News Brief: School Safety, Democrats' Countermemo Released

Feb 26, 2018
Originally published on February 26, 2018 7:57 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A mass shooting has Congress talking about gun control. The question is what, if anything, they'll do.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump endorsed a couple of ideas last week. One of them was raising the minimum age to buy assault-style rifles.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're talking about common sense, and it's a great thing. And the NRA will will back it.

MARTIN: Except that yesterday, the National Rifle Association said that it will not. Here's NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch on ABC's "This Week."

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GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me just say the position is you do not want to raise the age.

DANA LOESCH: That's what the NRA came out and said. That's correct.

MARTIN: President Trump endorsed other measures that gun rights advocates like more. He proposed paying teachers more money if they come to school armed. So what, if anything, might lawmakers actually pass?

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring Scott Detrow into the conversation at this point because he covers Congress for NPR. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Hope you had a good weekend. What evidence, if any, is there of any movement in Congress on gun control?

DETROW: Well, this conversation seems to be different nationally. We've seen a big shift in public opinion polls, among other things. But when it comes to what Congress is going to do, I think things remain largely the same. Republicans control both chambers. There's real disinterest in big movement on gun control among Republican lawmakers. I think there's also not a clear path forward. Take the idea of raising the age for purchasing rifles. Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania has been one of the Republicans more open to gun control, but here's what he had to say about that.

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PAT TOOMEY: The vast majority of 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds are law-abiding citizens who aren't a threat to anyone, so I'm skeptical about that.

DETROW: So if Pat Toomey is not onboard with that idea, I think that's an indication you're not seeing broad Republican support in either caucus.

INSKEEP: Interesting argument, though - I'm sure a lot of people under 21 could drink responsibly, but, still, someone sets an age limit and says under 21 you're not supposed to buy alcohol. I guess what hasn't changed here is it's the same lawmakers from the same districts that are drawn the same way. They've got the same constituencies as before.

DETROW: That's right. And the poll that really matters is the poll of Republican lawmakers in the House when House Republicans get together and meet tomorrow morning, as they do when they often return to Washington, and have a conversation about this. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are not going to move forward with any legislation that the majority of their Republican members do not agree with. So we've gotten a lot of attention from Republicans here and there saying I am changing my mind, but until enough Republicans, a majority of the caucus, do so, probably not much shift.

INSKEEP: What about the Democrats?

DETROW: Well, the Democrats have been calling for broad changes, and they seem to be getting increasingly confident in recent years in not only pushing for gun control measures but saying - making it a big part of their campaigns, campaigning on it in a way that in previous decades Democrats seemed a little scared to do.

INSKEEP: But are they unified on this issue, Scott?

DETROW: I don't know if there's a clear consensus of we're going to do X, Y and Z yet because some of the smaller changes Republicans have called for, the immediate Democratic reaction is that's nowhere near enough.

MARTIN: Of course, some of the loudest voices calling for stricter gun laws have been the students themselves from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It's worth remembering they go back to school this week. Wednesday that high school reopens, and I imagine that's going to be difficult for those people who've been so public over the last few weeks. There's going to be some private pain, I imagine, a lot of those kids are going to be going through this week.

INSKEEP: And also dramatic public images. Scott Detrow, thanks very much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

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INSKEEP: It took longer than House Democrats wanted, but they've now made a memo public that follows a Republican memo accusing the FBI of abusing its power to spy on a former Trump campaign staffer.

MARTIN: The Democratic response was released Saturday after it was scrubbed of some classified information. It is a rebuttal to that Nunes memo, as it was known, prepared by Republican House intelligence chairman Devin Nunes, who, by the way, was speaking at CPAC, the conservative conference. Just as the counter memo came out, Nunes dismissed it.

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DEVIN NUNES: What you're not going to see is anything that actually rejects what was in our memo.

MARTIN: The ranking Democrat on the committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, disagreed, speaking to NPR that same evening.

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ADAM SCHIFF: The FBI took issue with the Nunes memo for a very good reason. It was designed to attack the FBI by cherry-picking intelligence to give the country a misleading impression.

MARTIN: So does any part of the Democrats' counter memo bring new clarity to the broader questions about the FBI probe into Russia's election interference?

INSKEEP: Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump has been covering this story. He's on the line. Good morning, sir.

PHILIP BUMP: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, so the allegation - or one of the allegations anyway - is that the FBI was biased and used improper information to get a warrant to spy on Carter Page, who, for a time, was a Trump campaign aide. How did the Democrats respond to that?

BUMP: So I think it's important remember that at the heart of this is a classified document that only very few people have seen. And so essentially the Nunes memo and the Schiff memo are both telling different stories about that document. Fundamentally, though, it comes down to which story you want to believe, but the Democrats are making a much stronger case. So we know, for example, that by mid-September, which is when the Democratic memo says that the famous Steele dossier was received by the team doing that investigation, there were already four Trump staffers who were under investigation to some extent. So it suggests that this predates the arrival of the dossier by a significant amount.

INSKEEP: And, of course, that's one of the questions here is did this dossier, which was funded by Republicans but also funded by Democrats - it was a political document, at least in its origins - did that dossier lead to the warrant for Carter Page? And the evidence the Democrats suggest is that there was lots of other evidence. Let me ask you, though, Philip Bump, because you're looking more broadly at this investigation. You're trying to figure out what the Robert Mueller investigation is looking for, what the evidence is, how Russia interfered in the 2016 election. What do you learn?

BUMP: Well, we learned a few things. We learned, for example, that the FBI's counterintelligence operation actually began on July 31, which is a date we hadn't had before. And it's an interesting date for a few reasons, including that it was four days after Trump very famously said during a press conference, hey, Russia if you have Hillary Clinton's emails, please release them. As we learned - we learned that date. We learned as well that the document itself, the - what's called a FISA application, which was for a warrant to survey this gentleman, Carter Page, who, by that point, no longer worked with the Trump campaign. But he - it's at least 50-plus pages long and that by the 16th page, they'd already talked about the dossier. So it certainly is a lengthier document than one might have been led to expect.

INSKEEP: And Carter Page - is it correct that he is described as a Russian agent in this memo?

BUMP: Well, it's certainly suggested. In 2013, the FBI interviewed him as they were trying to crack down on some suspected Russian agents. And so there are mentions that he has that past history in the document, but it's not entirely clear.

INSKEEP: Philip Bump, thanks very much.

BUMP: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He reports for The Washington Post.

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INSKEEP: Some other news now - North Korea is opening a door to possible talks with the United States.

MARTIN: This opening happened during an hour-long meeting yesterday between a North Korean delegate and South Korea's president. North Korea and the U.S. haven't held diplomatic talks since 2012. But now the North has told the South that if their relationship is getting better, maybe it's time to break the stalemate with the U.S. So is that even feasible at this point?

INSKEEP: Let's put that question to NPR's Elise Hu, who's in Seoul. Hi there, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

INSKEEP: So do talks feel likely from where you sit?

HU: Not anytime soon. This is tenuous right now. The South Korean presidential Blue House put out a statement that says North Korea expressed its desire for talks with the U.S. and this line about how North-South ties should advance with an improvement in North Korea-U.S. ties. But even though this is vague, it does offer some cover and some more room for movement for the South Korean administration to continue pursuing its path to diplomacy and trying to, you know, steer the U.S. and North Korea away from a collision course.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking the United States has said repeatedly it is willing to talk directly with North Korea about the elimination of North Korea's nuclear program. That's what the U.S. wants to talk about. Is the North Korea - is North Korea remotely willing to discuss that subject?

HU: It's definitely not offering to discuss its weapons right now as a precondition for dialogue.

INSKEEP: And then what is the United States saying about all this?

HU: We will see is what the White House statement said. It says we will see if Pyongyang's message today that it's willing to hold talks represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization. So the question now, though, is now that North Korea is willing to at least express a desire for talks, whether there's room for movement to get them there and what the U.S. sees as its definition of denuclearization. So if the U.S. is maybe willing to talk about a freeze rather than complete denuclearization, that might be some room.

INSKEEP: Do South Koreans, where you are, Elise, maybe not even worry too much about what the substance of the talks is? If people are talking, the presumption might be at least they're not firing missiles.

HU: That is definitely the position of the Moon administration, which has been working tirelessly to try and cool things down from the rhetoric that we really saw 2017 summer of "Fire And Fury," little Rocket Man and all of that. So Moon Jae-in really has been working through getting to this point right now after this Olympics where we saw the unity between the North and South happen to try and get to a point where the U.S. and North Korea are taking steps to possibly talk. And whether nuclear weapons programs are on the table are still an open question and whether they actually will get to talking is also an open question. But at least there's some movement.

INSKEEP: And is there very much clarity from Washington on what it really wants here?

HU: No. So that's one of the big issues because we're hearing this maximum pressure top line again and again. But then we have differing positions, like from the secretary of state, who is more willing and more flexible about talks and has been in the past but then has been forced to walk it back.

INSKEEP: NPR's Elise Hu, thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAMPIQUE'S "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.