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News Brief: Trump Pardons, Defense Bill Veto, Brexit Negotiators

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump issued even more pardons last night to his friends, his loyalists and his daughter's in-law.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. The list includes Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, also Charles Kushner, who's Jared's dad. They were all found guilty of federal crimes.

KING: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe has been following this one. Good morning, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the familiar names here - the big names are Manafort, Stone and Kushner. What did they do?

RASCOE: Paul Manafort was one of the president's campaign chairmen in the 2016 campaign. He was prosecuted during the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the campaign. So was Roger Stone. His charges were related to trying to be a middleman between WikiLeaks in the campaign and efforts to cover that up. Trump's complained that both of them were victims of overreach in a probe that he says never should have happened. Manafort thanked Trump via Twitter last night and praised his leadership. And Charles Kushner - he's the father of Jared Kushner, who's married to Ivanka Trump. Both Jared and Ivanka work in the White House. Charles Kushner was convicted of tax evasion and retaliating against a witness, his own brother-in-law. These three pardons were widely expected.

KING: Widely expected, but surely there is criticism. Where's it coming from?

RASCOE: Yes. Republican Ben Sasse sent out a short statement calling this, quote, "this is rotten to the core." Democrat Congressman Adam Schiff said the pardon shows that Trump is, quote, "lawless to the bitter end."

KING: This year you did some great reporting on criminal justice reform advocates who were trying to get clemency for people who've been serving long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. The president was interested. Did any of those people get pardons?

RASCOE: There were a couple - a woman named Topeka Sam, who was one of the champions of the First Step Act. That's a criminal justice reform act that passed earlier in Trump's term. There was also a man in Louisville, Ky., who turned his life around and has been helping others and another woman who was a victim of sex trafficking. But mostly these pardons and the ones from Tuesday night were for people who were very well-connected. They were for financial crimes and campaign finance violations. And what jumped out to me as I read the name on the full list of pardons were some of the people who were vouching for these pardon recipients, like Pam Bondi, Darrell Scott, Christopher Ruddy. These are all friends and strong supporters of President Trump.

KING: There's a name that will be unfamiliar to many of us, a former congressman - Mark Siljander. Tell us more about him.

RASCOE: He was a Michigan congressman who later, as a lobbyist, took money from a group with ties to a terror group, but he has close ties to prominent evangelical Christians. And earlier this week Trump pardoned several other former congressmen.

KING: How does his use of pardon power compare to presidents before him?

RASCOE: It's not unusual to do more high-profile pardons on your way out of the door the way Trump is. But Trump in particular has not been reluctant to use his power on high-profile, politically connected people even early on in his presidency.

KING: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thank you.

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KING: All right. Members of Congress figured they would have most of their work done before leaving town for the holidays.

GREENE: Yeah, that didn't happen. President Trump has vetoed the annual defense bill. That is a move that the House and Senate are now going to try to override. The president also called the COVID relief bill that lawmakers worked on for seven months to pass a disgrace. Even Republicans were surprised by that. Here's Republican Congressman Tom Reed of New York on NPR yesterday.

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TOM REED: Obviously, it caught all of us by surprise. So many of us were blindsided by this action by the president.

KING: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has been following this story. Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Why did the president veto the Defense Authorization Act?

GRISALES: Yes. This is the policy bill for the Pentagon. So it includes pay raises, boosts in troop levels and equipment. And the veto isn't a surprise. Trump threatened to veto this bill several times in the last several months. He took issue with the bill's plans to rename military bases that honor figures from the Confederacy. Then he wanted a last-minute provision repealing a liability shield for social media companies. And then finally, he said it didn't sufficiently address China.

KING: So what happens now?

GRISALES: So because this wasn't a surprise, Congress already made plans to meet to override this veto next week, and it appears that they have the majorities needed to do so. The House is expected to meet first to move to override this veto. They'll need two-thirds of their members to agree, and if that clears the lower chamber, it will move to the Senate for similar approval by Tuesday.

KING: OK, so it could get done. The COVID relief package is now also in the upside-down. We heard the surprise from Tom Reed. How are other Republicans reacting?

GRISALES: So there's little appetite to address his demands, and frankly, there's little time. This Congress ends on January 3, and remember; it took months of bitter, partisan fighting just to reach this point. One House Republican, Nebraska's Don Bacon, told his colleagues on a call yesterday that Trump basically threw them under the bus - and he noted in a statement afterwards confirming he said this - that his party was told by the White House to support this bill on Monday, the same day of the vote. So the frustration is palpable.

Meanwhile, House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said last night in a letter to his colleagues that they'll offer a unanimous consent request. This is an opportunity to try and get quick approval to revisit foreign aid, one of Trump's major criticisms when he focused on how much foreign aid was included in this overall package. But we're expecting that to get shot down.

KING: Now, Democrats, meanwhile, heard President Trump's call to send regular people $2,000 per person instead of the 600 that Congress agreed upon. And Democrats were like, sure. Let's do that.

GRISALES: Exactly.

KING: That's what we wanted from the top.

GRISALES: Yes. And so now today they'll open up the House floor session and ask to get this unanimous consent, this quick approval on the plan. And so they're trying to capitalize on the moment, but it's also expected to get blocked by House Republicans. Meanwhile, they'll have a lot to consider over the holiday break because if the president does indeed torpedo this massive package in the coming days, they'll need to pass a new government funding measure by Monday to avoid a government shutdown.

KING: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Thanks, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

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KING: OK. The U.K. and the European Union seem ready to sign a post-Brexit free trade agreement before the end of this year.

GREENE: That's right because December 31 is the deadline. The U.K. voted to leave the EU four years ago, and let's just say it's been quite a saga since.

KING: NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt has been covering this for four years. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So at this juncture late, late, late in the game, what are the sticking points?

LANGFITT: Well, the big one has been fishing rights, interestingly enough. It appears that the U.K.'s agreed to let European fleet continue to keep a majority of their catch in British fishing grounds for the coming years. Now, this may sound really minor and kind of odd. Fish, of course, account for less than 1% of the British economy. But it's played a really outsized role in negotiations, and it actually tells you to some degree what these are really about. It has this huge symbolic value. Back in 2016, the Brexit referendum, the big slogan then was to take back control from the EU, and that includes fishing grounds. And that's why the U.K. has fought so hard for this.

KING: As you've reported over the years, beyond symbolism, there is quite a lot at stake here.

LANGFITT: There is. I mean, if this works out, the U.K. will get tariff- and quota-free access to the EU single market, which is nearly 450 million people. So that would be great for the U.K. And ideally, this averts or lessens chaos we might see at the border when the transition period ends and customs kick in at - really, at the end of this month. We've seen what that could be like. You know, earlier - I guess back on Saturday, France closed the border because of coronavirus, this variant that seems to be highly infectious. And now we still have 6,000 trucks stranded on this side of the English Channel near Dover, waiting for negative COVID-19 tests to cross. So we certainly don't want to see more of that, and getting a deal helps reduce the likelihood that we could see more trouble at the Port of Dover.

KING: Because this is something that British citizens voted for, assuming that this deal is confirmed, what does it mean for them? Does the U.K. get richer?

LANGFITT: No. I mean, this is really - many economists would tell you, Noel, this is a difference between bad and worse. If you get this deal, it is a thin deal. It's what we've always talked about, actually - is a hard Brexit. So, for instance, financial services, big business in London - they're going to have a lot less access to European markets. Economists say this will still reduce per capita income here by more than 6% over the next 10 years, but it won't be as bad as leaving empty-handed.

KING: OK. Brexit obviously has been very chaotic, and it has cost two prime ministers their jobs.

LANGFITT: Yep.

KING: Do things - if this gets signed, do things then calm down for Boris Johnson?

LANGFITT: I think in the immediate term, yes, hopefully for him. And he will get some credit for doing this because it has been a long, hard road. But it's a gamble. You know, the whole thing - the idea of the United Kingdom leaving this enormous market, striking out on its own - Boris Johnson says the country is going to prosper. People will now be looking at that very closely to see if that's actually true.

And Brexit really divided this country, and those divisions are not gone. Scotland voted against Brexit. They still don't want to leave the EU. And there is now renewed support for independence from the United Kingdom, in part because of Brexit and part the way that Boris Johnson has handled COVID. So next year that's going to be Johnson's next challenge.

KING: We could be talking about this for the next decade. NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.