News Brief: Comey's Book, Trump Talks TPP Again, Syria And Pompeo

Apr 13, 2018
Originally published on April 13, 2018 7:44 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

James Comey has a story to tell, and based on the response the Republican National Committee has prepared, it looks like it might be a doozy.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Right. The book isn't officially out until Tuesday, but NPR has obtained an early copy. And it's filled with Comey's recollections of these private conversations he had with President Trump.

MARTIN: And NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department, is in the studio to talk about this. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: There was an awful lot of hype, a lot of anticipation about this book. It is coming out soon - in a matter of days. Can you walk us through some of the biggest headlines here?

LUCAS: Well, the bottom line, I suppose, is that Comey really doesn't pull any punches here. Not much of a surprise, but there's extra oomph, I would say, when it's there in front of you in black and white.

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: So Comey spells out why he thinks Donald Trump is, as Comey says, unethical, untethered to truth and institutional values. And Comey expresses concern about what impact this has on the country. One thing in particular - he compares Trump to a mafia boss. Now, remember - Comey worked mob cases when he was a federal prosecutor early in his career, and so this is coming from experience.

But if you're looking for some sort of grand revelation on the Russia investigation, you're not going to get that here. But we do get sort of an insider's view on a series of very important things that took place over the past couple years, including on the Hillary Clinton investigation, as well as, of course, Comey's interactions with Trump.

MARTIN: Which he detailed in his own contemporaneous notes...

LUCAS: Right.

MARTIN: ...As is a practice of FBI agents. But Comey's already testified before Congress, as well. Like, he's been under oath. He's been asked these questions that have brought out some of these stories. So how much of this is really new?

LUCAS: Well, the big-picture stuff, these kind of signposts along the way, we have heard about. But we do get some sort of vivid, new details on them - things that we didn't hear before. In one instance, Comey just describes a meeting that he had in the Oval Office in February of 2017 during which Trump asks Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room.

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: And this is when Comey says that Trump asked him to let Michael Flynn, who was Trump's first national security adviser - to let him go.

MARTIN: This was the whole, he's a good guy - yeah.

LUCAS: Exactly. And he's talked about that before. But Comey's very critical of Sessions in the book. He describes him as both overwhelmed and overmatched by the job. And he recalls telling him that, you know, he can't be kicked out of the room so that the president can talk to Comey one on one. And he described Sessions' reaction to this. And he says Sessions cast his eyes down at the table, says they darted back and forth, side to side. He didn't respond. He said nothing. And he says Sessions' posture said he wouldn't be able to help at all.

MARTIN: Huh. Interesting. I mean, it has to be said this is self-serving in some ways, isn't it? I mean, Comey has been attacked from all sides over, as you mentioned, how he handled the Hillary Clinton email scandal. This is about making sure that he secures his own legacy the way he wants to.

LUCAS: Well, he certainly wants to have his view of what transpired on the record and have people know that this is what he says happened. But, you know, this isn't going to change a lot of views out there in many ways. Views are already so entrenched. You have people who dislike the president who are going to take this as ammunition to bolster their views. And people who feel that Comey is a disgraced, vengeful former FBI director are going to say that there's nothing to see here.

MARTIN: I also said at the beginning that the RNC had already waged a pre-emptive strike in response.

LUCAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: We should just note they've secured a website called lyincomey.com.

LUCAS: Exactly.

MARTIN: All right. More, to be sure, in coming days. NPR's Ryan Lucas - thanks so much, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Remember the TPP? Remember how much President Trump hated this thing? He might be changing his mind.

KING: Yeah. Yesterday, lawmakers from farm states visited the White House, and they told the president they were worried about how his threat to impose tariffs might hit the agricultural industry. After the meeting, Senator Ben Sasse talked to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN SASSE: Definitely, the big headline coming out of this meeting is that the president said he was deputizing Larry Kudlow and Ambassador Lighthizer to look at re-entering the TPP negotiations.

KING: He is referring to the president's economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. They're apparently going to be looking into rejoining a major trade deal that President Trump pulled the U.S. out of.

MARTIN: Yeah, right - the old TPP. All right. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I know you love talking about the TPP.

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So talk about it. Remind us what this thing is.

HORSLEY: This is a trade agreement that the Obama administration spent years negotiating with 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim. China is not part of it, but a lot of other fast-growing economies are. Had the U.S. joined, I think it would have covered something like 40 percent of the world's economy. It would have opened up markets to U.S. products, including farm goods, which is why those farm state politicians are interested in this issue.

MARTIN: Right.

HORSLEY: It also would have included some intellectual property protections and created kind of a united front for the intellectual property battle the U.S. is now waging with China.

MARTIN: And why didn't President Trump like it?

HORSLEY: Well, the president is suspicious of trade deals generally and especially big, multilateral agreements like this one. He has waged similar criticisms of NAFTA. He says that the United States gets the short end of the stick in these agreements. And one of his first actions as president was to withdraw the U.S. from the TPP.

MARTIN: So what has changed? I mean, is China - it's the tariffs all of a sudden. Now he's like, oh. This may have been a good thing - for us to have joined.

HORSLEY: (Laughter) I don't think very much has really changed, except with those other 11 countries. They have proceeded and created a deal of their own without the United States. They say they would be happy to have the United States rejoin the talks, but they're not willing to let Donald Trump or his negotiators dictate the terms on which that agreement would be struck. So it's a little bit like the Paris climate accord, where Trump also announced plans to pull the U.S. out but said, hey, we might be willing to get back in if we could dictate the terms that were more favorable to the United States. And the rest of the world essentially moved on, leaving the U.S...

MARTIN: Right.

HORSLEY: ...On the sidelines rather than in a position of leadership.

MARTIN: Well, so what happens now? I mean, is it even possible for the U.S. to get into this agreement again?

HORSLEY: It is possible. It's certainly possible. But I don't think it's very likely. And evidently, what happened here was the president told the people in the room at the time what they wanted to hear. And then within 12 hours, Trump himself popped this trial balloon. You have to remember that not only did Donald Trump campaign against this trade agreement, but Hillary Clinton campaigned against this trade agreement. And while these farm state lawmakers are very supportive of the TPP, there's also a lot of opposition in Congress. There's a lot of opposition in the American public. And there's especially a lot of opposition among Trump's base. So I wouldn't hold my breath for any renegotiated TPP with the U.S. as a player.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley for us this morning. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. The White House says there is still no final decision about potential military action in Syria.

KING: Although the president did meet yesterday with his national security team to talk about responses to a suspected chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walked back some of this talk of an imminent strike. He told the House armed services committee that there's a need to, quote, "keep this from escalating out of control."

MARTIN: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is in the studio with us this morning. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we've got Mattis trying to lower the temperature, at least on the rhetoric, about an imminent strike. Does that mean it's not going to happen, or at least it's not as imminent as we thought?

MYRE: I would say not as imminent. No final decision is what we're hearing from the White House. He clearly wants to be cautious about this and wants to make it about, it would seem, the chemical weapons attack and not broaden out and to make the U.S. play a larger role in this civil war in Syria. So he does have his concern. He wants the French and the British on board, and it seems they are, if indeed attack does go forward. So that's what he's looking for - is a little more planning here before anything happens.

MARTIN: Which is interesting because we've spoken on this program with a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who said these one-off strikes don't work. I mean, the Trump administration already struck Assad over a previous chemical weapons attack, and it didn't prevent him from doing it again. So there are some calls for a more sustained military action. You're saying Mattis doesn't have an appetite for that.

MYRE: Apparently not. But again, you're absolutely right. Exactly a year ago, there was this response to a chemical weapons attack. Now we see another one. And Assad's position is much stronger right now. He's gaining more territory, consolidating territory. So not only has he not taken the lesson from the previous strike, but he's in a stronger position.

MARTIN: How could it escalate?

MYRE: I - the Russians are embedded in a lot of places there. If a strike hit some - killed some Russians, damaged Russian planes - that sort of thing - that could make Russia want to respond. They're already threatening to shoot down the missiles - that sort of thing. So that would be a way that the Russians could be drawn in. Again, I think the Syrians and the Russians don't want to escalate, but that is always a danger.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, there's no one leading the State Department right now. Mike Pompeo, CIA director, is in flux. He had his confirmation hearing yesterday, where he tried to push back on being labeled as someone who was necessarily a hardliner on all issues, including Syria.

MYRE: He did. He frustrated a lot of the Democrats, who said, you have this long record of very hawkish statements. So we'd like to hear more. But he will probably make the State Department more important to play a larger role than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. He has Trump's ear. We can expect him to play a loud - a very vocal role. And we have a new national security adviser, John Bolton, this week. So a new team is coming in at a very critical moment.

MARTIN: All right. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre for us this morning. Hey, Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HERBALISER'S "SUBMARINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.