Morning News Brief: Trump Tower Meeting, Calif. Wildfires
NOEL KING, HOST:
So what exactly was the purpose of that Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer in 2016?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, it's not entirely clear if you listen to the president. So President Trump tweeted yesterday that, quote, "this was a meeting to get information on an opponent." Now, a year ago he said the meeting was primarily to discuss the adoption of Russian children. Now, we should say Trump has brought up the opposition research explanation in the past. But doing it in this way and at this moment raises some interesting issues.
KING: NPR's Tamara Keith has been covering all of this. Good morning, Tam.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: OK, so how is what the president tweeted yesterday, that this was about opposition research, different from what he said about the meeting before?
KEITH: So in reality, it isn't all that different from a talking point that President Trump and his team settled on a little bit more than a year ago when news of that now-infamous Trump Tower meeting first broke. But let's go back in time - July 2017. At first the White House and Donald Trump Jr. claimed that it was just a meeting about adoptions. That did not hold up for very long because in July 2017 Donald Trump Jr. released an email chain about the meeting.
And in that chain he was offered, quote, "official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia." And it was described as an offer - as, quote, "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." So the president was then asked about this, asked about his son's decision to even take the meeting at a press conference with the French president back in July of last year.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I do think this. I think from a practical standpoint most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent.
KEITH: Now, campaign professionals from both sides of the aisle were quick to say that they would have called the FBI. And campaign finance law is such that it's unlawful to take contributions or things of value from foreign nationals for your campaign.
KING: But why is the president bringing it up again now? This seems like the kind of thing he'd want us to forget about.
KEITH: And not spend lots of time talking about.
KEITH: We can't be a hundred percent certain, but there were articles in The Washington Post and CNN over the weekend saying that the president was privately stewing about the special counsel investigation and worried that his son could be in legal peril because of that Trump Tower meeting. He's been tweeting with high frequency about the Mueller investigation. Another reason for that might also be that his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is currently on trial.
KING: This is a big week in that trial. It's Week 2, and there will be - we're expecting a key witness on the stand this week. Who is that?
KEITH: Yes. That's Rick Gates. He is Paul Manafort's former right-hand man. And he is cooperating with prosecutors. He had been indicted right along with Manafort, and then he pled out. And prosecutors - he is a key witness for prosecutors. The defense is going to try to claim that Gates was acting on his own, that he wasn't acting in tandem with Manafort.
KING: All right, so we will be watching Gates' testimony very carefully. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith - she also hosts the NPR Politics Podcast. Thanks, Tam.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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KING: OK, across Northern California wildfires are still raging.
GREENE: Yeah, in a really big way. Over the weekend, the so-called Mendocino Complex fire grew to be far larger than the Carr Fire that dominated last week's headlines. This massive blaze covers more than 250,000 acres, and it is forcing some communities to evacuate.
KING: Reporter Sonja Hutson of member station KQED has been covering the fires. Good morning, Sonja.
SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: All right, so they are calling this the Mendocino Complex fire. What does that mean? It sounds terrifying.
HUTSON: Yeah. So the Mendocino Complex fire is made up of two fires burning pretty close together, the River and the Ranch fires. And they're burning in Mendocino and Lake counties, which are about 20 miles north of the Napa wine country. The Ranch Fire is much bigger. It's about 218,000 acres. And as you said, the whole complex is, you know, more than 250,000 acres. And at this point it's just 33 percent contained. The River Fire, the smaller fire, isn't threatening as many communities. The town of Lakeport was repopulated over the weekend.
But the Ranch Fire is threatening several small rural communities to the southeast and north of the fire. Cal Fire almost always focuses its resources on keeping fires out of populated areas, so that's what it's been prioritizing. Officials say they've made good progress on containment lines in those areas. And containment lines essentially stop fires from moving in a particular direction. But there's always the fear that winds could carry a spark over the line...
HUTSON: ...And push the fire past the containment line. Here is Cal Fire spokeswoman Tricia Austin talking about that.
TRICIA AUSTIN: And we are definitely concerned that they'll drive it over the lines that we've created and into any one of those communities.
KING: Which must be making people in those communities very, very nervous. How - you said some people have been able to return home, which is great for them, but how are other people coping?
HUTSON: Yeah. So people are just, you know, terrified about losing their homes. But specifically these areas where it's burning in Lake County - and there's also the Carr Fire up around the city of Redding - those areas are not particularly wealthy. And that makes the destruction of these fires all the more devastating. There's really a lack of affordable housing in those areas. And so low-income people whose houses get burned down will usually go to wherever they have friends or family they can stay with. And if that's not in the area, they can miss out on a lot of help from local nonprofits and the government in getting them back into housing in the area where they live.
KING: Well, you mention the Carr Fire, which we've heard a lot about because it was so big. There's also the Ferguson Fire. What's the status of those two now?
HUTSON: Yeah. So the Carr Fire is now 43 percent contained, and it's burned about 160,000 acres. But now it's mostly burning in mountainous and forested areas where no one's living. So Redding and many of the surrounding communities have been repopulated. The Ferguson Fire has always been burning in a fairly unpopulated area, but it's still really large. It's burned about 89,000 acres and is just 38 percent contained. And that fire has actually close - forced the closure of the most popular part of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Valley and some of the surrounding areas. And park officials said yesterday that that part of the park's going to be closed indefinitely.
KING: Wow, so still a lot to be done. Reporter Sonja Hudson of member station KQED - thanks, Sonja.
HUTSON: Thank you.
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KING: All right, we are just a couple days away from the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
GREENE: Right. That's when a white supremacist demonstration turned violent and led to the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer. Now, over the weekend in Portland, Ore., hundreds of extreme right demonstrators were met by counterdemonstrators on the left. And that turned out to be mostly uneventful. But now another Unite the Right rally is coming up, and this one is going to be in the nation's capital.
KING: Journalist Vegas Tenold spent six years embedded with right - white nationalist groups, including the ones who'll be rallying this coming weekend. Vegas, good morning.
VEGAS TENOLD: Good morning, how are you?
KING: So - I'm well, thank you. Who are these people? What do they stand for, and what do they want?
TENOLD: It's almost hard to say. The event that was just in Portland was led by a candidate for U.S. Senate in Washington State called Joey Gibson who leads a group called the Patriot Prayer group. And they were joined by the Proud Boys, which is something called a Western chauvinist organization. Now, Joey Gibson has sort of taken care to not have too many overtones of white nationalism. He's sort of a ringmaster for a wide group of people who seem to want little more than to fight in the streets. So ideologically these guys are pretty vague. They claim to like freedom of speech and claim to hate communists, whatever that means.
KING: Well, if they're looking for a fight, they often get it - right? - because there are groups that come out and clash with them in the streets, which is often what leads to so much of the disarray. Who are the counterprotesters?
TENOLD: Well, again, the counterprotesters - there are also a wide array of activists. I mean, collectively I suppose they're known as antifa, anti-fascist activists. But - and Portland saw a host of local groups. The Democratic Socialists of America were there. But what people most often think about when they say antifa are the so-called Black Bloc, which is the more militant wing of antifa. And these are the people who are willing to meet violence with violence.
KING: I mean, the big question here is it appears as if alt-right groups are on the rise. Now, you spent the last six years looking into whether or not that's true. Are their numbers growing? Are they more organized? Are they?
TENOLD: It's hard to say. This year has certainly taken a toll on them. The Unite the Right rally last year led to a lot of identities being released to the public. It led to lawsuits. And the tragic death of Heather Heyer led to a lot of scrutiny. So many groups shut down. Many groups folded. Members left. But they're coming back as something else, and right now we're not really sure what that is. But they're still out there.
KING: And very briefly, do you know what they're planning for this rally in Washington?
TENOLD: I don't know. I don't even know who's going to be there. It's going to be probably pretty small actually.
KING: Journalist Vegas Tenold, thank you so much.
TENOLD: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "5/4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.