DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump is expected to be ringing in the New Year from Florida.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yeah, the president's been celebrating the holidays there. He's been hitting the golf course. And that's where he was yesterday when a reporter for The New York Times caught up with him. Now, The Times says it was a 30-minute impromptu sit-down after the president finished lunch. And they talked about a bunch of things, including the U.S.-China relationship and the Russia investigation.
GREENE: And we have NBC's White House Correspondent Geoff Bennett here in the studio with us, also a familiar voice on our airwaves. Hey there, Geoff. It's good to see you.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: You too. Good morning.
GREENE: So the biggest headline here seems to be these comments from the president about the Russia investigation, right?
GREENE: Walk us through what he said.
BENNETT: So President Trump told The New York Times' Michael Schmidt that he expects Robert Mueller to treat him fairly but that the investigation, in the president's words, quote, "make the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position." And Trump, David, in this interview insists 16 times that Mueller has found, what he says, is no collusion between his campaign and Russia.
GREENE: Only 16 times.
BENNETT: Only 16 times. Of course, we don't know that yet because the special counsel investigation is, of course, not yet over. But the president is framing this as bad for the country. He says so the sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country. Those are the president's words.
GREENE: Interesting he says that Mueller's going to treat him fairly because a lot of his allies have been suggesting that there's bias within the FBI and within Mueller's camp. So he seems to be getting away from some of his allies in that respect.
GREENE: He - 16 times talking about collusion, talking about Mueller, talking about how he thinks this investigation looks. You cover this White House. Is he obsessed with this Russia investigation?
BENNETT: Obsessed with wanting it to be over. Look. The investigation is taking a lot longer than the president had hoped to, based on the guidance of his own lawyers. Ty Cobb, one of the president's lawyers, said that the Russia probe would be likely finished shortly sometime in the new year. But that, of course, does not seem to be the case. Legal experts - I think also historical precedent suggests that this investigation could last well into 2018 - perhaps even into the midterm elections, which, of course, presents a whole, you know, different sort of political problems for this president.
I think the biggest question, looking into next year, is when will the president sit and be interviewed by the special counsel. I can tell you that as of last week that interview had not yet happened, according to a source familiar. But legal experts I've spoken with say that they fully expect the president to sit for an interview with the special counsel. They say it's highly unlikely that this investigation could conclude without that happening.
GREENE: I was really struck that this interview seemed so impromptu. I mean, he finished his lunch and then decides to sit down with the New York Times with no aides even there. There was some nice details in The New York Times story. Did you learn anything about this president?
BENNETT: Well, I learned that the president - these are the sort of situations in which the president feels most comfortable talking to reporters, right? It was this impromptu interview happening around a table at the golf course, where the president had just finished golfing with some of his friends.
GREENE: He's in his comfort zone.
BENNETT: His comfort zone - and what's interesting about it is this. The president left Washington without having conducted that traditional end-of-year press conference, which typically happens in the East Room or in the Rose Garden. The entire White House Press Corps is able to ask questions. They're able to ask follow-up questions if an answer seems a little evasive. The president saw fit to give this interview on his own terms to Michael Schmidt. Of course, this is a president who finds it politically useful to discredit media organizations, including The New York Times.
BENNETT: Of course, there is always a disconnect between what he says and what he does. This president, of course, giving this one-on-one interview, again, to the New York Times.
GREENE: NBC White House Correspondent Geoff Bennett in our studios this morning. Geoff, thanks. And Happy New Year.
BENNETT: You too.
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GREENE: All right, some really tragic news from New York City this morning. At least 12 people are dead after a fire broke out in an apartment building in the Bronx.
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BILL DE BLASIO: We're here at the scene of an unspeakable tragedy. This will rank as one of the worst losses of life to a fire in many, many years.
KING: That was New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio. He went to the scene last night. And de Blasio says the victims include a 1-year-old child. Several other people are in critical condition.
GREENE: One of the journalists covering this fire is Angus Chen, who joins us from New York. Hi, Angus.
ANGUS CHEN, BYLINE: Hi.
GREENE: I know you have spent the early hours of the morning in touch with city officials. What are you learning about this blaze?
CHEN: The blaze? It sounds like it started around 6:51 p.m. just before - or just before 6:51 p.m. The fire department got a call at that time and was on the scene just a few minutes after that. It says - they said that it took them about two hours to fight the fire. I spoke with a representative from the fire department, and he said it's always harder to fight a fire in the cold. And last night, it was really cold, and it was also very windy. And they didn't put them out until just after 9 o'clock p.m. There are four people who are in critical condition in the hospital as of last night - late last night. And two - there were three other injuries. Two were serious but not life-threatening. And one was a minor injury that was sort of let go right away.
GREENE: All right, so this death toll could actually go up. We're talking about - what? - like a five-story apartment building in the Bronx. What is this location?
CHEN: That's exactly right. It's a five-story building in the Belmont area of the Bronx. This is right next to the Bronx Zoo and really close to the Bronx's historical Little Italy district.
GREENE: Do we know what caused this?
CHEN: We don't know what caused this. Right now, the fire department is only saying the fire began on the first floor and quickly moved up the building. But the - so city officials will be on the scene for maybe the next day or two as they try to figure out what started the fire.
GREENE: There are some reports though that this building had some known violations, right? I mean, is - I wonder if that's a common problem in New York City and if the mayor and city officials think, you know, this is a reminder they have to do something about that.
CHEN: You know, the fire department didn't comment about that to me. But it is a often talked about problem in New York City. I'm not exactly sure how the city or the mayor's office will be responding to it at this time.
GREENE: All right, reporter Angus Chen, who's speaking to us on Skype from New York about a tragic fire that's killed at least 12 people in the Bronx in an apartment building. Angus, thanks for your reporting.
CHEN: Sure, thank you.
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GREENE: OK, Liberia has a new president-elect, and his supporters are ecstatic. They have been celebrating in the streets of the capital, Monrovia, and chanting his name, George Weah.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) George.
KING: The former soccer-turned-politician beat the incumbent vice president in a runoff election. He won more than 60 percent of the vote. Weah was a compelling candidate. He has a rags-to-riches story, and he cultivated an image as the candidate of the people and the youth. He'll succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was Africa's first woman elected president, and this was Liberia's first peaceful democratic handover in generations.
GREENE: And we have NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on the line. Hi, Ofeibea.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.
GREENE: So George Weah wins this election by a handsome margin. Can you tell us a little more about this former soccer star?
QUIST-ARCTON: Let me tell you first that he's tweeted and said, my fellow Liberians, I deeply feel the emotion of all the nation. I measured the importance and the responsibility of the immense task, which I embrace today. Change is on. And that is really important because George Weah really represents change. We've said that he has the rags-to-riches story. He was brought up in the shantytowns around the capital Monrovia. He was brought up poor. And then he became an international soccer star, the only African who's ever been named the global player of the year by FIFA, the global soccer world body.
And then he retired and took up politics. This is his second bid for president, and he has won. Weah is not of the political or social elite from the settler stock - of freed enslaved Americans who declared Liberia a republic in 1847. He is very much seen as different - that he doesn't come from that stock. This also comes with some problems because people say he doesn't have enough education. He doesn't have enough experience. But he is certainly a determined man.
GREENE: Well, determined but certainly facing challenges that are huge. I mean, years of civil war - right? - and the Ebola outbreak, which so devastated the country. I mean, is - he's facing the immense task as he put it in that tweet.
QUIST-ARCTON: And indeed he has a tough act to follow because Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the outgoing president, is Harvard-educated. She's an international economist. And yet many Liberians say she has consolidated peace. She has brought us stability after these civil wars and during Ebola. But she has not lifted Liberians out of poverty so that many - especially unemployed young men in a country where unemployment is huge - youth unemployment - are looking to George Weah to deliver on these. It's a very, very tough call.
GREENE: When we hear that excitement in the streets of the capital, Ofeibea, how deep does that optimism run? I mean, is there doubt that this country is so fragile, and someone coming in with very little experience might not be able to handle this job?
QUIST-ARCTON: And with that enthusiasm come expectations, as we've said. This is - it's true. The first peaceful transfer of power from one elected administration to another in Liberia. But, you know, people question. His running mate is Jewel Howard Taylor who is the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, former warlord and former Liberian president who is in jail for war crimes. Is he going to be, you know, twiddling and being the puppeteer - the puppet master while Weah is the puppet? Many questions yet unanswered, but there is a lot of hope in Liberia today.
GREENE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from her base in Dakar, Senegal. Ofeibea, thanks as always.
QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you, David.
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