News Brief: Security Clearances, Southern Border, F-35 Fighter Jet
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For 18 years now, the White House staff has included a woman named Tricia Newbold. She served a Republican president, then a Democrat and then President Trump, whose administration she now accuses of security lapses.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Newbold has told her story to a House committee. A summary of her interview says that she was involved with vetting people for security clearances. And she listed more than two dozen White House aides granted access to classified information, despite, quote, "disqualifying issues." Newbold has a rare form of dwarfism and she describes how her superiors took steps to humiliate her.
MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak has been following this and is in the studio. Hey, Tim.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.
MARTIN: Give us more detail on exactly what Tricia Newbold is claiming here.
MAK: So Newbold told Congress that, over the last two years, she and other career staffers denied security clearances for two dozen - more than two dozen - Trump administration officials, including three, quote, "very senior officials," only to see those recommendations overturned without what she believed was proper documentation or analysis. She said also that, when she raised concerns to her superiors, they ignored those concerns.
MARTIN: And did the administration give any reason as to why those concerns were overridden?
MAK: Well, that's, right now, not very clear. When you ask Tricia Newbold - hey, do you know why those clearances were - those decisions were overturned? She doesn't know. Her lawyer doesn't know. And the House Oversight Committee is trying to get answers to those questions as to why those issues were overturned.
MARTIN: And this is a national security issue, right? I mean, the whole point of this process is to point out possible conflicts of interest or anything that would compromise people who know the secrets.
MAK: Right. The whole security clearance process is meant to safeguard classified information - information that, if it were released, could damage national security. And over the course of the Trump administration, Newbold said that security clearances were granted to individuals in the executive office of the president despite their having some serious red flags, including foreign influence concerns, conflicts of interest, concerning personal conduct, financial problems, drug use and criminal conduct.
MARTIN: Wow. Criminal conduct, even. So Tricia Newbold, besides just raising the flag on all of this, she's also claiming that she was retaliated against.
MAK: Right. So she's saying that once she made these - once she made her concerns...
MARTIN: Known to the White House.
MAK: ...Known to the White House...
MAK: ...She claims to have been retaliated against in a number of ways, including being suspended for two weeks without pay. And also, she has a rare form of dwarfism, and she claims her supervisor tried to humiliate her after she raised some of these concerns by physically moving necessary files out of her reach.
MARTIN: So Democrats are clearly leading the push on this in the House. Is this strictly a partisan issue, or are there any Republicans concerned here?
MAK: So in the past, Republicans have joined with Democrats to investigate this security clearance process. But in this particular Congress, Republicans and Democrats haven't quite seen eye to eye. Jared Kushner, who has had some questions raised about his security clearance in the past, he weighed in on this issue last night during an interview on Fox.
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JARED KUSHNER: Now, I can't comment for the White House's process. But what I can say is that, over the last two years that I've been here, I've been accused of all different types of things. And all of those things have turned out to be false.
MAK: Republicans are saying that Democrats on the committee are releasing cherry-picked excerpts of their interview with Newbold and they're trying to, quote, "manufacture a misleading narrative that the Trump White House is reckless with our national security" - that Democrats are playing politics with this.
MARTIN: What happens next?
MAK: So the House Oversight Committee is expected to vote on a subpoena for the director of the White House personnel security office today. But he also says he's willing to do an interview with the committee, so we'll see how that all shakes out.
MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks, Tim.
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MARTIN: OK. If President Trump goes through with his threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border, it could be an expensive decision.
INSKEEP: The administration made that threat after an increase in the number of migrants seeking asylum. Of course, goods cross the border, as well as people - more than $1.5 billion worth of trade goods daily. The fear is that a closure could paralyze businesses, leading to food shortages, soaring prices, people out of work. Lance Jungmeyer heads the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, and here's how he puts it.
LANCE JUNGMEYER: There's jobs that depend on moving goods back and forth every day. And if that's not moving, those people are laid off.
MARTIN: NPR's chief economics correspondent, Scott Horsley, has been talking to business owners and industry leaders who depend on an open border. And he is with us now. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: How big a hit will the economy take if the border shuts down?
HORSLEY: It would be a major disruption. Mexico is one of our biggest trading partners. It's pretty deeply woven into the fabric of the U.S. economy. We got a small taste of what a shutdown would look like last November in San Diego when, in response to a migrant caravan, U.S. authorities closed just one of the official ports of entry...
HORSLEY: ...During the busy holiday shopping season. That shutdown lasted only a few hours, but San Diego merchants lost an estimated $5.3 million in sales. So multiply that by a 2,000-mile border, and you get some sense of what a shutdown would entail.
MARTIN: And at this point - I mean, this is just a threat. We have no idea if this is going to happen or, if it does, for how long the border would be closed. But I imagine business leaders and industries are trying to project into that unknown future. I mean, which industries would be especially hard-hit?
HORSLEY: It would be wide-ranging, you know, from the churro vendors at the shopping malls right along the border who cater to foot traffic from Mexico to suburban grocery customers, you know, pushing their carts through the produce section. A whole lot of our winter produce, in this country, comes from Mexico - more than 50 million pounds a day.
And of course, that produce is perishable. So if the border were closed, you would quickly see higher prices for tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, melons and - of course - avocados. In some cases, there are alternate suppliers for those goods, but in others, supermarkets would just have to put up the out-of-stock sign.
MARTIN: Right. So clearly, not just the border area that's going to be affected if this happens.
HORSLEY: No. The effects would stretch far from the border, including to auto plants in places like Michigan and Ohio. The North American automobile industry is highly integrated. Well over a third of imported auto parts come from Mexico. And for some critical components, that share is more than 70 percent.
I talked with Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research, and she gave the example of wiring harnesses. More than 70 percent of wiring harnesses come from Mexico. And this is the kind of part where you can't, you know, build the rest of the car and then put the wiring harness...
HORSLEY: ...In later. It's central to the assembly line process. And so if those wiring harnesses couldn't come over the border, assembly lines would grind to a halt. And that, in turn, would idle a lot of auto workers in this country.
KRISTIN DZICZEK: We'll see auto production in the U.S. shut down pretty quickly, some within hours and certainly the whole industry within days.
MARTIN: So, I mean, what can these businesses - what can these industries do, besides just sit and wait for the president to make some kind of decision?
HORSLEY: You know, you can try to make contingency plans and back up your supply line as an industry. But it's pretty hard to prepare for something as big as closing the Mexican border. The consequences would be so self-defeating. I've had businesspeople tell me it's hard to take the president's threat seriously. At the same time, White House aides insist Trump is not bluffing.
MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley for us this morning.
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MARTIN: Scott, thanks. And thanks...
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
MARTIN: ...To your doggie (ph).
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MARTIN: You can't have it both ways - that's the message from the U.S. to Turkey in a dispute involving the most expensive weapons systems in history.
INSKEEP: Turkey is among the countries helping the United States build the F-35 stealth fighter jet. And by helping, we mean buying some, covering some of the cost. Turkey has purchased two F-35s. But Turkey has also committed to purchasing an advanced Russian missile defense system, and Uncle Sam is not pleased. The government has issued an ultimatum to Turkey - you got to pick one. The Pentagon announced yesterday that it's cutting off the essentials for Turkey to fly the F-35 until Turkey renounces the Russian missile system.
MARTIN: NPR's national security correspondent, David Welna, has been reporting on this and joins us this morning. Hey, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right. So the two planes that Turkey bought, they are still here in the U.S. Are - is the Pentagon intentionally holding back delivery?
WELNA: No. Actually, that's been the plan all along. Those two F-35s are at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, and Turkish pilots have been learning to fly them there. Those warplanes were supposed to be then flown to Turkey in November. And Turkey was supposed to be delivered more of them later this year.
But American officials have been increasingly outspoken about Turkey's plans to install Russia's S-400 air defense missile system in July because they fear that could essentially give Russia a means to learn how to track and potentially even shoot down the stealth fighter if it's in Turkey. General Joe Dunford, who's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last month that this would be a very bad development.
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JOSEPH DUNFORD: I think both the executive branch of our government and legislative branch of our government are going to have a hard time reconciling the presence of the S-400 and the most advanced fighter aircraft that we have, the F-35.
MARTIN: So the Pentagon announced yesterday that it's going to stop delivering equipment related to the F-35. They're going to stop giving that equipment to Turkey. How did they explain their decision?
WELNA: Well, they said that, until Turkey unequivocally revokes its plan to install the Russian air defense system, these elements that are needed to set up the F-35 to fly in Turkey would be withheld. And they also said that they're looking for other suppliers to make the hundreds of components for the F-35 that current - Turkey is currently making as part of a nine-nation consortium, including the plane's landing gear, its main fuselage and its cockpit display. So this is really turning the heat up on this longtime NATO ally to get it in line with the U.S. or to get out.
MARTIN: I mean, what is Turkey saying? They must get that, from an American perspective, this looks like a conflict. You can't buy the planes and at the same time buy the missile defense system that shoots them down.
WELNA: Yeah. Well, so far, they're not bowing to the U.S. Turkish officials say they're already in a deal with Russia and - to buy its air defense system, that they've paid money. And they're planning to send about 100 Turks to Russia later this year to learn how to operate the system. And no one has been more defiant about this than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As he put it recently in a TV interview, nobody should ask us to lick up what we spat.
MARTIN: So Turkey is in NATO, right? Turkey is...
MARTIN: ...A U.S. ally. The U.S. has nuclear weapons stockpiled there. There's clearly a lot at play in this dynamic. Where's this going to go?
WELNA: Well, you know, for the U.S., a lot more is at stake than the $12 billion worth of F-35s that Turkey plans to buy. American warplanes use Turkish bases to fly into neighboring Syria. As you said...
WELNA: ...There are nuclear warheads there. A bipartisan bill is before Congress that would ban any F-35s from going to Turkey. So...
MARTIN: OK. NPR's David Welna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.