News Brief: Trump Inaugural Committee, Border Wall, Possible Ban On Cockfighting
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's inaugural committee raised a whole lot of money, and now federal prosecutors have some questions.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Right. A lot of money, as in 107 - $107 million - I couldn't almost get it out - for inaugural festivities. The Wall Street Journal says federal prosecutors in Manhattan are looking into whether these donations were given with any kind of promise of access or influence within the Trump administration.
GREENE: OK. We're joined by Rebecca Davis O'Brien, who is the lead reporter on The Wall Street Journal's story. Good morning, Rebecca.
REBECCA DAVIS O'BRIEN: Good morning.
GREENE: So what are the specific allegations you're reporting on here?
O'BRIEN: It's not - they're not allegations yet. I think that we're looking at early-stage investigation into how the inaugural campaign for President Trump's 2017 inauguration - the inaugural committee. Sorry - raised and then spent the bulk of $107 million.
GREENE: OK. And somehow, this is connected to Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer, and a recording that was seized in his home? Tell us more about that connection.
O'BRIEN: Right. The investigation we're reporting on - which is brought by the same office that charged him earlier this year with a number of crimes - the investigation partly arises out of materials that were seized in the probe of his home office and hotel room back in April. In that raid, FBI agents were able to obtain multiple recordings, we now know, but one of those recordings was a conversation between Mr. Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who is a former adviser to Melania Trump and worked on inaugural events. And in that call, she expressed concern about the inaugural committee and how it was expending money. So that is - that's seen to the hands of federal prosecutors, who are now beginning this investigation.
GREENE: OK. So we know based on that recording - I mean, it sounds like, at least - that someone connected to the campaign, I mean, a former adviser to Melania Trump, was worried that they might be doing something that was illegal. The two things that prosecutors are looking at - whether money was misspent and whether outside donors may have been giving money to get influence. But it is sounding like we don't know much more beyond that at this point. Is that fair?
O'BRIEN: Well, I think that we're looking at multiple different strands of an investigation that might be coming together or moving in different directions. There's also been some reporting about Russia and other foreign donors who are seeking access. And that's a sort of slightly different issue than the domestic, you know, or longtime allies of the president and his inner circle who were also giving money in record unprecedented sums to the inaugural fund. So they're looking at both of those issues. And I'm sure in individual cases, there might be some different circumstances that are of interest to prosecutors.
GREENE: OK. So this could be foreign entities, like, foreign entities actually trying to buy influence. That's one thing prosecutors are taking a look at here.
GREENE: Does this fit together somehow with the larger special counsel's investigation and the Russia probe?
O'BRIEN: I think partly, you know - and there's been more reporting on this - yeah. I think that there's going to be some overlap here. And in the past, special counsel office has brought charges that are more closely cued to that. So again, as in the past, outside local U.S. attorney's offices seem to be picking up some of the investigative slack here.
GREENE: All right. That is Rebecca Davis O'Brien, reporter for The Wall Street Journal, the lead reporter on the story we're talking about. Thanks so much. We appreciate it.
O'BRIEN: Thanks so much for having me on.
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GREENE: President Trump is threatening a partial shutdown of the federal government a week from today.
MARTIN: Right. And this is all about the border wall, right? The president says he wants Congress to give him $5 billion to build a wall along the border with Mexico. Democrats are not going to do that. So the president said the backup plan is to have the U.S. military build parts of it.
GREENE: So could the U.S. military actually build parts of a border wall? Our colleague NPR national security correspondent David Welna has been asking Republicans in Congress, also people in the administration about this. Good morning, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So is this all just talk from the president, or is this something the military could actually start doing at some point?
WELNA: Well, I think at this point it's just talk. Trump tweeted about doing this on Tuesday morning, and later that same day, a Pentagon spokesman put out a statement saying, quote, "there is no plan to build sections of the wall." I ran into defense secretary Jim Mattis at the Capitol yesterday, and I asked him about the military building the wall. And in what were his first public remarks that I know of in response to Trump's threat, Mattis told me the role of the military at the border is doing things like stringing concertina wire, or doing crowd control or putting up jersey barriers.
JAMES MATTIS: This is something that we do in the last four administrations, variations on this.
WELNA: But what about building...
MATTIS: I don't see this right now. That's a separate issue. And I noticed that this is - president's in consultation with the Congress and all. So we'll have to see all the discussions come out.
GREENE: OK. So he's suggesting there, David, that the president may be talking to lawmakers about this idea already. I mean, obviously, I mean, this might be a way to avoid the large sums of money that Congress may or may not be able to put out there for this project. So are there members of Congress who would be open to this?
WELNA: Well, you know, I think it's a bit like the possible government shutdown. Nobody on either side of the aisle wants to own it. When I asked Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican who's the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about the military building the wall, he declined to comment. And here's what Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz had to say.
TED CRUZ: We need to build a wall. I've been fighting for building a wall since the day I was elected here. And I think the Democratic obstruction on that front is unacceptable.
WELNA: Should the military be used to build the wall?
CRUZ: I think we need to get the job done.
GREENE: (Laughter). Evading your question a little bit there.
WELNA: A bit.
GREENE: Well, what are Democrats saying about this and the whole border issue at this moment?
WELNA: Well, you know, they think that there should be something like a virtual wall along the border using technology such as blimps, drones and cameras, and also that there should be much more money spent on devices that electronically screen vehicles and containers going into the U.S. Right now, fewer than 1 out of 5 get screened. And border commissioner Kevin McAleenan estimates it would take $300 million a year, for several years, to get enough of these machines. But the Trump administration's asking for only $44 million in technological improvements next year and $5 billion for a wall.
GREENE: All of this often coming down to the central question, what exactly makes a quote-unquote, "wall"? - which is something that...
WELNA: Exactly. How to stop things and how much money is needed to do it.
GREENE: NPR's David Welna. David, we appreciate it.
WELNA: You're welcome.
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GREENE: So a new farm bill that was passed by Congress this week has a provision that would ban cockfighting in U.S. territories.
MARTIN: Right. They put all kinds of things in the farm bill. So Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon told lawmakers that the impact of a ban on cockfighting in Puerto Rico would be huge.
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JENNIFFER GONZALEZ-COLON: This is an industry that represents more than $18 million in our economy, and also more than 27,000 direct and indirect jobs on the island.
MARTIN: Cockfighting is a tradition that goes back centuries, actually, in Puerto Rico, although animal rights activists in the U.S. mainland say that this is a cruel practice.
GREENE: Yeah. It's a tradition in Puerto Rico, and it was also a longtime tradition elsewhere in the United States before it was banned. NPR's Adrian Florido has been reporting from Puerto Rico and joins us now. Hi, Adrian.
ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: All right. So I remember going to a cockfighting event, covering it back in Oklahoma, years ago. I mean, it is stunning in so many ways. Can you describe to me what you saw at this cockfighting club last night?
FLORIDO: Sure. I went to a cockfighting club here in San Juan, which, if you can picture it, looks like a little stadium arena with a cockfighting ring in the middle and then the stadium-style seating for a couple-hundred people. There are almost 80 of these clubs all across Puerto Rico because it is a regulated sport here, a regulated event. And so what you'll see just outside of the cockfighting ring are all the birds being held in these cubbies until it's their turn to fight, at which point they're released into the ring and the crowd is just transfixed, rooting for their bird. Like you mentioned, cockfighting has been a big part of life for a lot of people in Puerto Rico for a long time.
GREENE: And we should say that the birds are literally trained to attack and kill one another, which is one reason animal rights activists say this is just, I mean, so awful.
GREENE: It's also a reason it's been banned in all 50 U.S. states at that point. And explain to us where that debate has been and the argument from the animal rights activists.
FLORIDO: Well, each state has banned cockfighting individually. The last one was Louisiana, which banned it 10 years ago. And then more recently, there was a federal law that effectively made cockfighting illegal by regulating interstate trade related to cockfighting. The rationale, of course, is that this is a cruel sport that amounts to animal cruelty. That ban did not extend to the U.S. territories, that federal ban. But in this farm bill, animal rights activists succeeded in getting it put in. So listen to what Kitty Block, she's the president of the U.S. Humane Society, listen to what she told me.
KITTY BLOCK: It is something that's incredibly inhumane. These are birds that are armed with weapons, and they slash and slash each eyes out. And it's just a brutal blood sport. And it really is something that should have gone a long time ago.
FLORIDO: The Humane Society was one of the main animal rights groups pushing for this amendment in the farm bill, and they succeeded after having tried to do it years ago.
GREENE: So the people in Puerto Rico who defend cockfighting, what is their argument?
FLORIDO: Well, there are a number of arguments. One is that, you know, they say that, one, it is an important part of the culture here and has been for a long time. And for a lot of people, that is true. For a lot of people, it's not. There are a lot of people who've never been to a cockfight. You know, speaking with folks last night, I also heard from a lot of people who don't believe it is a cruel sport because they said, you know, look, if you've got two roosters around each other, they're going to start to fight naturally. Which is true but, you know, it's different from putting them into a ring, of course. And then of course, there's the huge economic impact. There are so many people who make a living off of cockfighting here in Puerto Rico, and tens of thousands of people may lose work because of this ban.
GREENE: And how are people feeling about the potential of this ban?
FLORIDO: Well, now, you know, people who make a livelihood out of it are furious and depressed and sad. You know, they say it's an example of the colonial relationship that Puerto Rico has with the U.S., and that there isn't a lot of political support for the ban on the island. And yet, here you have the U.S. Congress passing this ban. At the same time, Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in Congress. And so there's a lot of anger about that.
GREENE: NPR's Adrian Florido talking to us about this potential ban on cockfighting in a place where it has been very popular for a long time, Puerto Rico. Adrian, thanks.
FLORIDO: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.