News Brief: Zuckerberg On Capitol Hill, Will Trump Fire Mueller?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yesterday tens of millions of people woke up to a message from Facebook.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yeah. If you got it, the note basically explained that one of your friends had let an app developer access your Facebook data and the Facebook data of all their other friends, too. Now, this was something Facebook allowed until 2015. People could let an app access their friends' information.
GREENE: The problem here was that the app developer sold the information to a company called Cambridge Analytica, and that sale was against Facebook's policy.
KING: All right. So news of all of this broke a couple of weeks ago, and now Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is going before Congress for two days of hearings. He took questions from senators yesterday, and today he goes before the House.
GREENE: And one person listening closely is our colleague who is covering this, NPR's Laura Sydell. Hi, Laura.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So let's talk about what options there are here for new regulations. I mean, Europe is on the cusp of implementing significant new privacy rules with a law that says Facebook can't share data unless people specifically opt into that. Are lawmakers in the United States, is that the kind of thing they're talking about with Zuckerberg?
SYDELL: It's come up a few times. And Mark Zuckerberg was a little wiggly about his thoughts on it, but, most of the senators acknowledged there was a problem in the way that things work now. Though, I have to say, oftentimes it seemed like the senators were struggling to see exactly how Facebook works, but...
GREENE: They were learning as the hearing was going.
SYDELL: They were learning on the job, (laughter), for sure. Many senators expressed a reluctance to impose regulations, and they kept hoping that Facebook would somehow take responsible measures on its own to curb the platform issues. But Zuckerberg actually said he was open to regulation, though he kept giving himself wiggle room. And he just said it depends on what the regulation is, we'll talk about details later. You know, he's already made changes. For example, he's giving app developers less access to user data.
GREENE: So doing some stuff, but the question is, how much will it satisfy lawmakers...
SYDELL: How much. Yes. Yes.
GREENE: ...And will lawmakers want to act on their own? I guess this went on for, what, five hours? And let's just get a little...
GREENE: ...A little taste of this hearing. This is a question that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was asking of Zuckerberg.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: If I buy a Ford, and it doesn't work well and I don't like it, I can buy a Chevy. Is there an alternative to Facebook in the private sector?
MARK ZUCKERBERG: Yes, Senator. The average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people, ranging from texting apps, to email, to...
GRAHAM: Which is the same service you provide.
ZUCKERBERG: Well, we provide a number of different services.
GRAHAM: Is Twitter the same as what you do?
ZUCKERBERG: It overlaps with a portion of what we do.
GRAHAM: You don't think you have a monopoly?
ZUCKERBERG: It certainly doesn't feel like that to me.
GREENE: Some basic questions senators were asking, it sounds like. So was one of the issues Facebook's dominance and whether there are alternatives?
SYDELL: Yes. It was one of the issues, and you heard Senator Graham mention the word monopoly. Facebook has two billion users, and it dominates social media. And they also keep aggressively buying startup rivals, and they imitate the services of their competitors. Like, think of Snapchat. Zuckerberg noted that people could download their data and move it from his site. But, you know, as much as people are upset about Facebook, there's not really another big site where they can share information with family and friends and find them all there.
GREENE: I guess not. And, in some ways, I mean, they are the only game in town for some of the services. So Zuckerberg, he goes to the House today. How'd he do on day one in the Senate?
SYDELL: Well, I would say this was a much more polished version of Mark Zuckerberg. No hoodie, and he was wearing a suit. He wasn't the guy who sweated on stage eight years ago when asked about privacy. But not all the senators were happy with his testimony, and I think lawmakers were concerned that the public really doesn't understand when it's signing up for when they sign up a Facebook account. And I think we're going to hear more about that today when Zuckerberg heads back for a second day of questioning over in the House.
GREENE: NPR digital culture correspondent Laura Sydell. Laura, thanks.
SYDELL: You're welcome.
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GREENE: All right. So the big question that seems to come up day in and day out here in Washington, will President Trump try to fire special counsel Robert Mueller? Mueller is, of course, the man leading the investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
KING: And here is White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responding to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC.
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JONATHAN KARL: Does the president believe he has the power to fire special counsel Robert Mueller? Does he believe that's within his power?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Certainly believes he has the power to do so.
GREENE: All right. Let's bring in NPR's Domenico Montanaro from the NPR politics team. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, David.
GREENE: So Sanders there saying pretty clearly that she believes that Donald Trump has the power to fire Mueller. Is this a different tone we're hearing from the White House right now?
MONTANARO: It is, actually. And you have to listen very closely because they think, the White House thinks, that Mueller has gone too far. They think, clearly, that the president has the authority to fire Mueller. And they've dropped the caveat that he has no intention to do so, to fire Mueller. So that's now gone. She had been saying that previously. But she was given the opportunity twice yesterday to clarify, and she did not.
GREENE: Isn't it less of a clear issue whether the president has this power? We've talked a lot about the process that would actually have to take place. He would have to go to the Justice Department, right? I mean, is it clear that he could do this?
MONTANARO: It's not clear that - actually, he cannot fire Mueller directly. Here's how this works.
MONTANARO: Because the Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigation, that puts the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge of the investigation 'cause that's who Mueller reports to. It's been reported that Rosenstein personally, remember, signed off on the raid of Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen's office, hotel room and apartment. So unless he changes his position that Mueller's doing a good job then Trump would have to fire Rosenstein, find a deputy attorney general who also thinks Mueller's not doing a good job, and fire Mueller. So kind of a roundabout route, but that's how it would have to work.
GREENE: OK. But if you pick the right person for that job who says yes, Mr. President, I will fire the person then that's the way that the White House is saying that he would have that power, in a sense?
GREENE: What about Congress? I mean, haven't both Republicans and Democrats said that they do not want the president to fire Mueller and, actually, there's been bipartisan support potentially for laws that would protect the special counsel?
MONTANARO: Look, it's highly unlikely, though, right now that Republicans are going to push for that because they don't think Trump will actually do it. They don't want to provoke him, either. So they're trying to walk this very fine line. Some congressional Republicans, though, are warning publicly against the president doing this. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said yesterday that it would be political suicide for the president to go forward with that. And congressional Republicans will have an opportunity today, David, to tell the president directly because they're having dinner at the White House tonight.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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GREENE: It really seems to be building right now, this threat of U.S. military action in Syria.
KING: And that is in response to something that happened over this past weekend. There were reports that dozens of people, including women and children, were killed in the rebel-held town of Douma. It's believed to be a chemical attack. On Sunday, President Trump tweeted that there would be a big price to pay, but so far no response.
GREENE: All right. And we're joined now by NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who is following this story from Lebanon. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.
GREENE: What is the latest from Douma? Is there any more clarity on what happened with this reported chemical attack?
SHERLOCK: Well, look, the facts still very much need to be established. You know, this video footage we've seen and testimonies seem to suggest that a chemical attack of some kind took place. But there are still major questions over what type of gas - sorry, nerve agent - forgive me - what type of chemical agent may have been used. It might have been chlorine gas, which has been used dozens, possibly more, times in Syria, or if it involved some kind of nerve agent. It was, of course, the use of sarin one year ago that triggered the U.S. administration to take action then. And so, you know, what makes this job - now a U.N. chemical weapons watchdog is going to go into Douma to investigate. But what makes their job so hard is that Douma's in total chaos right now. The rebels that controlled the area have surrendered, and there are mass evacuations going on. And in the middle of all this, the Syrian government has moved into this area. So all this change is going to make establishing the facts of what happened much more difficult.
GREENE: What is the sense inside Syria based on what you're hearing? I mean, in Damascus, like, does it feel like a war footing? Is the government preparing for possible attacks by the United States?
SHERLOCK: Yes. The Syrian government is thought to be moving planes and weapons to more secure locations, and air defenses are on high alert. Russia is also heavily involved in Syria, and it's threatened an immediate response should any strike bring harm to troops or their military bases there. In Damascus, I hear that there's this palpable sense of fear. People are saying that you can cut the tension with a knife. Lots of people can't sleep, just waiting to find out, you know, what's going to happen.
GREENE: How have we gotten to this moment? I mean, you mentioned that there have been chemical attacks in the past. Why is this getting so much international attention at this moment, you know, these reports?
SHERLOCK: Well, the U.N. investigators have documented dozens of chemical attacks in Syria since the war began in 2011. How this compares to other attacks is ultimately for the OPCW, the chemical weapons watchdog, to determine. But, you know, one thing. I think, you know, these video footage of dead children, women, civilians from this area has shocked a lot of people in America. But over here, Syrians are scratching their heads over why this incident could prompt intervention because they're seeing people, more people die almost on a near daily basis from barrel bombs and airstrikes and artillery. So whilst it shocked Washington, people here, you know, they see this kind of thing happening every day.
GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Lebanon on the situation in Syria as we wait to see what President Trump plans to do. Ruth, thank you very much.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.
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