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News Brief: Trump Ordered Mueller Fired, Trump Speaks In Davos, Immigration

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've got these reports out this morning saying President Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller from the Russia investigation.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is the story as written by The New York Times. You will recall the president fired the FBI director last May. In an interview, he then linked the firing to the Russia investigation, and that led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to probe Russia's role in the 2016 election. Then by June, the president was ready to fire Robert Mueller, too. He ordered his White House counsel to get it done, but Don McGahn said it was a terrible idea and said he would resign first.

MARTIN: Again, all that according to a report first in The New York Times, then The Washington Post. NPR's justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is in the studio with us this morning. Also, NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith is on the line. Good morning to you both.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Morning.

MARTIN: All right, Ryan. Let's start with you. Tell us what we know. What did President Trump ask and why?

LUCAS: First off, I have to say that NPR has not confirmed this report, but what The Times is saying is that as reports started to surface last summer that Mueller was looking at a potential obstruction of justice case, Trump began to argue internally that the special counsel had possible conflicts of interest. There were a number of things that that Trump was looking at. One would be Mueller's one-time membership at a Trump golf course in north Virginia - Northern Virginia. Reportedly, there was a dispute about fees, and Mueller left the club - also Mueller's connection to a law firm that was representing Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. And then the third kind of big piece here is that he was arguing that because Trump had interviewed Mueller to possibly replace James Comey...

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: ...That that presented a third possible conflict of interest.

MARTIN: So just to review - he was saying that Robert Mueller couldn't do his job properly because there was a spat over golf club fees and that he once represented or worked for a firm that represented his son-in-law, which would have made him more disposed to being favorable to him, you would think.

INSKEEP: And some of this we know. Some of this was said. The complaints were made publicly at the time. What The New York Times has added here is just that the president tried to act on his complaints.

LUCAS: That's right. A lot of these arguments about possible conflict of interest are things that we have heard from the White House over time.

MARTIN: And so at the center of all this is this question of obstruction of justice. You say this is when the president really started to wage this personal war against Robert Mueller because Mueller was seizing on how the president had fired James Comey.

LUCAS: That's right. A lot of this does go back to the question of Comey's firing and our understanding of it in the public. And the timeline is important here. Remember, Comey was fired on May 9. Several days later, word leaked out that Trump had asked Comey to lay off Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: Flynn was under FBI investigation. That helped prompt the appointment of Mueller. That was on May 17. Comey then testifies in early June before Congress, provides all these details under oath about interactions that he had with President Trump - the requests for loyalty, requests to have Comey go easy on Flynn. So by mid-June - mid-June - we're talking three weeks, a month after Mueller was put in the job - there were already questions publicly about possible obstruction of justice.

MARTIN: All right. Tamara Keith's on the line, too. What is the White House saying about these reports this morning, Tamara?

KEITH: So White House lawyer Ty Cobb has said that they are declining to comment out of respect for the office of special counsel and its process. However, President Trump has commented. He was walking into the World Economic Forum in Davos this morning, surrounded by a massive scrum of reporters and photographers. And he was asked about the New York Times report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why did you fire Robert Mueller? Why did you want to fire Robert Mueller?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Fake news, folks. Fake news.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical New York Times fake stories.

KEITH: We should say...

MARTIN: We've heard that from him before.

KEITH: Yeah, we have heard that from him before. He has called a lot of things fake news that are, in fact, not fake. He then went on to say that the crowd at Davos was tremendous. Quote, "It's a crowd like they've never had before at Davos."

MARTIN: We've also heard that from him before at different events.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Biggest crowd in history.

MARTIN: Biggest crowd ever.

KEITH: Period.

MARTIN: So, Tam...

KEITH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...President Trump has said that he is looking forward to talking to Mueller's team under oath. He said this just a couple days ago to reporters, right? I mean, this was - this is a shift that he, all of a sudden, is game to do this. How is this latest revelation going to play into that conversation, to that interview?

KEITH: Well - and so there has - he has been shifting back and forth on this. He had previously said he would talk to investigators. Then he said, we'll see. We'll see. We don't know. And now he's saying, I'd love to do it. But it's up to my lawyers. And what we know is that his lawyers are in the process of negotiating with Mueller's team the terms of such a conversation.

You know, the other interesting thing is that, yesterday, early in the day before all of this came out, Trump's legal team sent me this document that listed all the various ways that the campaign and the White House have been cooperating with the Mueller investigation, including turning over thousands of pages of documents that they point out are related to James Comey and Michael Flynn and also that more than 20 White House personnel, including eight people from the White House counsel's office, have sat - they say voluntarily - for interviews with Mueller's team.

MARTIN: Plus, there's this new public line that the White House and President Trump - is just defending himself, that there's somehow a difference between obstructing the investigation and just standing up for himself under this pressure.

KEITH: Right. President Trump in that meeting with reporters earlier this week says, I'm fighting back, fighting back. And now you say it's obstruction.

MARTIN: Right. So, Ryan, what is this news that - according to The Times, that President Trump tried to get rid of Robert Mueller - how is that going to change the investigation, if at all?

LUCAS: Well, it doesn't change Robert Mueller's investigation. This is stuff that Robert Mueller would already know. Mueller, as Tam said, has interviewed 20 people with ties to the White House. He's interviewed White House counsel Don McGahn, who is one of the chief players in this story.

MARTIN: Right.

LUCAS: He's interviewed former chief of staff Reince Priebus. He interviewed Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week. So Mueller's team is moving ahead methodically.

MARTIN: Regardless.

LUCAS: Right.

INSKEEP: And one other thing to keep in mind from this story is it's an example, as reported by The New York Times, of a presidential staff trying to manage the boss. And in fairness, it's not the only White House staff ever to try to do this. But you have Don McGahn saying to the president, I'm not going to do what you want me to do. And later in the same story, as the president continues getting upset over time, The Times says the president's lawyers tried to keep Mr. Trump calm by assuring him that the investigation was close to ending.

MARTIN: Real quick, Tam - president's going to give an address at Davos. What's he going to say?

KEITH: So when he's in the United States, he's all about America First. When he's overseas, it's America First but not alone. And that's what this speech is going to be.

MARTIN: NPR's Tamara Keith and NPR's Ryan Lucas for us this morning. Thanks, guys.

KEITH: You're welcome.

LUCAS: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. We're going to remember a moment in the standoff that led to a recent government shutdown. Many lawmakers, remember, wanted a deal on immigration. They still do. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he couldn't tell what legislation President Trump would actually support.

INSKEEP: Now the White House has specified what it will accept. The proposal would offer legal status for people brought to the United States illegally as children. It would also offer a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million people who would qualify. The plan also demands lots and lots of money for a border wall.

MARTIN: NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis is here. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What's the opening bid in this plan?

DAVIS: There's four major components to what the White House is seeking. First is that path to citizenship that would include the 800,000 people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and everyone that would qualify for that program, which is how you get to that 1.8 million figure.

MARTIN: Right - because to be a DACA recipient, you had to go through paperwork.

DAVIS: Precisely.

MARTIN: And there's lots of people who didn't. So this would encompass all of them.

DAVIS: They want $25 billion upfront to build a border wall system. And they're seeking dramatic reductions to legal immigration, specifically policies that govern family-based immigration and a diversity visa program that allows slots for up to 50,000 people to come into the country every year.

MARTIN: Do Democrats like this?

DAVIS: Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez is a Democrat from Illinois. He put out a statement in regards to the wall in which he said, it would be far cheaper to erect a 50-foot concrete statue of a middle finger and point it towards Latin America.

MARTIN: OK.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK.

DAVIS: Democrats don't like the wall. They've never liked the wall, but the wall is also something they've been willing to trade. The issue that's going to be the hardest piece of this puzzle to solve is the legal immigration point.

MARTIN: Right.

DAVIS: It's really the killer for Democrats. I also think it's very important to know that in the context of legal immigration, this is not a traditional Republican vs. Democrat argument. In the White House - in calling for dramatic reductions in legal immigration, also goes against a lot of Republican orthodoxy. Traditionally, the business community and other allies support legal immigration. Most mainstream economists say it's beneficial, if not necessary, to U.S. economic growth.

MARTIN: We should also point out that not all Republicans are on board with this idea, too - the idea of essentially giving what they call amnesty to the so-called DREAMers.

DAVIS: That's - in the Senate, there is a lot of support for what the president has outlined. The tougher hurdles always have been in the House. What the Republican leaders in Congress had been asking for is the White House to outline what they want because in order to get a vote, they really do need Republicans to believe that this is President Trump's immigration proposal...

MARTIN: Right.

DAVIS: ...To win over a lot of those reluctant Republicans.

MARTIN: So what happens now. What dates do we look forward to here?

DAVIS: The date that the administration is saying is March 5. That's when he's called for the end of the DACA program. So they'd like to have something to enact by then.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis laying out the White House's new immigration proposal. Thanks so much, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "FAST LANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.