News Brief: DOJ Attorneys Testify, Trump Rethinks Campaign, MLB Returns
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Does political pressure influence the decision-making at the Justice Department? Two whistleblowers, who will testify on Capitol Hill today, say, yes.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Right. So one of the two DOJ lawyers, Aaron Zelinsky, says he heard that President Trump's longtime political adviser, Roger Stone, received preferential treatment because of his relationship with the president. And then a second DOJ attorney, John Elias, is planning to tell House lawmakers about his concerns with antitrust investigations launched under Attorney General William Barr. Now, Barr, earlier this year, we should say, told ABC News that part of his job is to make sure there is no political interference.
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WILLIAM BARR: I think the essential role of the attorney general is to keep law enforcement, the criminal process, sacrosanct, to make sure there is no political interference in it.
MARTIN: NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has seen part of what they will say. And she joins us now. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. And sorry about the dog.
MARTIN: No worries, we love dogs. So let's talk more about that Roger Stone case. What does Aaron Zelinsky say happened there?
JOHNSON: Yeah. He's a lawyer who's worked at the Justice Department for about six years. He says that he never before in his career saw anybody receive preferential treatment because of politics until the Roger Stone case. He says he heard from people in the office that Stone received favorable treatment because of his relationship to the president and that a higher up in the U.S. attorney's office here in D.C. was receiving heavy pressure. In part, he was worried the higher up in the U.S. attorney's office because he was afraid of the president and what the president might say or do if they didn't try to reduce punishment recommendation for Roger Stone.
MARTIN: OK. So that's what we're expected to hear from one of two DOJ whistleblowers. David mentioned the other one, John Elias. He's going to allege something about antitrust investigations. What can you tell us there?
JOHNSON: John Elias has worked at the Justice Department for much longer than Aaron Zelinsky. He's worked in leadership roles in the antitrust division for presidents who are Democrats and also Republicans. And he says he's noticed in this administration, the Trump administration, that they've opened antitrust investigations in at least two sets of cases that seemed to be improper.
One involves an investigation of 10 marijuana businesses. He said that Attorney General Bill Barr didn't like the marijuana industry. And so the department opened an investigation even though there was no real valid basis to do so. In another investigation, an antitrust was opened four days after the president tweeted his displeasure about an agreement that the state of California had reached with four automakers about emission standards. Both those investigations were closed with no action. Elias says politics was involved.
MARTIN: So Carrie, these two attorneys are still at the DOJ. Is that going to affect what they can and can't say?
JOHNSON: Yeah. I want to emphasize how unusual, how really rare it is for attorneys at this level in the Justice Department who are still working there to testify on Capitol Hill. This almost never happens. The Justice Department has a policy against it. I do expect that there may be some objections by the Justice Department in the middle of some of this testimony today.
But as Aaron Zelinsky has noted in his opening statement that there are reasons why he can answer some questions and can't answer others. But if the department is hoping to avoid embarrassment, he says, he can still answer those questions today.
MARTIN: In just a couple of seconds, Carrie, has the attorney general said anything about the accusations?
JOHNSON: The attorney general spokesman says that this is hearsay and that he stands behind his comments that politics does not influence any business at the Justice Department.
MARTIN: NPR's Carrie Johnson for us. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
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MARTIN: OK. Thousands of young conservatives were shoulder to shoulder inside a megachurch in Phoenix yesterday. They were there to see President Trump.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Who were the people that stood up? I just want to - stand up, please. Who said I love you? Let's - whoa.
GREENE: Yeah. So for about 90 minutes, they were cheering. They were yelling. And even though coronavirus cases in the city are on the rise, they were mostly not wearing face masks. This comes after that rally on Saturday night in Tulsa, Okla., where people just didn't show up in the numbers that had been expected. Large sections of that arena were left empty. And all this has the Trump campaign reassessing what his rallies are going to look like going forward.
MARTIN: We've got NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith with us this morning. Hi, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: What are you hearing from the people in President Trump's orbit about that Tulsa rally and what it means for the campaign?
KEITH: A White House official described it to me as an unforced error and a self-inflicted wound. The campaign underestimated how many people may be nervous to attend an indoor rally in the middle of a pandemic with protests outside. And they overhyped expected attendance. I spoke with Congressman Tom Cole from Oklahoma. He's a Republican. He flew on Air Force One to and from the rally. And he said the campaign is working to adjust to a new reality with coronavirus and those protests.
TOM COLE: They'll get better. I mean, it's like anything else. You haven't done it for three, four months. This is your first trip back. You begin to rethink, OK, what do we need to tweak? What do we need to do different?
KEITH: And he described the president's rally speech as, like, seeing something off Broadway. And it'll be more like Broadway later. He said the president needs to do a better job of describing what his second term agenda would be and actually landing some punches on his opponent, Joe Biden.
MARTIN: So what did he say? I mean, in Arizona, the venue was smaller than we saw in Tulsa. But it was packed. Did President Trump change his message at all in Arizona?
KEITH: No. He really brought back a lot of the material from the Tulsa rally Saturday. In some ways, those rallies are like a focus group for President Trump. And when he sees something that he thinks is working, he keeps bringing it back. And an indication that he thought one thing is working is that he brought that back, this riff where he used an offensive term to describe the coronavirus.
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TRUMP: It's got all different names - Wuhan. Wuhan was catching on. Coronavirus, right?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kung flu.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kung flu.
TRUMP: Kung flu, yes.
KEITH: Maybe you could hear the crowd sort of egging him on to say it again. And I should say that that wasn't technically a campaign rally there in Phoenix. It was put on by a group called Turning Point, which is basically a Trump fan club for young people.
MARTIN: So I mean, Tom Cole, we heard him say, hey, they might need to adjust the whole inside rally thing. But it's one thing for Tom Cole to say it, it's quite another for the Trump campaign or the president himself. I mean, are they going to keep going with these rallies?
KEITH: Well, the communications director said in a statement that President Trump is eager to keep hitting the campaign trail. But he didn't answer questions about what rallies might look like going forward. There are a lot of ideas floating around. Republican strategist Ron Bonjean suggested the campaign return to what worked for Trump in 2016, rallies in airport hangars.
RON BONJEAN: You're going to allow a few thousand people in. They're going to be able to deliver that image of enthusiasm while the president stands, you know, on a stage with this plane in the background. It's a great backdrop. It signifies, you know, momentum and strength.
KEITH: Basically, outdoors, remote to keep protesters at bay and no seats that could turn up empty.
MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: David, my friend, there is good news, finally Baseball's back.
GREENE: So happy, I really need some baseball.
MARTIN: (Laughter) I knew you would be.
GREENE: I know there are a lot of risks, but I really need some baseball. Hopefully they can do this safely. So Major League Baseball...
GREENE: ...And its players union, they announced yesterday that they have reached this agreement to play a season. It's a shortened season, 60 games. Players are going to report for spring training by July 1. Opening day scheduled for July 23 or 24. These disagreements over money and safety had delayed the return of America's pastime.
MARTIN: Indeed. So NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman has been following the story, joins us now. Hi, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Following and following and following.
GOLDMAN: Good morning.
MARTIN: So much following. Good morning.
MARTIN: What's it going to look like? What are these games going to be?
GOLDMAN: A sprint, Rachel, you know? Baseball normally is a marathon, 162 games from spring to the front edges of winter - now 60-game schedule, which the union still has to review. Games are largely going to be against division foes. They're regionally close so that cuts down on travel. For the first time since 1973, when designated hitters started batting for pitchers in the American League, now there will be a designated hitter in the National League, too. Extra-inning games will start with a runner on second base. That's a little Little League-ish, don't you think?
GOLDMAN: But this is a health and safety measure to prevent super long games. Teams don't want a bunch of exhausted players with the season jammed into a very short schedule.
MARTIN: Right. And also, I know it's controversial - as a fan, I'm all about the shorter baseball game, to be perfectly honest, and shorter season. You know, don't at me. OK. So why did this take so long, Tom.
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) We're going to check back with you.
GOLDMAN: There were long and acrimonious negotiations over money and the number of games to be played. Players wanted more games so they could make more money because their salaries were already going to be greatly reduced. And owners wanted fewer games. After all that time of back-and-forth, the two sides never agreed. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred unilaterally imposed this season. He had the power to do that. So players are going back to work. They're not overjoyed. And they might file a grievance to try to reclaim up to a billion dollars in pay.
MARTIN: What are the cost and the benefits of the shorter season?
GOLDMAN: Well, you actually start with every team having a chance if they can put together a hot streak in a very short regular season. Conversely, a slow-starting team won't have time to rebound. Exhibit A, Rachel, the Washington Nationals last year. After 50 games, they were 19-31. Of course, there surge from that point is now legendary. They went on to win the World Series.
MARTIN: Go Nats.
MARTIN: So what's the sport expecting to hear from its fans - besides me - about this?
GOLDMAN: Some are thrilled, like you sound.
GOLDMAN: Sports fans are very good at forgiving and forgetting and just getting caught up in the games. Others are angry about the players and owners battling while the world has been fraying with the pandemic, protests in the streets, huge unemployment. And it's left some fans saying a pox on both your houses to players and owners.
MARTIN: NPR's Tom Goldman. We appreciate it, Tom. Thank you.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
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