News Brief: DHS Secretary, Iran's Revolutionary Guard, College Scandal
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Temporary employees fill a very specific need at a specific time, and they can give employers flexibility. But what happens when those temp workers are working at the highest levels of the U.S. government?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, back in January, President Trump acknowledged the number of people serving in his administration who are working in an acting capacity.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I sort of like acting - gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting.
GREENE: While some of those roles have since been permanently filled - President Trump's picks for attorney general and EPA administrator were both confirmed by the U.S. Senate - but other vacancies now exist. And the Department of Homeland Security is particularly impacted. Tomorrow is Kirstjen Nielsen's last day on the job as secretary. Two other prominent agencies within the DHS, FEMA and ICE, still don't have Senate-approved leaders. So how long is it going to stay this way?
MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is with us this morning. Hey, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hey, there.
MARTIN: So we know that the head of Customs and Border Protection has been tapped by President Trump to replace Nielsen - or to step up in an acting capacity as the head of DHS. Any sense, at this point, who would be nominated to take the job permanently?
SNELL: No. And you know, that lack of, you know, certainty is creating a lot of turmoil in terms of when I talk to folks on Capitol Hill about what they expect to happen. The entire nominations process is actually very tense right now.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to make it easier to approve lower court and subcabinet appointees. And while that's speeding things along for some of these, like, lower court judges, it has everyone on high alert. And Democrats are going after the administration right now for constant churn in personnel. I think that this is causing a lot of tension among senators. And I think that's really, really well captured by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor.
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CHUCK SCHUMER: And what he's done by these constant firings and constant change of policy is simply created chaos at the border. Nobody knows what the policy will be from day to day and week to week and month to month.
SNELL: Yeah. So he's talking about just the feeling among members of Congress that they don't know what to expect from this administration. And that's going to make it really hard for President Trump to nominate somebody who is going to kind of sail through the process, which is what any administration would like - not to mention the fact that an immigration hard-liner would have an even more difficult task since Republicans and Democrats have been very skeptical of some of this president's policies.
MARTIN: Right. So let's talk about the specific vacancies. I mean...
MARTIN: ...We mentioned a couple there in the intro. But there - I mean, the president has a lot of roles to fill. We should also just note that he fired the head of the Secret Service, which is under the Department of Homeland Security. He did that this week, too.
SNELL: Right. So there are acting secretaries at the Department of Defense, Interior, Office of Management and Budget, the Small Business Administration. And this is a lot of people in this Cabinet who are not permanent. And that doesn't even cover the judicial nominees and subcabinet appointments that are not filled.
Now, the president may favor this style, but it really does make lawmakers anxious. It's hard to negotiate with an administration and know who's calling the shots and make policy plans with temps.
MARTIN: Right. But it doesn't seem like President Trump - his personality - I mean, he's not someone who might care about making Congress anxious, shall we say? Do we have any sense of a timeline as to when any of these jobs would get filled?
SNELL: No, but there's a reason to move fast. Things are contentious now, but they won't get any better as the election draws near. So Republicans will want to get things moving pretty quickly.
MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thanks, Kelsey.
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MARTIN: The Trump administration has been fixated on the threat it sees from Iran. And now the administration has made an unprecedented move.
GREENE: Yesterday, the U.S. designated an element of Iran's security forces as a terrorist organization. We're talking about Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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MIKE POMPEO: For 40 years, the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guard Corps has actively engaged in terrorism and created, supported and directed other terrorist groups. The IRGC masquerades as a legitimate military organization, but none of us should be fooled.
GREENE: OK. So this is part of Iran's government, the Revolutionary Guard, that will now be joining ISIS and Boko Haram on the terrorist list. It means that anyone who deals with them could run the risk of facing criminal charges. Among the many questions here is how the government in Tehran is going to be responding to this.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, who's been following this and can give us more context. Hey, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
MARTIN: So David just said this - that the designation means anyone who deals with the Revolutionary Guard could run the risk of criminal charges. What else does the designation mean in practice?
KENYON: Well, what it means in practice - even on that trade question - is dependent on how aggressively the administration really wants to enforce this. As you mentioned, it could lead Washington to act against any company doing business with the Revolutionary Guard. And that could get complicated because the Guards have ties to the Iranian economy that aren't always apparent from the outside - or even necessarily from the inside sometimes.
So this could be another reason for companies to be cautious about trade with Iran. This is the first time it's happened, a foreign government element being declared a terrorist organization. It's due to happen on April 15. And Secretary of State Pompeo. Listed a string of attacks as justification. He talked about Khobar Towers in 1996, 19 U.S. servicemen killed in Saudi Arabia; a failed attempt in 2011 to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. - Pompeo said ample justification for this decision.
MARTIN: Although those are examples that were years ago. Did they give any...
KENYON: Yes, they were.
MARTIN: ...Explanation for why they are making this designation in this moment?
KENYON: As for now, Iranians have some ideas about that. The foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called it another election eve gift to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader who's standing for re-election.
This is probably the most high-profile move from the Trump administration since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear agreement - reimposed sanctions on Iran, including on its oil and gas sector. The Europeans have tried to set up a workaround to help companies continue trading with Iran, but that's not really expected to have a major impact. And of course, even before this designation for the Revolutionary Guard Corps, there were already hundreds and hundreds of Iranian entities and individuals under U.S. sanctions.
MARTIN: So what are the broader implications of this? I mean, we're already seeing Iran kind of engage in a tit for tat here. Right?
KENYON: Yes. That's exactly right. As promised, Tehran responded with more or less identical steps against the U.S. The Iranian National Security Council dubbed the U.S. a sponsor of terrorism. It's designating CENTCOM - that's the U.S. Central Command - and its forces as terrorists.
In Iran, the U.S. move does appear to be pushing Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, closer to the Revolutionary Guards, who are not his natural allies. Rouhani is hailing the Revolutionary Guards as defenders of Iran. The speaker of the Parliament's quoted as calling the U.S. move the "climax of stupidity and arrogance." Lawmakers have been chanting death to America. Now the question is - will this escalate beyond a war of words? No sign of that so far, but we'll have to see.
MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon for us this morning. Peter, thanks. We appreciate it.
KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.
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MARTIN: All right. The Department of Justice has confirmed that 13 parents, including the actress Felicity Huffman, have now agreed to plead guilty in the college admissions scandal.
GREENE: Yeah. Let's remember that big story that broke last month. Federal prosecutors revealed a multimillion-dollar scam that enabled wealthy families to allegedly bribe their way into elite colleges by having test scores and athletic achievements falsified. Fifty people were charged at the time. This is U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling unveiling the details on March 12.
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ANDREW LELLING: This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud. There can be no separate college admissions system for the wealthy. And I'll add, there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.
MARTIN: We're joined in the studio by NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who's been following all this. Thanks for coming in, Elissa.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So let's start with the news. Exactly what are these 13 parents - what are they agreeing to plead guilty to?
NADWORNY: Yeah. So more than a dozen parents and one college coach have agreed to plead guilty. And they were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud in connection with this scheme.
So according to prosecutors, those charges carry a punishment of up to 20 years. But if parents cooperate with prosecutors, they're likely to get a much lighter sentence. Felicity Huffman, the actress best-known for the TV show "Desperate Housewives"...
NADWORNY: ...Her plea agreement - in her plea agreement, prosecutors recommended a prison sentence at, quote, "the low end" of the sentencing range. In other cases, they've recommended 12 to 18 months behind bars.
MARTIN: But that means that people involved in this, including Felicity Huffman, could see jail time.
NADWORNY: Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, we've actually heard from Huffman. She released a statement with an apology saying she was, quote, "ashamed and has deep regrets over what she's done." And she also says her daughter knew nothing about her actions. And she apologized to students who, quote, "work hard every day to get into college"
MARTIN: I mean, yeah, that's what this has been all about - right? - this huge awakening, really, about how privilege and class play into something that everybody aspires to get, like a college education in America.
NADWORNY: Yeah, absolutely.
MARTIN: I mean, how have you watched this all unfold - this reckoning, really, that's happening?
NADWORNY: Yeah. I mean, this has really tapped into a lot of frustrations over wealth and privilege and then how that mixes with this idea of higher education being accessible. So yeah. Exactly as you said, we love this idea that if we work hard, if we have talent, we're able to get into these schools. And this story has kind of shown that that's just not true. It's pretty amazing. These schools are almost mythical - you know, Yale, Stanford. Like...
NADWORNY: ...Students dream about getting in these schools. And that's despite the fact that just 1 percent of all college students go to these highly selective schools. So...
MARTIN: Right because there's data that says that for a certain segment of really wealthy, white students in particular - makes a marginal difference in your life. But for certain students who come from less privileged backgrounds, it can really change your whole trajectory.
NADWORNY: Absolutely. And it's been kind of a re-examination of then, like, if these schools are serving those wealthy students, like, you know - it's really hard for low-income students to actually get that path.
MARTIN: Right. So as this unfolds, where are you going to be looking to determine what changes are actually going to occur here - if any - like, on a systemic level?
NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, I think one thing we're watching is kind of what the sentences will be - if these folks will actually get prison time. I think, in the kind of larger conversation, we're looking at renewed conversations about equity and college access and kind of where all this fits. SATs - like, should colleges require tests like this? Those are some of...
MARTIN: Because this was at the center of the fraud...
NADWORNY: The fraud, exactly.
MARTIN: ...Like, fudging scores on standardized tests.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Elissa Nadworny for us this morning. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.
NADWORNY: Yep, you bet.
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