Morning News Brief: Donald Trump Jr.'s Emails, Citizenship For Military Service

Jul 12, 2017
Originally published on July 12, 2017 7:30 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Did you know an old PR strategy holds that if you have bad news, get it all out at once?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. So Donald Trump Jr. tried that yesterday. Facing day after day of New York Times revelations about his meeting with a Russian lawyer, Donald Trump Jr. posted his own email exchange that led up to that meeting. Last night, he talked about this with ardent Trump supporter Sean Hannity of Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

DONALD TRUMP JR.: Here it is. I'm more than happy to be transparent about it, and I'm more than happy to cooperate with everyone.

MARTIN: In the email exchange from 2016, the president's son is offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. He is explicitly told the offer is quote, "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." Don Jr. then replies quote, "I love it, especially later in the summer," end quote. Last night, he said the meeting didn't seem so important when there was less attention on Russian meddling.

President Trump said this through a spokesperson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I have a quick statement that I'll read from the president. My son is a high-quality person, and I applaud his transparency.

INSKEEP: The words of President Trump - so how does all this change the legal and political situation?

NPR's Don Gonyea and Geoff Bennett are here with us. Gentlemen, good morning.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Good morning.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Did you hear anything new last night?

GONYEA: You know, we heard a little bit of a concession - just the tiniest bit of a concession from Donald Trump Jr., something you don't happen to hear often from Donald Trump Jr. He said, in retrospect, he probably would have done things a little differently.

INSKEEP: Well, the normal Trump approach would be to say there was no meeting, and if there was a meeting, it was totally fine, essentially.

GONYEA: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And he does say this meeting was totally fine. But he appears to be just a bit, you know, introspective here - you know, recognizing, without saying so specifically, that this has caused some trouble, that he has to answer these things. But really, there's nothing to see here, folks.

INSKEEP: Did he explain why this meeting - which he said didn't seem like such a big deal at the time - why it was important enough to bring in Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and close adviser?

GONYEA: No, no, not specifically - not at all, really. He made it sound, again, like it was a not very important meeting. He got a request in the middle of a busy campaign. They were going a million miles an hour. He had a casual relationship with the person who sent the email, so he simply said, OK, you should check it out. But he made the point that Jared Kushner left after five or 10 minutes, and that Paul Manafort, then the campaign manager, was on his phone the entire time at the meeting.

MARTIN: You know, what's interesting to me, Don, is Donald Trump Jr. keeps saying, oh, but nothing came of it. Nothing came of it. And he said this again on "Hannity" last night. He said quote, "it was literally a wasted 20 minutes, which is a shame," which, to me reads as if, if that Russian lawyer had actually brought the dirt, then Donald Trump Jr. would have assumed it was a successful meeting.

INSKEEP: Would've been happy to take the dirt.

GONYEA: Yes, yes. So it was both OK to do it because nothing come of it - came of it. But it was worth doing because of what could potentially come of it.

MARTIN: Something could have come from it, yeah.

GONYEA: So that's the contradiction right there.

INSKEEP: OK, Geoff Bennett, I want to bring you into the conversation and also play a little bit of tape here because we have quotes from Democrats, at least in Congress. Senator Mark Warner, who's the top Senate Democrat on the intelligence committee, quote, "this is black and white. Trump officials at the highest levels knew Russia was working to aid Donald Trump and welcomed Russia's interference."

And then we have this from House Democrat Representative Adam Schiff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: This is obviously very significant, deeply disturbing, new public information about direct contacts between the Russian government and its intermediaries and the very center of the Trump family, campaign and organization.

INSKEEP: So we know what the Democrats are saying. How are Republicans responding, Geoff?

BENNETT: Well, I have to tell you, Republicans stuck to what has now become a very familiar script on the Capitol Hill as it relates to this larger Russia question. A lot of them just shrugged and were not willing to engage. They didn't want to publicly criticize the president. They didn't want to publicly criticize his son. That's regardless of whatever their private concerns or misgivings are.

And a lot of them used the line that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used three times yesterday during a press conference. And he was really, you know, all too willing to defer to the investigations that are already underway looking into this larger Russia question.

INSKEEP: Oh, essentially saying, I don't want to comment on this because the investigators will find out what's really going on.

BENNETT: That's right.

INSKEEP: But it's a political dilemma - is it not? - because you have Trump voters - Trump supporters, core supporters, who are still very much with him, and independent voters who, according to surveys, are very much not.

BENNETT: That's entirely the case, and it is a political question. And that's one of the reasons why yesterday Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who - or, sorry, Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat who ran with Hillary Clinton, tried to enter the word treason into this larger debate.

And I have to tell you, legal scholars are - say it's hard to really make that case and that what Donald Trump Jr. did could very well be a crime under federal campaign finance law. But that - the revelation this week about the meeting and, by the way, the last four days of his shifting and evolving explanation of it, perhaps ending with that interview he did on Sean Hannity's show, you know, it certainly undermines, at the very least, the larger political goals of this White House to speak, you know, of the politics at play here.

MARTIN: Also interesting to just note - today Christopher Wray will have his confirmation hearings to become the next director of the FBI, obviously succeeding James Comey, who was fired. I imagine he's going to get a lot of questions about independence.

INSKEEP: Many questions about how independently he can investigate something.

Don Gonyea, I want to put one other thing on the table. What are Trump voters, core Trump voters, saying about these latest revelations?

GONYEA: The Trump base is unshaken. Donald Trump Jr., of course, is a favorite of theirs. They love the way he defends his father. Here's the line I heard over and over and over yesterday. This is a big nothing burger. I literally heard that phrase more than a half a dozen times in an hour of conversations with Trump supporters yesterday.

They also like how this plays into the battle between the Trump White House and the media. And you can guess which side they are on in that one.

INSKEEP: And Geoff Bennett, there's a something burger too, right? What is Congress doing while all the attention is on this?

BENNETT: Well, they're - the separate Russia investigations are continuing apace. And, you know, the lawmakers are trying to really tackle their legislative agenda on a parallel track. The Senate majority leader says he's going to postpone the August recess so that they can work on things like health care reform and then, beyond that, raising the debt ceiling, tax overhaul and then getting some of President Trump's nominees in place. It's a lot to do, but they're going to stick around here in Washington for two more weeks this summer to try to tackle some of that.

INSKEEP: OK. Talk of releasing a health care bill a little bit later this week. Geoff Bennett and Don Gonyea - thank you, gentlemen.

BENNETT: All right. It was a pleasure.

GONYEA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "AS THE SEA HOLDS CREATURES VAST AND TRUE")

INSKEEP: All right, for eight years, the United States has offered citizenship to specially qualified foreign nationals who serve this country.

MARTIN: Now we're talking about doctors, nurses, engineers and translators - people with skill sets that are critical to the military. They have served the U.S. military under a program known as MAVNI. That stands for Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. Now the Pentagon and lawmakers are considering dismantling this program.

INSKEEP: So my first reaction to that was - what? Why? Well, NPR's Tom Bowman got access to an internal memo laying out some reasons why.

Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So first, the program, itself - how's it work exactly?

BOWMAN: Well, this started, again, eight years ago, and it's called MAVNI. And it wouldn't be a military program without an acronym, of course.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Exactly.

BOWMAN: And it was meant to bring in native speakers of strategic languages, about three dozen languages we're talking about - and also medical skills, as you guys mentioned.

INSKEEP: Oh, like, Arabic speakers or whatever, sure.

BOWMAN: Everything from Swahili to Arabic to Thai.

INSKEEP: Anywhere where the military needs to have connections and know what's going on.

BOWMAN: Exactly. And the benefit of this for these folks was that after eight years of honorable service, you get citizenship. Now, about 4,000 to 5,000 have already - are in - have been through this program and now are in uniform serving. And around 4,000 more are awaiting basic training, and those are the ones they may just cut loose.

INSKEEP: Why?

BOWMAN: Well, there's concerns about vetting of these folks. I'm told there have been some investigations of some of these recruits with ties to foreign intelligence agencies.

INSKEEP: Foreign intelligence agencies - so a foreign intelligence agency might encourage someone who is maybe a foreign national to join the military through this program...

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...And see how far they can get.

BOWMAN: That's right. So there's concern about that, about the vetting. There should be stronger vetting of some of these folks. But they say that could be expensive and time consuming. So there are some calls now within the intelligence community in the United States - and also some in the Pentagon - to just cut these folks loose, just end this program.

Right now, by the way, it's been frozen. So if you've come from Guatemala and you're on a - have a green card or let's say you're on a visa and you want to join, the recruiters will say, sorry, this program is frozen.

INSKEEP: Although, you said, there's 4,000 or 5,000 going through the program now - what happens to them while this program is frozen? Can they still head for citizenship?

BOWMAN: Well, right now they're delayed in the training program. They haven't shipped to training yet, so they're sort of in limbo right now. And that's the concern with a lot of people in the Army, is that we have to keep these people pushed into training. And there's a time limit for this, too. If you don't get to training by a certain time level, 730 days...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BOWMAN: ...That you're basically just cut loose.

INSKEEP: Can people who've already served several years under this program still head for citizenship in the way that they have?

BOWMAN: What I'm hearing is those who are already in uniform - are already serving will likely get citizenship eventually. The key is those who have not yet shipped to training. They may just cut those people loose.

INSKEEP: Do people in the Pentagon worry at all about the optics? You would like to think that someone who's a newcomer to the United States, who offers to serve, would be given the chance to serve.

BOWMAN: That's a key concern here. People are saying, they raised their right hand to fight for their adopted country. We can't cut them loose.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.