its history. But this referendum also makes it harder for anyone with a political ambition to take over power democratically. And that, of course, leaves the door open to more violence.

GREENE: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting on a vote in Burundi. He's speaking to us from his base in Kenya. Thanks a lot, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF TULPA'S "THE BIRDS AND THE BEES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.