News Brief: Russia Investigation, Pelosi Term Limit Deal, Migrant Shelters
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are now two sources implicating the Trump campaign in illegal contributions. These were contributions in the form of hush money.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One is the president's former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. He received a three-year prison sentence yesterday after admitting he lied to Congress and law enforcement. Among other things, Cohen says he paid off a woman to keep her story quiet before the election. The publishers of the National Enquirer now admit to doing the same.
GREENE: And let's talk more about this with NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the justice court - the Justice Department. Good morning, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So this agreement reached between prosecutors and the National Enquirer, what do we know at this point?
LUCAS: Well, it's important to make clear, first off, that this is a deal that prosecutors in New York - that they reached with American Media, Inc., which is the parent company of the National Enquirer. Under the agreement, AMI will not be prosecuted for its role in a payment that was made to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. McDougal, of course, is a woman who says that she had an affair with Trump around a decade ago.
Now, under this agreement, AMI admits that it made this $150,000 payment to McDougal in concert with and at the request of the Trump campaign. That's important to note. The goal, according to the prosecutors, was to ensure that McDougal's story didn't get out and influence the election by damaging Trump's candidacy. This is one of the payments that Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was involved in. He pleaded guilty to a campaign finance violation related to this payment.
GREENE: OK, so the president, I mean, obviously implicated in being involved in this somehow. But when we - when we talk legally, I mean, what could this mean for President Trump here?
LUCAS: Well, it's certainly not a positive development for the president. It means that prosecutors have corroborated at least some of what Cohen told them about this payment, which is that they were made to protect the Trump campaign. Now, prosecutors did not say in the agreement with AMI that the president directed this payment, which is something that Cohen has said.
It's not clear, though, legally, where all of this goes from here. One, campaign finance violations are rarely prosecuted. They're difficult to prosecute. And two, remember, the prevailing view in the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be indicted. So that kind of hangs over all of this.
INSKEEP: And we should remember another thing as well, just to underline it. You said this is coming from prosecutors in New York, which reminds us this is separate from the Russia investigation, separate from Robert Mueller's probe.
INSKEEP: Some of the same people, some of the same witnesses, but a different criminal matter.
GREENE: Although - so we - now we have the sentencing of Cohen involving those prosecutors but also so much news coming from the special counsel's office in recent days and weeks. I mean, Manafort, Flynn, the memos that have come from the special prosecutor. Given all of this, I mean, in two different cities, are we getting any clearer picture of what was going on in 2016? Is anything getting more clear here?
LUCAS: Well, it remains a bit of a muddled web, quite frankly. We certainly have more threads to try to put together into a broader picture. But we still don't have an answer to the question that a lot of people want, which is an answer to the question of was there coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. That is something that Mueller's team is certainly still working on.
GREENE: And meanwhile, we have reports that the alleged Russian spy Maria Butina is cooperating with investigators as well. And she has a plea hearing today. I mean, anything we should expect from that?
LUCAS: Well, she of course is a woman whose case has garnered a whole lot of attention. That's because she basically kind of ingratiated herself with the National Rifle Association folks in Republican circles. Prosecutors say that she was using that on behalf of the Russian government, trying to leverage those connections. She originally pleaded not guilty. There are now indications that she wants to change that plea. She'll be in federal court this morning. And we'll have to see what she has to say.
GREENE: So much to cover. Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR. Ryan, thanks.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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GREENE: All right, it looks like Nancy Pelosi has sewn up the support she needs among Democrats to become the speaker of the House again.
INSKEEP: Some Democrats wanted a fresher face. Their objections were often framed as practical politics. Republicans have demonized Pelosi for years, so why have her out front? But as our reporters have heard, this was at least partly a question of sharing. Some Democrats were asking when they might get a turn to rise to leadership. Pelosi is 78. She's led House Democrats for many years and was already speaker once. And she has now promised to term limit herself. She plans to preside for no more than four years.
GREENE: All right, let's bring in NPR politics editor Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, David.
GREENE: OK, so what kind of deal did Pelosi make here?
MONTANARO: Well, as you noted, she made this deal with a faction that vowed to vote against her speakership when the new Congress was sworn in. And, you know, Pelosi, who's 78, pledged to limit her tenure to four years in exchange for their vote. So what we're looking at here now is a deal that essentially will likely put Nancy Pelosi as the next speaker of the House once again.
GREENE: And I'm just - I mean, I'm thinking of - this is technicalities. But she could do two years. Democrats could, in theory, lose the House next time. I mean, could she then come back two years later and do two more years, or it wasn't really clear?
MONTANARO: She probably could, I mean, there, adding up a bunch of the time. But whether she would want to do that if Democrats lost the House again is pretty unlikely.
GREENE: A pretty - pretty big question. So what does all this mean for Democratic leadership as the party takes control next month, that Pelosi had to face some opposition and come to some negotiation here?
MONTANARO: Yeah, well, it means Pelosi is likely to be Speaker Pelosi again. Things were moving in that direction. This solidifies that. And you saw what she was like with President Trump. And you're likely to see that kind of relationship. You know, she said every day's a new day and willing to work with the president as needed or if necessary, but somebody who knows how to count the votes and is a pretty shrewd character on Capitol Hill.
Many of the members opposing Pelosi, you know, really believe that the party needs to get younger, that top leaders in the House have stood in the way of a new generation that could lead the party. So Pelosi nodded to that in her statement about the deal last night.
She said that she'd made it clear that she sees herself as, quote, "a bridge to the next generation of leaders," that she wants to mentor and advance new members into positions of power and responsibility. And that group opposing her praised her and said that they think that this decision will bring lasting, institutional change.
INSKEEP: Domenico, you also noted her performance on live TV and that surprise encounter with President Trump. One of the criticisms that is sometimes made of Pelosi is, is she all that good a communicator outside the House on television? But that was an occasion where she was and stood up against the president.
GREENE: And Domenico, I mean, before we get ahead of ourselves and get into January, we've got a whole debate over whether the government is going to shut down or not, Congress working with President Trump on that. And the big question, will President Trump close the government down to try and get money for the border wall that he wants? Do we know how Americans feel about whether he should compromise here?
MONTANARO: Yeah, and, I mean, right now we very well could - could be headed for another shutdown because the president feels like he wants to dig in. His base is in support of it. The - much of the rest of the country is not. Our new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist polling found that 6 in 10 people want him to compromise rather than risk a shutdown.
GREENE: NPR politics editor Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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GREENE: The government is holding thousands of migrant children in shelters across this country.
INSKEEP: Yeah, this is news. A total of almost 15,000 children are in these shelters. To be clear, these are not the same kids who were separated from their families over the summer - separate deal. Most of these almost 15,000 are teenage boys from Central America who crossed the border alone. They are stuck in tent camps and other facilities because the Trump administration tightened the rules on sponsors who could take them in, and that has created a bottleneck.
GREENE: NPR's John Burnett has covered immigration for quite some time, has been following this story. He joins us now from El Paso, Texas, which is a - John, pretty near one of the tent cities that we're talking about in the border town of Tornillo.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Right.
GREENE: So tell us exactly what's going on in places like this.
BURNETT: Hey, David. Well, we've seen these waves of so-called unaccompanied children arriving at the border in recent years. And the numbers are up again. Just last month, border agents reported they're apprehending an average of 175 unaccompanied kids every day. And so they're running out of room for them at these government contracted shelters. The whole system nationwide now's at 92 percent capacity. One source who's familiar with the operation at Tornillo told me there are barely any beds left here. It's unsustainable.
The kids are caught in a bottleneck because the feds have to screen the adult sponsors who agree to take the children. That's usually a family member who's already living in the U.S. The child then stays with the sponsor while their asylum case is working its way through the system. And the vetting process has slowed to a crawl because - some say because of a requirement added earlier this year that anyone who lives in the sponsor's house has to be fingerprinted and get a criminal background check.
The Trump administration says, well, they're just taking extra precautions not to put the child in danger, for instance, if somebody in the household is a child molester. And so by relaxing that screening process, I was told Tornillo has 1,300 kids ready to release tomorrow.
GREENE: Well, I mean, before these kids are released, what is life like for them in these kinds of shelters?
BURNETT: Well, Tornillo's is the largest shelter in the country right now, with 2,800 kids.
BURNETT: I visited there over the summer, when it was smaller. And they stay in these big sand-colored tents lined up in rows on a patch of desert a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande. And - but it's only staffed up to care for 3,000 kids. So they're going to max out any week now. Child welfare experts say detention is never in the best interest of a child. It's bad for their mental and physical health. And now the average stay in Tornillo's approaching two months.
And that's why the camp has become so controversial. Protesters have come here from all over the country. This is Vince Perez, El Paso County commissioner. He wants the Tornillo camp gone. He complains it's giving his county a bad name.
VINCENT PEREZ: But, you know, it's just - it's - it's certainly not a positive thing to have this facility in El Paso County. We're already battling this perception that it's inherently a violent place.
GREENE: But John, it doesn't sound like there's evidence that this tent city could be gone anytime soon. I mean, what does the government say could be next?
BURNETT: Right, well, they could add more beds to this already bulging network of child shelters. Or they could find a way to relax that vetting of sponsors and release the kids more quickly. A senior official the Department of Health and - a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees these shelters, told me it's too early to say what action they could take if any. But everything is on the table. And they're continuing to look at options that don't jeopardize child safety.
GREENE: All right, NPR's John Burnett, speaking to us this morning from El Paso, Texas. John, thanks.
BURNETT: Sure, David.
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