News Brief: Nunes Memo, Nuclear Posture Review, Olympic Doping

Feb 2, 2018
Originally published on February 2, 2018 5:43 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's something setting in called a memo fatigue, David. Yesterday, Ben White of Politico captured it in a tweet. He wrote, release it. Don't release it. Set it on fire. Turn it into a hit Broadway musical. I don't care. Just do something with it, and move on.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I would love to see that musical.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: But we might not. This could all actually be over today. And I want to step back for just a second. We're talking about this memo that was approved by House Republicans that alleges bias inside the FBI against President Trump.

MARTIN: Right.

GREENE: The FBI says it has, quote, "grave reservations" about the accuracy of what's in this document. And the whole thing has created this really bizarre drama where you have a Republican president along with the Republican-led Congress at war with an FBI that's led by a Republican appointed by that same Republican president.

MARTIN: Right. So with that, let's bring in NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson to get us up to speed.

Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, there.

MARTIN: Are we going to see this memo today?

JOHNSON: I think so. This memo, of course, comes from the House Intelligence Committee and its chairman, Devin Nunes, a close ally of President Trump. It's said to accuse the FBI of using faulty intelligence early on in the Russian investigation, the implication being the whole Russia investigation's tainted by political bias. But the Justice Department warned last week that to release this document would be reckless. The FBI says it's filled with mistakes. And fired FBI director tweeted last night - Jim Comey tweeted last night, all should appreciate the FBI speaking up. I wish more of our leaders would. But take heart, American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field so long as good people stand up.

MARTIN: Wow - weasels are liars.

OK. So this has got to be - I mean, awkward - it's an understatement to say this is awkward for the FBI director, Chris Wray. Right?

JOHNSON: Totally awkward. He's getting ready for this memo if and when it comes out today, considering making a public statement about it. Just yesterday, the FBI Agents Association issued a statement in support of Chris Wray for standing shoulder to shoulder with them, praising his integrity, pointing out that the FBI agents take an oath to the Constitution and not to the president. Now, there's some concern in the White House that Wray might resign over this memo. He suggested he might leave government service before in controversy. But I've been talking with people, including his friends, who say there's no sign of an imminent resignation there.

MARTIN: And other Republicans have suggested, if he quits - I mean, it would be devastating politically for President Trump. So it's not just Chris Wray, though, who wanted to keep this memo out of the public eye. Right? The No. 2 at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has also pushed to keep it classified. If this comes out, as it is likely to, what will that mean for him?

JOHNSON: Well, Rosenstein and Wray went to the House of Representatives to try to prevent this memo from getting out in public. They lost that fight. The White House overruled them. And of course, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, has been a target of President Trump for months because he's the man who appointed the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to investigate Russia and the presidential election. Getting rid of Rosenstein would be one way for the White House to disrupt or rein in this special counsel probe.

And I talked with several friends of Rod Rosenstein over the last few days about how he's dealing with all this pressure. One of them, Bonnie Greenberg, said it's just how he handles it. He doesn't watch TV, pays attention to his job - which of course includes the Mueller investigation.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, there have been some developments in the actual Russia investigation, right? The lawyers for Rick Gates have stepped down.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Rick Gates is the right-hand man to Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman. They've stepped down from representing him on conspiracy and money laundering. They filed their reasons under seal. There's a gag order, so they can't tell us why. But we have some hints. Gates, who has a young family and is cash strapped, may be looking to make a plea deal here. We've got to stay tuned to the special counsel.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's, Carrie Johnson - thanks so much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right, when President Trump announced his candidacy back in 2015, he criticized the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

GREENE: Of course, now that Trump is the president, he has the power to update that arsenal. And in his State of the Union address this week, he hinted that changes might be coming. And today we are getting a glimpse of what the Trump administration's nuclear plan looks like. The Department of Defense is releasing what it calls the Nuclear Posture Preview (ph). This is a document that basically outlines what nuclear forces the U.S. has and how they might be used.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Greg Myre is in the studio with us this morning holding a draft of the report right there. All right.

So Greg, what's in this?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, the thrust is modernizing an aging nuclear arsenal. A lot of the material dates back to the Cold War. It has outlived its life expectancy. We haven't seen a review like this since 2010 when it was ordered by President Obama. He ultimately decided to embark on a big modernization program over three decades that would cost a trillion dollars. The outline here is pretty similar. But President Trump came in last year. Within a week, he ordered this up. It goes to the Pentagon, and Defense Secretary Mattis pulled together the military, intelligence, State Department, Department of Energy. And this is the document they've come up with.

MARTIN: So this is in addition to the changes that President Obama had ordered?

MYRE: That was the trajectory. Now, this one offers some new suggestions. It's not the same thing. In fact, we're also already seeing this debate about how the U.S. might use nuclear weapons. The longstanding policy has always been extreme circumstances.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MYRE: And that's not changing. But how do you define extreme circumstances? And this does talk about the possibility of using nukes and non-nuclear attacks against the United States. If there's a major attack on infrastructure, communications, the power grid...

MARTIN: That we could use a nuclear weapon to retaliate?

MYRE: It talks about that there's a possibility. Now, there's always been ambiguity here. It's never been exactly clear when and how the U.S. might use nuclear weapons. But it does discuss this. And this is going to be the subject of debate - is the threshold being lowered?

MARTIN: Does it call for any new weapons - new nuclear weapon?

MYRE: Yes, it does. It talks about a low-yield nuke that could be on a sub or a ship. And it's specifically designed to counter Russia. It says that Russia has embraced this notion that it could use a small nuke, perhaps in a fight against a NATO ally in Europe. And the U.S. needs to have it to counter Russia.

MARTIN: OK. So the report actually calls out Russia. Does it name any other countries as threats?

MYRE: Yes, it does, China. It talks about China's big modernization program. It goes into detail about North Korea and its very aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons. And it also talks about Iran. But it does suggest that - it addresses it from the point of Iran sticking to the nuclear agreement. It says Iran would need about a year to break out. But it doesn't suggest that Iran is likely to violate the deal.

MARTIN: Interesting. NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

MYRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Now to a story about second chances.

GREENE: Yeah. Rachel, we're talking about a second chance for 28 Russian athletes who were accused of doping in the 2014 Sochi Games. Well, the International Olympic Committee slapped them with a lifetime ban. But this week, a court has overturned that lifetime ban. Will this mean that these athletes are going to be able to compete at this month's Winter Games in Pyeongchang?

MARTIN: Let's ask Rachel Axon. She is covering all things Olympics for USA Today and joins us now.

Hey, Rachel.

RACHEL AXON: Good morning.

MARTIN: Why did the court overturn this ruling?

AXON: It said that there was not sufficient evidence to uphold the anti-doping rule violations for 28 of the athletes who the IOC had sanctioned. But there was sufficient in cases for 11 of those athletes, so their disqualifications from Sochi stand. But that lifetime ban will not. And that's something that the IOC knew full well going in. There's plenty of precedent for lifetime bans not sticking.

MARTIN: Yeah.

AXON: So they will be banned from Korea, but that's it.

MARTIN: So interesting - it wasn't a wholesale dismissal. There were some athletes for whom the ban stays. But these 28 - it was determined that whatever activities they participated in didn't meet the threshold. So they're OK. They get to be athletes again. What does this mean, though, for Russia as a country? I mean, it is said to have this really robust state-sponsored doping conspiracy. Does that change that narrative?

AXON: I don't think it changes it. If we remember, there are still collective sanctions in place, where the IOC voted in December to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee and create a path for them to compete as neutral athletes, which they have designated as Olympic athletes from Russia. They're still sending a fairly large delegation right now that's at 168 athletes. That - the conclusions about the state-sponsored system have been accepted by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the IOC, to some extent even by CAS in acknowledging the role that some of these athletes played in that. So I don't think...

MARTIN: CAS being?

AXON: The Court of Arbitration for Sport - I'm sorry...

MARTIN: Got it.

AXON: ...The court that issued the ruling this week. You know, there's plenty to believe that there was a system in place. But the court found not sufficient evidence in these individual cases.

MARTIN: So the Winter Games start next weekend, which is kind of crazy...

AXON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Very exciting - what does that mean for these athletes who have now been cleared?

AXON: That's really not clear at this point. Russian media is reporting that the Russian officials are appealing to the IOC to allow 15 of these athletes to be invited. But the IOC in its response said not being sanctioned does not automatically confer the privilege of an invitation, and they may still not allow them to compete.

MARTIN: Wow. OK, Rachel Axon - she covers all things Olympics for USA Today - pretty good gig.

Rachel, thanks so much for talking with us about this story. We appreciate it.

AXON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOMAK'S "FORCE FOR TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.