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Morning News Brief: Giuliani On Fox News, Trade Talks With China

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The new lawyer on President Trump's legal team is already making news by contradicting previous statements by his client.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. Rudy Giuliani went on Fox News last night, and when he was talking with Sean Hannity, Giuliani confirmed that Trump reimbursed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for $130,000. This was allegedly a payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

RUDY GIULIANI: That was money that was paid by his lawyer, the way I would do, out of his law firm funds or whatever funds - doesn't matter. The president reimbursed that over a period of several months.

SEAN HANNITY: But he had said...

MARTIN: Now, the problem here is a President Trump had previously denied any knowledge of this payment, which came shortly before the election. It was part of a settlement agreement concerning an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels.

GREENE: Let's bring in NPR's lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro, who's been following all of this. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hi there, David.

GREENE: All right. So does this, what we're hearing from Giuliani, directly contradict these past denials from the president? Is it now clear that President Trump knew about this settlement or repayment?

MONTANARO: Well, this is quite the tangled web. Let's try to untangle it a little bit; we won't completely because there's so much that's still really not known, and Giuliani may have confused things further legally. But we'll talk about that in a minute. First of all, President Trump stood on Air Force One and told reporters that he did not know about the payment to Stormy Daniels and that he did not know where Cohen got the money. Now, that's a fine line on whether those were lies. Giuliani is saying that Trump made repayments to Cohen over several months. But as far as he knows, he did not know the specifics of what was - of what it was for. He only knew in general terms.

Now, how is that possible, someone might ask. Well, Giuliani says that Michael Cohen, Trump's lawyer, would have taken care of things like this - his words. That certainly implies that what we've known for a while, that Cohen was more than just a lawyer, something more of a - like a fixer for Trump and others. We still don't know exactly, though, what the truth is, so there's a lot more questions to be asked.

GREENE: OK, a lot to untangle there, but one thing Giuliani did say in this Fox interview was that the money was not tied in any way to the campaign. Isn't that something that if true could make it easier to be on the right side of the law?

MONTANARO: Well, it's unclear. OK. Not even very smart lawyers on this subject this morning are quite sure. Giuliani, of course, says, yes, because it didn't come through the campaign. It was, quote, "funneled through a law firm." But some watchdog groups are saying that that funneling could be a problem. Here's why. If that money was, quote, "for the purpose of influencing the campaign," then it would still have to be reported as a contribution to the campaign. What's more - the amount violates the maximum donation that one person could give in a campaign. You know, it would have to be determined if this payment was in fact for the purpose of influencing the election. If it is determined that it was for that purpose, these watchdog groups say it could open Trump up to a possible felony for knowingly and willfully causing the campaign to file an incomplete or false report.

GREENE: All right. We should mention a change - another change in the president's legal team. Ty Cobb, the lawyer who manages President Trump's relationship with the whole Russia investigation, is leaving and being replaced by Emmet Flood, who once worked for President Clinton, right?

MONTANARO: Right. And it's likely to mean a more aggressive and assertive posture. You may have seen that on day one with Giuliani going on Fox with what he was able to try to do last night. Flood's somebody who represented Clinton in those impeachment proceedings, though only as more of a minor player. He was also a lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, representing them on issues related to executive privilege.

GREENE: Domenica Montanaro - NPR's lead political editor. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: OK. The U.S. has a high-ranking delegation heading to China.

MARTIN: Yeah. Their mission is going to be to try to head off what could turn into a bruising trade war between two of the world's top economies. Both sides have already imposed or threatened to impose billions of dollars in tariffs.

GREENE: Let's turn to Beijing now and NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So why are the United States and China suddenly willing to talk? And what exactly are they going to be talking about?

KUHN: Well, they have been staking out some tough positions and talking tough as this whole trade spat has gathered steam. For China's part, it says, sure, we're willing to negotiate, but we're not going to make any concessions while the U.S. points this - takes these tariffs and points them at our head like a gun. We're not going to cave in to foreign pressure.

On the U.S. side, the attitude has been sort of, well, you know, we've talked enough for talk's sake. We want to see action. We want to see China reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. We want U.S. firms to get more market access in China. We want to see their intellectual property better protected. And we want to see Chinese government halting subsidies to Chinese high tech industries. But the threat of a trade war has made a lot of U.S. businesses uneasy. And plus, government-to-government economic dialogues have sort of broken down. They were sort of on hold for a while. So this appears to be some attempt to get things restarted.

GREENE: Well, Anthony, make sense of this for me. That's a long list of demands by the United States of what they want China to do. But the U.S. trade representative, Lighthizer, says the U.S. is not trying to change China's economic policy. So is that just managing expectations or trying to calm China down?

KUHN: Right. Well, he said, you know, we're not trying to change China's basic state-directed, state-capitalist economic system. So, you know, the fear of some businesses and observers is that the U.S. is going to point to concessions China has already made. Recently they said they're going to lower tariffs on imported automobiles and give foreign firms more access to their - to the financial sector. The U.S. is going to point to this and declare victory without really addressing the root causes, the underlying structural issues behind this whole trade spat. But, of course, you know, these are very important things for China. And as far as they're concerned, they're not up for negotiation anyway. They're not putting them on the table for discussion.

GREENE: China's just not going to - not going to budge on its basic economic policies and structure.

KUHN: Well, yeah. The basic thing is this long-term strategic plan named Made in China 2025, and it's really ambitious to take China in one leap to start producing artificial intelligence, quantum computers and really cutting-edge tech stuff. And it's planning to squeeze U.S. firms and other foreign firms out of the market. It sees this as a matter of economic survival, and it's not planning to compromise on this.

GREENE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, thanks.

KUHN: Sure thing, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. Over the next few days in Dallas, the National Rifle Association is going to be getting together for its annual conference.

MARTIN: Yeah. An estimated 80,000 NRA members are expected to attend. And for a second year in a row, they will hear from President Donald Trump. This year, Trump is going to be joined at the conference by Vice President Mike Pence.

GREENE: All right. Reporter Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio is covering this event for us. He's with us. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So is this event going to be different than previous years?

MANN: You know, I think it's going to be interesting to see how the NRA handles its message. They've gone after their critics really hard in past years, but that's a lot harder now that its most visible opponents are these young Parkland student survivors, right? So I think we should watch to see if the NRA leadership recrafts its message in any way now or whether it sticks to some of that rhetoric that's just been ferocious at times. I should say that there is no sign that their public support has flagged since Parkland. The organization actually saw a spike in donations in the wake of the shooting.

GREENE: All right. That deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., I mean, it seemed to create so much public pressure to put, you know, controls on the sale, ownership of firearms. I mean, are - as you talk to people who are in the NRA leadership and even rank-and-file members, are they talking about some of these changes that a lot of people are demanding?

MANN: Look, I think the NRA leaders know that there is a very different conversation suddenly taking place around the country. For a brief moment, even President Trump, a close NRA ally, was calling for a comprehensive gun control bill, though he backed away from that. Still, you know, at least seven states have passed tough gun laws since Parkland. That includes Florida and Vermont where they did it with help from top Republican leaders. And here's New York's NRA board member Tom King talking about that.

TOM KING: Of course, it has increased the probability in some states of legislators passing more meaningless legislation. That's going to happen. It already has happened. OK. But has it eroded the NRA's position? I don't think so.

MANN: And I should say that King describes that legislation around the country as meaningless because he believes gun control laws just don't make people or schools any safer.

GREENE: All right. So this event happening in Dallas, the president, vice president both going to be there; is - will there be protests?

MANN: Yeah, for sure. And, you know, one of the things that's interesting is that in the past, the NRA has actually built a lot of its energy in reaction to the kind of protests we expect to see in Dallas. NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, who's been really high profile, has accused the left of spreading chaos and anarchy in the streets. And this could be volatile. I mean, emotions are really high over the gun debate right now. After Parkland, a lot of rank-and-file NRA members I talked to say they feel like their culture, you know, their way of life, their freedoms are under attack. So if these big crowds do materialize outside the convention center, I think you could see the NRA kind of reacting and feeding on that energy inside.

GREENE: OK. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio is going to be covering that NRA convention for us in Dallas over the next few days. Thanks a lot, Brian.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNTHETIC EPIPHANY'S "BIPOLAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.