News Brief: Rob Porter Scandal, Future Russian Interference, Netanyahu Investigated
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today marks one week since former White House aide Rob Porter announced his resignation after allegations of domestic violence came out against him.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, let's remember Porter was staff secretary at the White House. He managed the paper flow to the president, an important job. His two ex-wives publicly accused him of physical and verbal abuse, and then he resigned his position. The ex-wives said they told their stories to the FBI months ago as the agency conducted a background check. And that raised the question of how long White House officials knew of Porter's past. In Senate testimony yesterday, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, appeared to contradict the White House story on that.
MARTIN: All right, let's pick up the story with NPR's Mara Liasson.
Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So Chris Wray came out - the FBI director - at this Senate hearing and appeared to contradict the White House timeline as to what they knew when about Rob Porter. Explain the difference there.
LIASSON: That's right. Chris Wray says that his investigation of Rob Porter was completed, that he gave various reports during the investigation to the White House but it was all wrapped up in January. And the White House has been saying that no, that investigation was ongoing.
MARTIN: Which is why they had kept him on because...
LIASSON: Kept him on with an interim clearance - he hadn't been granted his full clearance.
Yesterday, the White House seemed to say, well, the White House personnel security office's investigation or process was still ongoing because that's the office that makes the final determination. The FBI does the investigation, but the White House personnel security office - which the White House has now gone to great lengths to say was staffed by career officials - they make the final decision. And it's important to point out that there is nothing preventing a president from letting an employee work under an interim clearance for eight years - if he wanted to. In this case, Porter had an interim clearance for more than a year.
MARTIN: So that really is the important point, how these security clearances are granted. The scrutiny of this is not dying down. I mean, the White House has had scandals - numerous scandals over the past year. How is this one different or more significant?
LIASSON: Well, what's different about this is that the president has no foil here. He isn't blaming the deep state for Porter's demise. He's not going after the FBI. He's not attacking the Democrats. This is one of the few scandals in a scandal-ridden White House that has been entirely self-generated and self-perpetuated. The White House staff seems incapable of getting their story straight. The discipline and the order that John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, was supposed to bring to the White House seems to have disappeared in this case because, in this controversy, Kelly himself is the main character. You have other White House officials openly undercutting his version of events. There is...
MARTIN: Because, we should say, these allegations that Kelly knew more than he let on...
MARTIN: ...And was allegedly covering up for Porter's abuse.
LIASSON: Right. Meanwhile, Kelly is saying everything was done right. Other White House officials are saying we could have done better. There is something familiar about this story because, once again, the White House is tangled up in knots over a story they could have gotten ahead of, just like in the Mike Flynn scandal. A top White House aide gets fired long after top White House officials knew about his problems...
LIASSON: ...But only after the allegations made it into the media.
INSKEEP: And when Mara says the White House staff can't get their story straight, there are dismayed officials speaking anonymously to The Washington Post - apparently multiple officials. And one of them, asked about whether the White House could be more transparent, replied - in this White House, it's simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don't even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate. An amazing quote.
MARTIN: Wow. All right, NPR's Mara Liasson.
Thanks so much, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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MARTIN: Another question senators asked at that same hearing yesterday - is Russia targeting the 2018 midterm elections?
INSKEEP: Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, answered this way.
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DAN COATS: There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts - as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.
INSKEEP: OK. Potential target, he says. CIA Director Mike Pompeo went further, saying there's evidence that this is already happening. So is there a consensus about what to do?
MARTIN: All right. We're joined by NPR's Tim Mak, who's watching that hearing for us.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey.
MARTIN: What did we learn yesterday about how Russia might be trying to interfere in the midterms?
MAK: Yeah. Well, there's broad consensus about what Russia has done in the past to interfere with the U.S. election process. And since there hasn't been a real concerted effort to push back, I think a lot of policymakers and lawmakers understand that Russia...
MARTIN: It's going to be the same tactics again?
MAK: Russia will use the same tactics again. So what tactics are those?
MAK: Firstly, in 2016 Russia used bots, these automated social media networks, in order to disinform (ph) the American public and also to spread a little chaos. They also tried to probe election systems in 21 different states. That's something that every intelligence agency head that was asked about this issue, yesterday, agreed on. Those two methods were used. And we'd expect that those two methods would be used in the future.
MARTIN: I mean, you said there haven't been any real concrete solutions proposed to stopping Russia. I mean, how much more complicated is all of this because the president himself continues to diminish the threat from Russia?
MAK: Well, the thing is that, although the president has called the issue of Russian interference a total hoax, every single one of his agency heads that he appointed agrees that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. And we just played back some audio from the director of national intelligence. And, of course, Steve mentioned the director of the CIA saying this is going to be a problem going into the future. The Senate voted last year, 98-2, to impose sanctions on Russia. The president has declined to impose those sanctions. And so even though there is wide agreement from both parties that there should be something done, there simply isn't a plan that's been proposed to address it.
MARTIN: Which is pretty remarkable.
INSKEEP: Yeah. I mean, I think it's important to underline, we've had official after official after official on this program, people in both parties - leaders in both parties have found it relatively comfortable to say, I don't know exactly what happened in the 2016 election that should be investigated. But set that aside, we need to make sure there are no problems going into the future. We need to address this problem going forward. It's been said again and again and again. And officials are acknowledging they haven't done that.
INSKEEP: They haven't done what they said was a priority.
MARTIN: One last question to you, Tim - did the FBI director, Chris Wray, reference in any way the attacks that his agency has been enduring from Republicans and the president?
MAK: Yeah, the FBI director was asked directly whether or not he felt that morale in the agency was down. He said, basically, I've been telling folks to ignore a lot of this noise, even though these issues of Russia and the Russian investigation is eating up a lot of oxygen. He said, in a kind of irritated way - well, we do have more than two investigations going on at the FBI. We do you protect a lot of folks in America during...
MARTIN: A lot of other things they're working on at the same time. NPR's Tim Mak.
MAK: Thank you.
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MARTIN: Now a story about high-end cigars, champagne and the prime minister of Israel.
INSKEEP: And corruption. Benjamin Netanyahu could conceivably face charges of bribery and corruption because Israeli police say he made illegal deals with wealthy friends. They say there is evidence to indict him, although that does not actually mean the prime minister will be indicted. So how damaging is this really?
MARTIN: We're joined by NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.
Daniel, what exactly is Netanyahu accused of doing here?
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, we've heard many of these details in recent months from leaks to the press. But there are two main cases here. Police say Netanyahu offered to help an Israeli newspaper publisher undercut his competition in exchange for good press coverage. And police also say that Netanyahu received a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of champagne and cigars and jewelry from a wealthy Australian, who's the ex-fiance of Mariah Carey, and also, primarily, from Arnon Milchan, who is an Israeli Hollywood producer. He produced "L.A. Confidential" and "Pretty Woman." And police say Milchan gave these as bribes and Netanyahu helped him with business.
MARTIN: Is there any evidence of that? I mean, he took the gifts. Is there any evidence of an actual quid pro quo here?
ESTRIN: Well, Netanyahu is defending himself, and he's saying no, there was not, although the police say that they have sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu for bribery.
MARTIN: Wow. Is that going to happen?
ESTRIN: That's the big question. The police findings now go to the state prosecutors. They have to review the findings. And the attorney general has the final say on whether to press charges. The attorney general, by the way, previously served as Netanyahu's own Cabinet secretary. And some Israelis are questioning whether he's going to be too soft on Netanyahu, though I've spoken to analysts who say, you know, he's a professional guy. The takeaway, though, is that it could take months - and maybe a year - until there's a final decision whether to indict Netanyahu. And he's going to go on being prime minister until then.
INSKEEP: Police saying that they have evidence to indict but they might not indict brings to mind Richard Nixon in 1974. He was named an unindicted co-conspirator. He wasn't actually indicted, but it was politically difficult to sustain that. It sounds like Netanyahu is in a different position, though, politically.
ESTRIN: You know, it's actually interesting to mention that. Netanyahu, ironically, came to power in 2009 because his predecessor resigned when he was faced with the very same police recommendation to indict him on bribery. The difference here is that Netanyahu has a very hardcore base of support and he vows to stay.
MARTIN: Right. Netanyahu, obviously a key ally of President Trump - has anyone in the Trump administration defended him in this moment?
ESTRIN: State Department spokesman Heather Nauert says this is an internal Israeli matter, and so that's where it stays.
MARTIN: Leaving it at that for now. OK. NPR's Daniel Estrin for us this morning.
ESTRIN: You're welcome.
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