Morning News Brief: Paul Manafort, California's Carr Fire
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Jury selection begins today in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
NOEL KING, HOST:
That's right. He's facing charges that include bank and tax fraud. Now, this is the first trial to come out of Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. And it's the first of two trials that will involve Manafort.
MARTIN: Right. OK. So let's dig into this with NPR's Carrie Johnson, who has been covering this case from the very beginning. Hey, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Just remind us what Paul Manafort is actually accused of.
JOHNSON: Sure. Paul Manafort was the Trump campaign chairman for a key part of 2016 that includes the Republican National Convention where Trump secured the nomination. But these bank and tax fraud charges against Paul Manafort go all the way back to 2005. This prosecution revolves around lucrative lobbying work that Manafort performed for the government in Ukraine, the pro-Russia government there. Prosecutors say he earned something like $60 million and failed to report a lot of it on his tax returns. They say he failed to register his foreign bank accounts. And when that work dried up in Ukraine, they say he borrowed against the value of his real estate and allegedly misled banks and lenders about all that.
MARTIN: I mean, those are clearly bad things, but I didn't hear you mention - I mean, maybe you mentioned Russia once because he was working on behalf of this - the government in Ukraine in the pro-Russia government there. But on the whole, this is not substantive to Robert Mueller's probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, is it?
JOHNSON: This gets complicated here. One of the prosecutors in this case, Greg Andres, said pretrial it's unlikely a government witness will actually utter the word Russia in this trial. In fact, most of the government's witness list includes accountants, people familiar with Paul Manafort's money and other people connected to how he spent that money. Expect to hear about the purchase of expensive rugs, New York Yankees tickets, real estate.
Looming over this whole thing, Rachel, is whether Paul Manafort has information about Russia from his relationships with oligarchs, his work for the pro-Russia government in Ukraine or elsewhere and whether he is prepared to provide that information to special counsel investigators. So far, the answer has been no. He's going to trial. And Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lawyer, says that Manafort does not have any incriminating evidence on Donald Trump. I guess we'll see what happens.
MARTIN: Yeah. So I understand you are across the street from the courthouse right now. There are, I imagine, people who are - a lot of people are going to be wanting to get in that courthouse today. It's going to be kind of a big scene. What do you expect to happen procedurally?
JOHNSON: There's going to be a hearing this morning between the lawyers and the judge about limiting evidence in this trial. And then the judge is going to head straight into it. He's going to be questioning prospective jurors, with a goal toward finding 12 jurors and four alternate, so 16 in all. These people have already filled out a written questionnaire. The judge is going to follow up, make sure they can be fair and impartial. Judge T.S. Ellis III has said he wants this process to move very quickly. He's told the jury pool this whole case will last no more than three weeks. So this could be signed, sealed and delivered by next month.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Carrie Johnson for us this morning. Thanks so much, Carrie.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.
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MARTIN: So, Noel, I've been looking at photos of these fires that are burning in California, and they are absolutely devastating; I mean, entire mountainsides burning up, whole neighborhoods scorched to the ground.
KING: Yeah. There are an extraordinary 17 major fires burning in the northern part of California. The biggest one is called the Carr Fire. It's burned around 100,000 acres. And as of yesterday, it was only 23 percent contained. Now, at least six people, including two firefighters, have died in that fire. Two other firefighters died in a separate fire.
MARTIN: So these are devastating clearly. Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED joins us now. He is on the ground where the Carr Fire has been destroying parts of the city of Redding. Jeremy, you're there in Redding. What's it look like right now?
JEREMY SIEGEL, BYLINE: You know, parts of the city have just been totally destroyed. You see in areas that have been hit hard by the fire, it's just blackened hillsides, homes completely gone, smoke everywhere. But I will say that Redding is in less danger today than it was a few days ago when the fire just swept through parts of the city. Now, the fire is more active on its northern end. Some people in areas that saw less destruction have been able to return to their homes. But, you know, there are a number of other people still on edge staying in evacuation centers or living with friends, curious as to whether their home has survived.
MARTIN: Wow. So Noel mentioned that this thing is only 23 percent contained, which doesn't sound very positive. I mean, what are you hearing? Any idea when this is going to get under control?
SIEGEL: Officials haven't really said when they expect to get the blaze under control, but they are making some progress on this fire. At last check, as you said, it was 23 percent contained, which is a significant jump from where it was last week. Last week, we saw the fire literally creating its own weather patterns. The heat from the blaze rose up into the air, forming something called pyrocumulus clouds. And that caused what people are dubbing a firenado.
MARTIN: My God, that sounds awful.
SIEGEL: Yeah. I spoke to CAL FIRE meteorologist Alex Hoon, who's out there helping predict weather patterns for firefighters on the front line. He says those pyrocumulus clouds can form when there are clear skies.
ALEX HOON: The thing is, with that smoke layer, the very dense smoke, it actually acts kind of like a lid on the fire activity. When the sky clears out, that would actually allow for this smoke plume to actually begin developing, leading to extreme fire behavior.
SIEGEL: So Hoon says blue skies can spell trouble for firefighters on the front line. That being said, firefighters haven't seen much of that extreme fire behavior in recent days. So things are looking up a little bit as they try to get a handle on this blaze.
MARTIN: I mean, the last few years, it just seems like the fires in California have gotten worse and more unpredictable. I mean, one chief from California's forest fire protection agency was actually quoted saying there is no normal anymore, which I imagine makes this whole endeavor, I mean, clearly more complicated. What has changed that there is no more predicting these fires?
SIEGEL: I mean, there's been serious drought in recent years. Here, less than a year ago, we saw the worst fire disaster in state history. Multiple wildfires swept through wine country and other parts of northern California, killing more than 40 people.
SIEGEL: So these fires are having a big impact on firefighters, California residents, state resources. For people living here, it's just tough not knowing whether a wildfire could sweep through and force you to flee from your home.
MARTIN: Jeremy Siegel of member station KQED in Redding, Calif., where this blaze is happening, thanks.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Rachel.
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MARTIN: All right. President Trump said yesterday he would be willing to meet with Iran's leaders.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Anytime they want - anytime they want.
MARTIN: Then he added this...
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TRUMP: No preconditions.
KING: This seems to have caught Tehran a little off guard. Trump made these comments just days before some U.S. sanctions on Iran snapped back into place after Trump's decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal.
MARTIN: NPR's Peter Kenyon is with us. Peter, is Iran responding? Are they going to take the president up on this?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The story's getting kind of mixed play in Iran. Some news agencies have it way down in the mix. The English-language Press TV, though, has it as its lead story. As far as response, there's been a tweet from an adviser to President Rouhani - President Hassan Rouhani, that is - and the adviser wrote respect Iran's rights, return to the nuclear deal, that might help. And then Rouhani himself told Parliament that America has proved that it doesn't keep its promises. How can anyone trust them? And he also added Iran is going to protect its right to export oil - something the U.S. is trying to stop.
MARTIN: Well, then it sounds like President Trump is coming out, saying, hey, no preconditions, but it's actually Iran that's now putting conditions on a possible meeting.
KENYON: Right. And that's not exactly accurate because shortly after Trump spoke and said no preconditions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on CNBC, and he laid out a number of conditions, ones he's talked about before. Here's a bit of what he said.
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MIKE POMPEO: If the Iranians demonstrate a commitment to make fundamental changes in how they treat their own people and reduce their malign behavior, agree that it's worthwhile to enter into a nuclear agreement that actually prevents proliferation, and the president said...
KENYON: And then he went on to say then the president would consider sitting down and having a conversation. So there are plenty of conditions on both sides before any of this could happen, and some of them are mutually exclusive.
MARTIN: So, I mean, what does this mean? We know that President Trump likes to get in the room with controversial leaders. He thinks he can change behaviors if he just sits down face to face with people who are perhaps rogue actors - considered to be rogue actors - on the world stage. Is Rouhani the kind of leader who would be amenable to that if you can get over all the preconditions which we just laid out?
KENYON: Well, now you've got why it's so unclear exactly. I mean, Iran came to the table to negotiate the nuclear deal after years of sustained pressure from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Now, all of those countries except the U.S. are on Iran's side, wanting to stick with the deal and keep doing business. But it's not clear they have a workable plan to do that. The Iranian economy is suffering badly. Inflation's up. The riyal is down. So there will be pressure. But if Iran's past reactions to pressure are any guide, it'll take some time if there ever is a meeting.
MARTIN: OK. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul. Thanks, Peter.
KENYON: Thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ERNEST GONZALES' "WHILE ON SATURN'S RINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.