News Brief: Russia Probe, French Protesters, Grant Program Fixed
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Mounting evidence about President Trump's 2016 campaign raises legal issues and a big political question.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Court documents allege the president's one-time lawyer Michael Cohen made illegal payments to buy the silence of two women during the presidential campaign. Federal prosecutors say Cohen's boss, identified as Individual 1, was directing that activity. At the same time, the probe of Russia's role in the 2016 election keeps revealing more Russian contacts with Trump's campaign and business.
So those are just some of the legal issues. The political question, though, is what does Congress do about it?
INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Good morning, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: We should note that at least one Democratic senator is making comparisons to Watergate here. What are the grounds for finding it quite that serious?
MARTIN: Well, Democrats who think the president should be impeached would argue that these allegations show the president won the election through corrupt means. In other words, he tried to, by directing Michael Cohen to pay off these women to stay silent, he bought these women's silence about alleged extramarital affairs. In the Watergate case, Richard Nixon was called an unindicted co-conspirator. In this case, President Trump is being referred to as Individual 1.
Now, this can get very complicated. This is not about Russia. This is about Michael Cohen's payments to women. Two separate lines of investigation.
INSKEEP: Right. Each of them very, very serious for the president at this point. Now, you said unindicted co-conspirator. Of course, the key word there is unindicted. He's not indicted here. He's just named for his involvement in a crime, or Individual One is. It is a matter of dispute whether a sitting president can be indicted by a grand jury, but he certainly can be impeached by Congress. Do Democrats want to do that?
LIASSON: Some Democrats do. Most Democrats don't. Democrats want to keep the right balance when they take over power in the House. They want to exercise oversight. They want to investigate the president and the administration in a non-showboaty (ph) way. But they really want to put legislation front and center so they can show voters ahead of 2020 what they stand for. Now, Jerry Nadler, who will be the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, that would move articles of impeachment, was on CNN yesterday. And here's what he said.
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JERRY NADLER: They would be impeachable offenses. Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.
INSKEEP: What's the distinction there, Mara?
LIASSON: The distinction is just because they're impeachable offenses - impeachment is a political decision and it doesn't mean the Democrats should move forward with impeachment. Because, don't forget, impeachment does not mean removal. Democrats would have to convince the Senate - at least 34 Republicans in the Senate - to convict and remove the president after he's impeached. That is not going to happen. Many Democrats are worried about impeachment backfiring, that it could actually hurt their own prospects in 2020 if they impeach the president but don't remove him. Remember what happened to Bill Clinton, who was impeached but not removed, and became more popular.
INSKEEP: Very briefly, are Republicans defending the president?
LIASSON: Yes. They are. Here's Rand Paul, who was on NBC's "Meet The Press." He described the allegations as kind of like a parking ticket.
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RAND PAUL: We should not have special prosecutors going after one person. And if we get this way, and if we're going to prosecute people and put them in jail for campaign finance violations, we're going to become a banana republic, like where they have - every president gets prosecuted and everybody gets thrown in jail when they're done with office.
LIASSON: That being said, Republicans are still pretty nervous. They don't know what else Mueller knows. They don't know what Donald Trump will do. And they're also worrying about the economy. They don't know how all these things are going to hurt their re-election chances in 2020.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks for the update.
LIASSON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.
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INSKEEP: Protesters in France have escalated their demands.
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MARTIN: That's the sound of a drummer and a trumpeter playing traditional French hunting music, and there's not much doubt about who they're hunting. The protesters following them are demanding President Macron resign. They want him out, even though the president offered to delay a tax hike that sparked the protests.
INSKEEP: OK. Jake Cigainero is covering this for NPR. He's on the line. Hey there, Jake.
JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: Hi there.
INSKEEP: What have you seen on the streets?
CIGAINERO: Well, leading up to the weekend, it was pretty tense in Paris. Shops and cafes boarded up in preparation for riots. I was at the Arc de Triomphe on Saturday, and when crowds got too dense, too close or too riled up, police would fire tear gas and water cannons to push them up the avenues away from the monument. And as soon as the smoke would clear, though, the protesters would just push forward again. In other parts of the city, protesters built barricades and set them on fire, and they burned cars.
But there were also peaceful protesters, like Marie Noel Santiee (ph), who came from Brittany with her two children. She said she's spent half her salary on getting to work every month already and can't even buy shoes for her kids anymore.
MARIE NOEL SANTIEE: (Speaking French).
CIGAINERO: Santiee says, "people want Macron to resign, and then they could build something else. We're for ecology, for the environment, but it can't be the poor people who pay when the rich have so much money."
INSKEEP: OK. So wow. Continuing protests. But I want to ask, Jake, authorities in Paris have centuries of experience with protesters and sometimes more success than others. Are they getting control of the situation here?
CIGAINERO: Right. Well, they changed strategy this weekend from the weekend before in order to try to control the protests even more. The number of police on the streets doubled to 8,000 and they used armored vehicles this time to clear barricades. Police checked people entering protest zones and detained them on the spot if they had anything like hammers or potential weapons in their bags.
This is not just a political problem, though. It's also an economic problem. This is normally a very busy holiday shopping season, but hotels have seen mass cancellations. Museums were closed. Small shops, big department stores, cafes, they closed. And that's cost them massively in sales. The head of a commerce federation said because of the protests, businesses have lost more than a billion dollars.
CIGAINERO: And a lot of these are just small stores privately owned by middle-class people.
INSKEEP: What can the president do now that he's already given in to their main demand and the protesters are still out there?
CIGAINERO: Well, he's going to speak tonight, and he's supposed to make more announcements to try to appease them. And obviously, the top priority is to stop the protests and prevent more violence. He's already overturned the tax, as you mentioned, that sparked these protests. And this evening, he could make an announcement to increase retirement benefits. There's been talk of government payments for people who have to drive to work. And the idea has also been floated to give lowest-wage earners a tax-free bonus. So but more groups are also joining this protest. Last week, it was ambulance drivers and high school students. And this week, we're supposed to see farmers joining to protest agricultural policies.
CIGAINERO: So this movement has really morphed into a catch-all for the working and middle classes who struggle to get by, Steve, and groups who think that they are ultimately being hurt by Macron's policies.
INSKEEP: Jake Cigainero is in Paris. Thanks very much. Really appreciate it.
CIGAINERO: You're welcome.
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INSKEEP: OK. Wow. Some dramatic news today for scores - many. More than scores, I should think. Quite a few public schoolteachers.
MARTIN: Yeah. For a year, NPR has been investigating this federal grant program for teachers. Teachers say this program unfairly drowned them in thousands of dollars of loans. Now the Department of Education says this is a problem, and they're going to try to fix it.
INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold has been reporting on this story. Hey there, Chris.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: I gather there are some teachers who must be rather happy about this.
ARNOLD: Yes. They are very happy. We've been talking to a lot of them. We've been following one teacher in particular. Her name's Kaitlyn McCollum, of Columbia, Tenn. And she ended up getting stuck with loans for more than $24,000 through this program. And on her small teacher's salary there, this has just been a crushing amount of debt. It's just haunted her. And here's McCollum talking about that.
KAITLYN MCCOLLUM: Washing dishes or taking a shower, and then it'll just hit me like a ton of bricks. Like, oh, my God. I owe all of that money. And it's, like, a knee-buckling moment of panic all over again.
ARNOLD: So after we learned the details of this fix from the Ed Department, we reached out to McCollum and talked to her at her house after school. And because of her situation, her debts should be wiped out now through this fix. And here's McCollum's reaction.
You're going to get your grants back.
MCCOLLUM: Are you serious? (Laughter). Oh, my God.
INSKEEP: Wow. She sounds kind of happy there. I guess we should remind people what happened. Your reporting has revealed over many, many months here that these are not people who went out and took out a loan that they got stuck with. These are people who had no idea they were, quote, "borrowing money," unquote.
ARNOLD: Right. That's the whole point right there, what you just said. The original goal of this program, we should say, was really, really good. It was to entice promising young teachers into the schools across the country that needed them the most. And the way that worked is that teachers would get grant money to pay for their own college, and in exchange, they said, OK, I promise to go teach for four years in a school that serves a lot of low-income families. And they would do that. McCollum did that.
But the problem is there were these tiny paperwork issues - a form missing a date, or something is one day late - and that would trigger this catastrophic outcome where this grant, like you're saying - free money for doing this really good work - will get turned into this big loan, even though the teachers were doing what they said that they would do. And this happened to thousands of teachers.
INSKEEP: Well, there must be some listening right now. So walk us through what the Education Department says it's going to do. Who's going to get their loan that used to be a grant turned back into a grant?
ARNOLD: There's a lot of details. There's more on our website. But basically, if a teacher can now document that they taught there four years in a low-income school or they're in the process of doing that, the teachers can get their grants back and anything that they've paid already will be refunded. So a lot of teachers should be eligible for that. They have to raise their hand and go through a process to get that.
Two key caveats, though. This is not automatic. So they need to go through this process. And also the program requires you to teach four years in an eight-year window. So if some teachers lost their grant, said, well, now I'm moving to another state, I'll get a job in a different kind of school, they may not qualify anymore. So it might be tough for some of them to get this done in this eight-year window. But the department could do more to figure things out and help teachers like that, too, next year.
INSKEEP: So this is not a blanket recovery for everyone, but people have a chance. I'd just like to ask in the time we have here, Chris, because your reporting seems to have been instrumental in getting this to public attention and has now ended in this result, what's it been like to report this story over these past few months?
ARNOLD: You know, it's been really rewarding to do this, honestly. And we were really impressed, too, with people at the Department of Ed. This was a big problem that went on for a long time. And when they kept hearing the voices of these teachers who got hurt so badly, in the end, they came around and they fixed this thing.
INSKEEP: Chris, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.
ARNOLD: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold reported the story with NPR's Cory Turner.
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