News Brief: Russia Probe, Brexit Speech, Los Angeles Teachers
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So there is new reporting suggesting that the FBI was concerned about President Trump's possible ties to Russia going back to early 2016.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This latest revelation was first reported by The New York Times, and it showed that the FBI was on alert well before the Russian probe that began in 2017. In response to this reporting, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro asked the president over the weekend whether he has ever worked for Russia.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's the most insulting thing I've ever been asked. I think it's the most insulting article I've ever had written.
GREENE: OK. Let's sort through all this with NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, who joins us this morning. Hi, Ayesha.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: OK. So we're talking about two pretty major stories here on the FBI's inquiries into President Trump. Walk us through exactly what they're saying.
RASCOE: The New York Times revealed that the FBI's investigations had two parts. So one part, we knew about, and that was the criminal investigation into whether Trump was obstructing justice when he fired former FBI director James Comey. The other part, which hadn't been reported before, was the counterintelligence probe into whether Trump was acting on behalf of Russia after firing Comey, making it a national security issue. Then you have The Washington Post. Their story basically said that President Trump had actively worked to conceal details about his meetings with Russian president, with Putin. And so that idea - or Russian President Vladimir Putin.
RASCOE: And that there were no in-depth records of any of Trump's in-person meetings with Putin, not even classified records. And Trump and the White House have pushed back against these stories, but not really with detailed specific denials. And Trump told Fox News in an interview that he wasn't keeping anything under wraps.
GREENE: I mean, this is all extraordinary. I mean, we should say, as you said, the White House is pushing back and President Trump has called all of this a hoax. But just the suggestion that the intelligence agencies are worried that the president of the United States is working with or for another government and hiding what happens in meetings with another foreign leader, this has to be bringing significant reaction.
RASCOE: It is. And you have Democrats who control the House are saying they are going to investigate. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is saying they're going to look into Trump's interactions with Putin. And Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he tweeted that Democrats had tried to subpoena the interpreter who was at one of the meetings with Trump and Putin during the last Congress but Republicans blocked that. Now, that may be on the table again, and there'll be some disputes over that. But either way, these types of questions, these types of articles being written and reported about Trump and Russia are going to spur more probes by the House.
GREENE: You bring up that interpreter. I mean, that interpreter might be the only person, besides Putin and Trump, who might know exactly what happened in those meetings.
RASCOE: Yes. Exactly. And so that's why there's an interest there.
GREENE: OK. So this is all happening as we mark this Monday as the partial government shutdown entering its fourth workweek now. Any end in sight?
RASCOE: Not really. There wasn't any movement over the weekend. You do have some lawmakers who seem to be getting a bit antsy about getting the government back open. Here's South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox News Sunday.
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LINDSEY GRAHAM: Before he pulls the plug on the legislative option - and I think we're almost there - I would urge him to open up the government for a short period of time, like, three weeks, before he pulls the plug. See if we can get a deal.
RASCOE: And so there, Graham is talking about after three weeks if they can't get a deal doing national - declaring a national emergency so Trump could build the wall without congress's approval. And then you have some Democrats who are saying that centrist Republicans in the Senate should put pressure on McConnell and put pressure on the president to go ahead and open up the government again and that, kind of, it's up to them to kind of force this issue. But none of these options so far are really gaining any traction or look close to becoming reality. Right now things just seem really stuck.
GREENE: All right. Still stuck entering that fourth workweek of the partial government shutdown. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. Thanks.
RASCOE: Thank you.
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GREENE: All right. So British Prime Minister Theresa May is making one last push for her Brexit plan.
MARTIN: Right. So she is expected to deliver a speech to sell her plan today. And I know what you're thinking - haven't I heard this, like, a million times before?
GREENE: That's what I'm thinking.
MARTIN: Maybe not a million. But for sure, Theresa May has made speeches to try to sell the British Parliament on her Brexit plan. What is different now is that she is warning that if Parliament rejects her deal, Brexit might not happen at all. So the Parliament is going to vote tomorrow. This is being hailed as one of the biggest votes in decades.
GREENE: And NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London. Frank, is this just a broken record, or is this moment really different somehow?
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, this is actually pretty interesting. What she's going to do is, prime minister's going to go to speak to factory workers in a place, an English city called Stoke-On-Trent, which voted heavily to leave the EU in 2016. And what she's basically going to say is, if Parliament doesn't back her deal, which sets out the terms for how the U.K. would leave the EU at the end of March, that members of Parliament are likely to torpedo the whole Brexit process. And she's going to, say, really defy the democratic decision of the British people back in 2016. Also expected to say the trust in politics will suffer, quote, "catastrophic harm" if the referendum result is foiled.
GREENE: So after all this - all the machinations, all the political debate, all the concerns - I mean, she is about to say that Brexit might not happen at all?
LANGFITT: Yeah. She is going to say that because I think that her concern is that if - she's very concerned about losing control of this process if her bill goes down, her withdrawal agreement goes down to a big defeat tomorrow night, and members of Parliament may push for a second referendum. And that's something that even six weeks ago didn't seem realistic, but now it's a genuine possibility.
GREENE: So as we talk about her raising the stakes, what is the prime minister trying to do here? What strategy is at play, do you think?
LANGFITT: Well, I think what you're seeing is, she is very concerned of losing this and not having it be able to go anywhere. And what she's basically going to do is say, you know, the future of democracy is at stake, and so if you don't go with this, you know, this is going to really fall apart. And really basically what she's going to say to her Brexiteer colleagues in the Conservative Party is, if you don't back me, you're going to lose what you care about most. And one of the reasons she's doing this is she's really struggled through this whole process, as we've been talking about now for many, many months. And I think this is a sign that she doesn't have many cards left to play, and this is the one that she's decided to play this morning.
GREENE: And what happens in her strategy going forward? I mean, it sounds like these could be some dramatic days.
LANGFITT: Yeah. I think what's going to - we'll have to see tomorrow night how big the vote is, how much of a loss she faces. Most people think she's going to face a loss. And then she's going to be given three days to come up with a plan B. Now, keep in mind, they've been doing these negotiations for over 1 1/2 years. So it's just three days to do that. She's expected to probably go back to Brussels, try to get some concessions on this very unpopular withdrawal agreement that most members of Parliament seem to be very much against. The opposition Labour Party, they smell blood. They say they will call for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister's government, but they haven't said exactly when. Their strategy is to try to basically win a no confidence vote, trigger a general election and try to topple the prime minister and her conservative party.
Parliament, as I mentioned earlier, David, could move to take control of this process which, up until now, the government's been driving. And that could mean trying to come up with a new deal with the EU, which, there doesn't seem to be at all the time for that. There's a possibility of trying to delay Brexit. And then there's the big possibility, as May's talking about now, the possibility of a second referendum with an option to stay inside the EU.
GREENE: Which would be extraordinary. All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks a lot, Frank.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.
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GREENE: All right. Public schoolteachers in Los Angeles are expected to go on strike beginning this morning.
MARTIN: This is going to impact nearly half-a-million public school students. This is the country's second-largest school district. So a lot of kids will be affected. Los Angeles teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year. They've been grappling with the school district over salaries and classroom conditions.
GREENE: And one person covering this is Kyle Stokes from member station KPCC in Los Angeles. He joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Good morning, Kyle.
KYLE STOKES, BYLINE: Morning, David.
GREENE: All right. So negotiations - we're talking about talks that go back to early 2017. Just remind us, what are teachers demanding, and why has there been no breakthrough at all?
STOKES: Well, there's not been a lot of a breakthrough because there's a really fundamental issue at stake here, and that's how much money the LA Unified School District even has to spend on the demands its teachers are making. The two sides can't even agree on that. So right now, the school district has nearly $2 billion in the bank. And the president of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles - his name is Alex Caputo-Pearl - says it's time to start spending that money.
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ALEX CAPUTO-PEARL: To be hoarding $2 billion in a school district that is more low-income and more of color than just about any in the nation is a practice that must be challenged based on racial justice grounds.
GREENE: I mean, Kyle, that's an extraordinary accusation, to say that the school district is hoarding money and not spending that money to help students. What is the administration's reaction to that?
STOKES: Well, the school superintendent Austin Beutner, who leads the school district, does plan to spend some of that reserve on things like teacher raises and other demands. But he also says the district just cannot afford to spend much more.
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AUSTIN BEUTNER: The notion that we are hoarding reserves, the notion that more money exists somewhere else with which to do more, is not accurate. We're spending all we have in service of our students.
STOKES: Now, the teachers union just does not buy this. The district has been making dire projections about its finances for years, all while building up this nearly $2 billion reserve. And, you know, between things like declining enrollment and things like rising pension costs, the district is still spending more money than it is taking in, and that has regulators concerned about the district's long-term solvency. So - long way of saying - that is the root cause of this dispute. If you can't decide how much money there is to spend, it's really hard to figure out what kinds of demands are reasonable.
GREENE: I mean, one question that always comes up in a teachers' strike is how much of this is about, you know, teachers wanting more money to help students, and is some of it about getting more money for teachers' higher salaries?
STOKES: Well, actually, the biggest sticking point here has actually been a plan to reduce class sizes. Now, that's a financial issue because having fewer students in classes means the need to pay more teachers. In negotiations, the district has pledged to spend about $130 million to reduce class sizes by a handful of students in certain grades. But that's not the only thing the union is asking for. For years, raising class sizes in LA has been used as an escape valve the district has used to solve its budget problems. There's language in the contract that lets the district do this. The union wants these that escape valve closed off for good. That's been a fundamental sticking point.
GREENE: KPCC's Kyle Stokes. Thanks, Kyle.
STOKES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.