News Brief: Political Dirt, Census Question, Uganda's Ebola Case

Jun 13, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 10:34 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What exactly did President Trump say about accepting help from foreign actors?

NOEL KING, HOST:

The president talked to ABC News about his son, who had a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign. Should Donald Trump Jr. have called the FBI about that meeting? The president dismissed that idea. Here's what he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos about why he wouldn't necessarily call the FBI.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABC NEWS")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You throw somebody out of your office. You do whatever you...

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Al Gore got a stolen briefing book. He called the FBI.

TRUMP: Well, that's different, a stolen briefing book. This isn't a - this is somebody that said, we have information on your opponent. Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break. Life doesn't work that way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen.

TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.

KING: The president claimed that this would be the same as ordinary opposition research conducted by candidates for Congress.

INSKEEP: We're joined now by NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, Good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with that assertion. Is accepting help from a foreign actor just the same as ordinary opposition research by candidates in the United States?

MONTANARO: No. I mean, it's not. Campaigns and outside domestic groups supporting campaigns will put research together of opponents' greatest vulnerabilities. But getting it from a foreign power is a completely different matter altogether. I mean, it's always been frowned upon for a campaign to take information from a foreign government. You know, as George Stephanopoulos actually pointed out to the president, that Al Gore's campaign in 2000 told the FBI about a stolen binder of information from a foreign government. The president said, you know, that was stolen. He's trying to draw some other kind of distinction.

But intelligence officials warn that taking this kind of information from either a person on a campaign - you know, could make either a person on a campaign with access to a candidate compromised and beholden to a foreign entity, or worse, it can make the candidate themselves compromised. And essentially, what Trump is doing, these people warn, is giving a green light to foreign governments and intelligence services to try to interfere in U.S. elections.

INSKEEP: Is it actually illegal to accept help from a foreign government?

MONTANARO: Well, it's really - that's kind of a murky question because it's not really a question of what's legal but what's appropriate. When you look at the legality, it's about whether or not you're taking a thing of value from a foreign government. And that's debatable whether a court would uphold that when it comes to, you know, any kind of information that's delivered. That's why foreign entities, for example, are not allowed to, you know, explicitly donate to U.S. elections. That's outlawed.

But the point is that, until the 2016 campaign and the Trump presidency, there's always been a line that all of these candidates have upheld between foreign governments and U.S. elections. And Trump instead seems to display really kind of this win-at-all-costs attitude that comes right up to the legal line.

INSKEEP: And then makes the false claim that everybody does it, as we hear there. Now, I want to ask about the FBI director specifically since the president of the United States said the FBI director is wrong. And this is an FBI director he appointed, Christopher Wray. What was it that Christopher Wray actually said that the president says is wrong?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, you're not going to see, like, a statement from the CIA or the FBI. But Christopher Wray, who was appointed by President Trump, told a congressional hearing just last month that any campaign should alert the FBI of foreign interference attempts so everything is on the level. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: If any public official or member of any campaign is contacted by any nation-state or anybody acting on behalf of a nation-state about influencing or interfering with our election, then that's something that the FBI would want to know about.

MONTANARO: You know, and other foreign - other former, you know, intelligence community officials who've admittedly been critical of Trump in the past, you know, again are warning that this is inappropriate. And you'll likely hear today from more of them. And what's really going to be curious is whether or not Republican members of Congress think that what the president said were - was appropriate or not and if the White House winds up walking back any of this.

INSKEEP: Well, since the president said everybody does it, including members of Congress, it'll be particularly interesting if members of Congress agree that in fact what they do is the same as accepting foreign interference. Domenico...

MONTANARO: Yeah, we'll see.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. The president is also commenting on a battle over whether to ask who is a United States citizen in the 2020 census.

KING: That's right. The Supreme Court is considering a request by the Trump administration to add the question to the upcoming survey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And you have the right to ask whether or not somebody is a citizen of the United States.

KING: And then, yesterday, the president asserted executive privilege to block Congress from seeing information related to that citizenship question. Lawmakers then voted to hold some administration officials in contempt.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this story. He's in New York. Hansi, good morning.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So let's keep this straight. There is a House vote holding some Cabinet secretaries in contempt, and then there's this court case. How do they relate to one another, if at all?

WANG: Well, you have parallel investigations essentially going on. One fight in the courts - lawsuits over this question that ultimately landed in the Supreme Court - and you also have this fight in Congress related to this contempt vote.

And this fight in Congress could ultimately turn into another court battle because the chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, now that there's a contempt vote, can possibly go directly to the courts to force the Trump administration - to ask the courts to force the Trump administration to release these documents that the House Democrats want to see. They want to see unredacted versions that they believe these documents could provide additional evidence of why the administration wants to ask this question.

INSKEEP: Granting that we don't know what the documents say exactly, what do Democrats believe are in there?

WANG: Well, we've seen unredacted portions of these emails and memos. And they ultimately contradict the Trump administration's original story about where this question came from. Originally, the Trump administration officials say this was a request for a citizenship question that originated from the Justice Department. And these emails show that, instead, it was the Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, that he pressured his staff to get a citizenship question onto the 2020 census and that he considered it a months-old request just shortly after he was first appointed the Commerce secretary back in 2017.

INSKEEP: OK. So there's the House action, and then there is this court case. It's before the Supreme Court. You've told us in your past reporting that time is utterly of the essence. They're about to start printing out forms, printing out documents for the 2020 census. It's coming right up. And yet, last night, advocacy groups asked the Supreme Court to delay its ruling. Why would they do that?

WANG: They say that there are new documents that the Supreme Court ultimately should consider and that they should let a lower court review those documents and allegations. Essentially, the plaintiffs are arguing that these documents show that there was a cover-up within the administration to cover up the real reason, they say, for adding this question, which is to politically benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people during the next round of redistricting after the census.

Administration says this is about better protecting the Voting Rights Act. But this has been a big point of contention here about exactly why the administration wants to ask this question. And this deadline is really very, very close. July 1 is when printing has to start, the Census Bureau, says for 1.5 billion forms.

INSKEEP: One point five billion. Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: OK. Overnight, health officials in Uganda said that a woman diagnosed with Ebola died hours after her grandson died, having also contracted that disease.

KING: Yeah. The boy's brother is also sick. And the reason that this is crucial is that these are the first confirmed cases of Ebola to spread across the border from a big outbreak in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, according to the WHO, there are nearly 1,400 confirmed cases in that outbreak. That makes it the second-largest outbreak of Ebola on record.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is watching the story. Jason, good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So there's the concern of a big outbreak but also the concern of its spreading. How, if it's known, did this disease spread from one country to another?

BEAUBIEN: So this family that we're talking about, the child who just died in Uganda and his grandmother, they have family on both sides of this border. This outbreak has been in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo that's right up against Uganda. And apparently, part of the family went across from Uganda into Congo to go to the funeral of another member of the family who had died. And they were on their way back to Uganda when they were actually stopped in Congo by Congolese officials.

And supposedly, 12 of the 14 members of this family who were traveling together were thought to be symptomatic. They were stopped. They were put into an isolation unit at a hospital. And six of them slipped away and supposedly took, like, a little footpath back into Uganda, where, again, they fell incredibly ill and ended up in a hospital in Uganda. So that's how this this virus has turned into an international incident and got across the border into Uganda. That's what authorities are telling us at the moment.

INSKEEP: Wow. So they traveled in spite of obvious warnings and even attempts to restrain them. I guess that underlines how difficult it can be to contain a disease that is so contagious.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, absolutely. And this is sort of the - what the nightmare scenario has been. People have been concerned that this outbreak could turn into a much wider problem and that people who are sick could end up going into Uganda, could end up going to a larger city in Congo and end up with a much larger outbreak of it.

INSKEEP: We've been hearing about this disease for years, needless to say, Jason. And I understand it's a virulent disease. It's hard to contain. It's going to come up from time to time. But people have been on this in Africa for four years. How did the outbreak get so serious in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

BEAUBIEN: Basically, because it's hit in an area that has been very unstable. This part of Congo in the northeast of the country has been dealing with conflict for years, every - going back to the days of Mobutu Sese Seko. You've got different people - you know, different people who are claiming to be in control, different militias. And there's just a lot of distrust among the population. It's incredibly poor area. They didn't have great health facilities to begin with.

And when this hit, people didn't trust that they were actually going to be taken care of if they ended up going into these facilities. And they felt that maybe this is some sort of plot against them. And that has really made this one so much harder than other outbreaks. We have the technology that - it's improving in terms of tech dealing with this. And really, this has got to do with a social problem there and people not trusting authorities.

INSKEEP: So instability and conspiracy theories, not a good combination.

BEAUBIEN: No, not at all.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks so much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUREL HALO'S "FOCUS I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.