Morning News Brief
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Where conservatives are gathering outside our nation's Capitol in light of the shooting in Parkland, Fla. And, David, at such a gathering, there is obviously, in any year, going to be a lot of talk about the Second Amendment but particularly this year.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, absolutely. This is the CPAC conference, we should say, and the chief executive of the NRA took the stage yesterday. Wayne LaPierre delivered this aggressive defense of gun rights and even invoked his own words from a speech after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.
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WAYNE LAPIERRE: To stop a bad guy with a gun, it takes a good guy with a gun.
GREENE: He made a lot of news for those remarks in 2012 and said them again now. We should say, President Trump has suggested strengthening background checks and also raising the age for people who want to buy an assault-style weapon. That is something that the NRA is against.
MARTIN: All right. So let's dig into this with NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell in the studio with me. Good morning, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: All right. So David just mentioned the president has talked about strengthening background checks and raising the age for people who want to buy an assault-style weapon. Can you flesh those out for us? Just get us up to speed on what the president has articulated in the last couple of days because there's been a lot of things.
SNELL: Right. The president has taken a number of positions that are a bit at odds with the NRA and possibly at odds with some members of his own party in Congress. He tweeted yesterday that he says, quote, "I will be strongly pushing for comprehensive background checks with an emphasis on mental health, raise the age to 21 and end the sale of bump stocks." He went on to talk about Congress being in a mood to finally get something done.
Now, those are all things that have been discussed at some different point in time. The issue of bump stocks is something that the president says he wanted to deal with by discussing that directly with agencies. But it would take Congress to step in to do some of these things like raising the age and making changes to the background check system, which is something they've been discussing for years since Sandy Hook.
MARTIN: Right. And the bump stock issue was the thing that was - came after the massacre in Las Vegas.
MARTIN: So clearly, this moment feels different. There's a new kind of galvanizing of efforts to get something done. The president is going to address the CPAC conference today, an audience clearly with a strong bent towards gun rights. How are they going to receive his proposals to make these changes?
SNELL: Well, there are some people who say - many Republicans who say that it is reasonable to make changes to the background check system. There is a bill that has been floating out there. It is a bipartisan bill that would make changes to the background check system, but it hasn't made any progress. So it's possible that this could be received well, but we also don't know exactly what the president is going to say here. Is he going to embrace this, or is he going to bring up this new idea that he floated of giving bonuses to teachers to have them learn how to carry guns? Or is he going to bring up some other new idea that hasn't been fully vetted in the public sphere?
MARTIN: I mean, it's worth noting that if a president was going to convince the NRA to get onboard with gun control measures, it's going to have to be a Republican. So...
MARTIN: ...You know, Barack Obama wasn't going to be able to do that, so there is an opportunity here.
SNELL: There is an opportunity here, but I will say that members of Congress are coming back into town on Monday. And Senator Marco Rubio said that he thought that they would be able to get some sort of unanimous consent to move forward on gun legislation. But I talked to Republicans and Democrats alike who said that they didn't necessarily think that that was really where things were headed yet and that there are plenty of Democrats, particularly red-state Democrats, who don't want to take a vote on reining in gun rights, and there are some other Democrats who don't trust that a gun control bill that was supported by the NRA could also be something that Democrats should be supporting.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Kelsey Snell for us this morning - thanks so much, Kelsey.
SNELL: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. So there is some new movement on the special counsel's Russia investigation.
GREENE: Yeah. Yesterday, a grand jury returned 32 counts against President Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and Manafort's associate, Rick Gates. We should say both men had already been indicted by a separate grand jury, as you might remember, last fall, and they pleaded not guilty to those charges.
MARTIN: Right. So we have got Josh Gerstein on the line. He's a White House reporter for Politico, and he's on Skype this morning. Hey, Josh.
JOSH GERSTEIN: Hey, Rachel, how are you?
MARTIN: I'm doing well. Explain what these new charges are all about.
GERSTEIN: Well, they are tax charges and bank fraud charges. It was a little surprising to some of us back when these men were first indicted in October since there was a lot of discussion in that first indictment about them having laundered large sums of money - we're talking about tens of millions of dollars - that there weren't specific charges that they had not paid their federal taxes. This indictment contains those charges for each of them, saying that for four years, in the early part of this decade, they did not pay their federal taxes.
And then it specifically alleges that they submitted false documents in connection with about $20 million worth of real estate loans that Manafort obtained. They took some profit and loss statements from Manafort's consulting business and doctored them in various ways and sent them to various different banks to get those loans.
MARTIN: So what, if anything, does this have to do with the original question at the center of the special counsel's investigation about whether or not the Trump campaign was cooperating with any kind of Russian entities?
GERSTEIN: So it doesn't have anything directly to do with alleged collusion with Russia, but some of the fraud that was allegedly being committed, particularly the bank fraud, was in the period of mid-2016. And that's when both these men, both Manafort and Gates, were working at the Trump campaign. And it suggests that at least Manafort was in pretty significant financial distress. It wasn't that he didn't have any money at all, but he faced various situations with, I think, about a half dozen properties that he owned in different places where he needed immediate kind of refinancing from various banks. And there was just a lot of action going on on the banking front that suggests...
MARTIN: And the implication of that is that he's vulnerable to some kind of blackmail or influence campaign.
GERSTEIN: Right. And that certainly suggests why the special counsel would be interested in these kinds of transactions and what his finances were during that period. But whether they have something more than that - there are some indications that Manafort felt that he was owed money by a Russian oligarch or maybe the Russian oligarch owed him money. It's not entirely clear, but there is no specific charge in the indictment that he did something for the Russians.
MARTIN: All right. Josh Gerstein of Politico reporting for us this morning. Hey, Josh, thanks so much for being on.
GERSTEIN: No problem.
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MARTIN: The president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, is in South Korea today. She's there for the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics that are going to go down on Sunday.
GREENE: I can't believe they're over. This is crazy.
MARTIN: I know. I'm sorry.
GREENE: They just started. Yeah, Ivanka Trump is leading the American delegation, and this is, again, going to put the United States in this awkward position that they were in at the beginning of the Olympics, which is that, you know, the U.S. delegation will be in the same spot as leaders from North Korea who are also going to be in Pyeongchang for the end of the Olympics. And there's - this morning, there is a report that the Trump administration is going to announce fresh sanctions against North Korea - maybe the largest package yet according to Reuters.
MARTIN: All right, a lot to talk about - a lot to talk about here. I'll get the words out. Let's bring in NPR's Elise Hu. Hey, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.
MARTIN: So we all remember these pictures - Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremonies, sitting mere feet away from Kim Jong Un's sister, who was there, decidedly not looking at her. It's no doubt this is a chilly moment between the North and the U.S. Ivanka Trump is going to be there. Is she going to attempt any diplomacy while she's in South Korea?
HU: Not with North Korea. That's what the White House officials are telling us right now, that Ivanka Trump has no plans to interact with North Korean officials, and no private negotiations to arrange a meeting have happened either.
MARTIN: Because that was a thing that happened with Mike Pence. They had set up a secret meeting that was then scuttled by the North.
HU: Indeed. And we didn't know about that ahead of time, though, and it didn't come out until after the meeting was scuttled and Pence was gone. But we do know Ivanka Trump does plan to be here for three days. She's doing diplomacy with South Korea, to be sure, to reaffirm the alliance, and she's going to be dining with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.
MARTIN: So where are we right now? I mean, when you've got the North and the South incrementally moving closer and at the same time the Trump administration is doubling down, seemingly, about to announce new sanctions, does that indicate that the U.S. and South Korea are getting further apart about how to handle the North?
HU: So officially, publicly, both sides would say no, that the alliance is as strong as ever, which is boilerplate that we hear again and again. But the fact is that the U.S. is really continuing on this maximum pressure campaign, which is about isolating North Korea, while South Korea is on this diplomacy path, and it's being quite generous. It's actually welcoming this weekend a North Korean general who is believed to have played a big part in North Korea's spy arm intelligence arm and he may have also played a role in the sinking of a South Korean ship that killed dozens of South Koreans in 2010.
HU: So divergent approaches here.
MARTIN: Indeed. So when you talk to people in South Korea about how they have perceived these Winter Olympics and the North's inclusion in those, I mean, are they optimistic that this is an opening that can expand after this?
HU: A lot hinges on what happens after the Paralympics when the U.S. and South Korea are set to start up military exercises, and you know North Korea is really irritated by those.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Elise Hu - thanks so much, Elise.
HU: You bet.
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