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The Dueling Memos


We begin this hour with more memos. The House intelligence committee has released yet another politically sensitive one. This version is from the Democrats, rejecting GOP claims that the FBI and DOJ abused their powers while spying on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to talk about this latest entry in the dueling memos saga. Hey, Mara.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the Democrats have said they expect this memo to put to rest the claims that there were abuses in the FISA process. Do you think it did that?

LIASSON: It certainly tried to. It was a point-by-point rebuttal to what Democrats said were the Republicans' attempt to undermine the investigations into Russian meddling in the elections, the Mueller investigation, congressional investigations. It also was a defense of the FBI in face of the Republicans' really aggressive attacks on that institution. Now, whether it succeeded is unclear. This debate has become so partisan. It might not move any opinions. But it now is part of the record. And not surprisingly, Donald Trump tweeted about it, saying the democratic memo was a bust. And he went back to calling the investigations a witch hunt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we should say that the memo dropped right at the moment House chairman of the intelligence committee Devin Nunes was on stage speaking at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. How did he react?

LIASSON: Well, he said the memo was part of a Democratic cover-up and that the Democrats were, quote, "colluding" with parts of the government to enact this government - this cover-up. This is Donald Trump's MO. Whatever you're accused of, attack your opponent for the same thing - just like he continuously attacks Hillary Clinton and the Democrats for colluding with Russia. I've never quite understood what he means by that. But that was how Nunes reacted. And, of course, he was in a very friendly - before a very friendly audience at CPAC.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Before the memo dropped, it was the debate over gun control in this country that dominated the national conversation throughout the past week and into this weekend, we should add. Mara, does it seem like there will be some movement on that issue, which usually peaks quickly and peters out?

LIASSON: That's not clear yet. I think there will be some movement, for instance, in Florida. But there's no doubt that the system failed in the case of the Parkland shooting on every level. There was a good guy with a gun at the school. And he didn't intervene. There were multiple cries for help to federal agencies, state agencies about the shooter. And nothing was done. The ball was dropped. So there will be an effort to fix some of those failings. But the majority of the conversation has been about guns. That's the big, contentious debate.

You now have the governor of Florida willing to raise the age limit to buy a long gun to 21. That's the same as it would be for buying a handgun. He's talking about hardening schools, hardening mental health restrictions. And even when it comes to actual restrictions on owning guns, you've seen a little bit of movement. The president is also talking about an age limit. When it comes to a ban on certain types of semiautomatic weapons - these mass casualty weapons - that's the big question. Will that be even broached in Congress? - unclear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It is the big question. And is the president even willing to broach the subject? I mean, has he been leading on this?

LIASSON: No, and certainly not on any kind of a ban on semiautomatic weapons, mass casualty weapons. The White House has made that clear. The president has pretty much stuck to things that the NRA is for - hardening schools, tweaking current background checks. He's not talking about a universal background check system, although he calls what he's talking about comprehensive. He's not talking about closing the gun show loophole or the loophole for private sales.

His calls to arm teachers has dominated the conversation. And that's to me the most interesting takeaway. This is what the NRA is for. It's a pretty extreme position. He's now put it front and center into the debate, even though the White House says they're not planning to make any kind of a legislative proposal on this. It hasn't gone through a policy process. He's just talking about it. And that's the president's strategy. Number one, he never crosses his base. Usually, he sticks to things that the NRA is for. They're not for raising the age limit to 21. But we don't know where that'll go. And he likes to dominate the media narrative. And his proposal for arming teachers, even though it's not a serious policy idea yet, has dominated the discussion in the media.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. It seems like a strategy that works. And we've seen the strategy, I think, from the president before.

LIASSON: Yes. We certainly have. In every debate, we've seen a feint to the center. Then he goes right back to the base. In the debate about immigration, he was talking about DACA recipients, telling Congress, if you make a compromise, I'll sign anything you send me. I'll take the heat for you. Then he retreated to a position that was even more extreme. It wasn't about shrinking illegal immigration. It was about drastically cutting legal immigration. So that's a strategy. Double down on the base. That seems to be the position where he's most comfortable. And you saw that when Trump appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend - gave a very anti-immigrant speech at other points in that conference. The idea of naturalization ceremonies was booed. So you can really see where Trump ends up in almost every debate on every issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much. Mara Liasson is NPR's national political correspondent.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.