News Brief: Paul Manafort, Sen. Martha McSally, Rep. Ilhan Omar
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's former campaign chairman could be sentenced to 24 years in prison today.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Paul Manafort is expected in court in Alexandria, Va. He faces sentencing in the first case brought to trial by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia investigation. Another former associate of the president, Michael Cohen, is due in prison in May. And he spent one of his final days of freedom before a House committee yesterday. He apparently brought documents. He was holding a folder and wheeling a suitcase on his way in. He met in private with the House Intelligence Committee, which is led by Democrat Adam Schiff.
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ADAM SCHIFF: I think the members found it enormously productive session, and we're very grateful for the time. It went on, obviously, a lot longer than anticipated. We expected we would have one day of testimony, but there was more than enough questions for him to last well through a second day.
GREENE: Congressman Adam Schiff there. Let's turn to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, there.
GREENE: A lot to cover here - let's start with Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman. Remind us what he has been found guilty of doing and what kind of punishment he could be looking at here.
LIASSON: Well, he could be looking at up to 24 years. He was convicted on bank fraud, tax fraud - all this had to do with his political work for very important people in Ukraine. His attorneys argue that he should get a lighter sentence because he is a first-time offender and because his case had nothing to do with the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian interference and Russians in the 2016 election.
GREENE: Which is important to remind people - I mean, it did come from Manafort's work pre-Trump election days.
GREENE: Well, as we mentioned, I mean, that's all happening as Michael Cohen, President Trump's very close former lawyer/fixer back on the Hill, bringing in a suitcase, presumably full of documents. Do we know what he told the Intelligence Committee behind closed doors?
LIASSON: We don't know exactly what he told them. The Democrats on the committee seem pretty happy with what he said. We know that he said that he was going to bring documents, edited statements, that he says were edited by White House lawyers that are going - that would prove that the lawyers and the president encouraged him to lie to Congress about how long the negotiations between the Trump Organization and Russians took place over how to build Trump Tower Moscow, something that never got built.
GREENE: Which would be significant if he actually shows that - I mean, he's acknowledged lying himself - but if he tied that lie to people in the White House with documents.
LIASSON: Right. That would be significant. Now, Republicans and the White House have dismissed Cohen. They've said he has no credibility, he lied to Congress once so he's lying again now.
INSKEEP: We should even emphasize - Cohen, in addition to his own credibility problems, has not testified that the president explicitly told him, go to Congress, and lie. He said that the president suggested that by the way that he spoke. So documents would seem to be essential to back up that claim at all.
LIASSON: Right. He said that's not how the president operates. He operates in code. He says things like, I never negotiated with Russia to build a Trump Tower, did I? You know, things like that.
GREENE: So where do Democrats go from here? You say they're feeling happy. But I mean, they came into this year with some risk of looking like they were over-investigating and not paying enough attention to an agenda. I mean, what is their plan at this point?
LIASSON: There's no doubt that's still a risk for them. They want to hear a lot more about Trump Tower Moscow. They are calling before them a guy named Felix Sater, one of Trump's business associates who's been linked to the Russian mob and has served time in prison. And they've put out a lot of document requests about Russia, the inauguration, Trump's business practices. The White House doesn't want to give them up. The Democrats want to build a case bit by bit against Donald Trump.
GREENE: All right. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson for us this morning. Mara, thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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GREENE: All right. Democrats who control the House are struggling right now with how to respond to one of their own.
INSKEEP: They're debating what to do about Ilhan Omar, the newly elected Minnesota lawmaker has repeatedly suggested that supporters of Israel hold too much power in America, and she's done this in terms that her critics find anti-Semitic. They found that in this recent sentence, which seemed to play on the old notion that American Jews have divided loyalties.
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ILHAN OMAR: I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.
INSKEEP: Allegiance to a foreign country - that's the phrase that many found bothersome. Some Democrats have criticized Omar, although others, including some of the presidential candidates, say it's fair to critique Israel. And they suggest that Omar is being targeted because she is Muslim.
GREENE: A lot of this story, of course, playing out in Washington - but how do people who Omar represents view her comments and view this story? Minnesota Public Radio reporter Matt Sepic is with us this morning.
Hi there, Matt.
MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So what are you hearing from the congresswoman's constituents at home?
SEPIC: Well, David, one opinion we have heard from quite a few people is that the freshman Democrat is being held to a higher standard than many in the GOP, including President Trump. Here's what Patrick Scully (ph) had to say. He lives here in Minneapolis and works as a performance artist.
PATRICK SCULLY: There are Republicans who are making statements that are as objectionable or worse, and resolutions aren't being brought to the floor to condemn them for these statements.
SEPIC: Keep in mind that, as this controversy swirls, the FBI here in Minneapolis says it's looking into an assassination threat against Ilhan Omar that was scrawled on a bathroom stall at a suburban gas station.
GREENE: Since she made these comments - I mean, this is recent.
SEPIC: Yes. Yes, recently.
GREENE: Remind us about the district. I mean, there's a pretty sizable Jewish community that she represents. Right?
SEPIC: Yes, in the inner-ring suburb of St. Louis Park. And one resident we spoke with who's from St. Louis Park says he does want Omar to succeed in Congress, voted for her - but says her rhetoric is frustrating to hear. His name is Matthew Erickson (ph).
MATTHEW ERICKSON: As a Jewish constituent of hers, it's been really difficult with her word choice and the language she's used to talk about very important issues. But she continues to use anti-Semitic dog whistles and tropes. And she knows better at this point, and I just don't know where to go.
GREENE: And remind me, Matt. I mean, this whole debate and conversation is something this district is not unfamiliar with. I mean, wasn't her predecessor, Keith Ellison, also accused of anti-Semitism?
SEPIC: Yes. not in quite the same way, but that issue did come up. When Keith Ellison first ran for Congress back in 2006, critics demanded that he explain his connections back in the 1990s to the Nation of Islam, a group long criticized for being anti-Semitic. And Ellison said back in 2006 that he was drawn to the nation's teachings on black self-sufficiency but was wrong to dismiss those concerns about anti-Semitism. Ellison went on to serve six terms in Congress, won election easily each time. And in November, he was elected to statewide office in Minnesota as the state's attorney general.
GREENE: All right. Matt Sepic, a correspondent with Minnesota Public Radio, thanks so much.
SEPIC: You're welcome.
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GREENE: Arizona Republican Senator Martha McSally revealed yesterday that she was raped during her time in military.
INSKEEP: Before entering politics, McSally served more than two decades in the U.S. Air Force. She was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, she revealed that she was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer during that time.
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MARTHA MCSALLY: I am also a military sexual assault survivor. But unlike so many brave survivors, I didn't report being sexually assaulted. Like so many women and men, I didn't trust the system at the time.
INSKEEP: She spoke out at a hearing where some were expressing disgust at failures of the military's system to address the problem.
GREENE: Claudia Grisales covers Congress for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes and joins us this morning.
CLAUDIA GRISALES: Hello.
GREENE: Wow. I mean, this was a senator saying she has personal experience with the topic of this hearing. I mean, did this come as a surprise to people? And how dramatic was it in this hearing room?
GRISALES: It did. It was a very dramatic moment. She sits on the committee. She's a freshman senator. Folks are just getting to know her in the upper chamber. And when she made the admission, it appeared to shock the room. It changed the tone of the hearing and just brought a heavier gravity to the discussion of sexual assault in the military.
GREENE: What did she say exactly about what she went through?
GRISALES: She said she initially blamed herself, was ashamed, confused and felt powerless. And she noted that perpetrators abuse their positions of power in profound ways. And when she hit the 18-year mark in her career, she considered quitting the military but later found, as she saw the services grappling with sexual misconduct scandals, that she felt the need to let other people know that she, too, was a survivor. So she identifies as a survivor, and she says it's a personal issue and wants to make change and wants to see commanders who have failed in their responsibility address this major concern for the services.
GREENE: I want to ask you about some of the sound we heard from her. She said, like so many brave survivors, I didn't report being sexually assaulted. Like so many men and women, I didn't trust the system.
Is that still the case in the military? There might be other people who have gone through this who just feel, if they come forward, they can't trust the system to serve them?
GRISALES: Yes, definitely. Unfortunately, there are service members out there today who still feel that fear of speaking out because there are remaining concerns. While at the same time, the military has seen recently, by 2018 for example, a record level of sexual assault reports - more than 5,000 - who were seeking a law enforcement investigation. Work remains to gain their trust to speak out, as anecdotal reports suggest that retaliation is still a major concern, and prosecution levels haven't kept pace.
GREENE: Do McSally and others feel like the military is making progress in stopping this and addressing it?
GRISALES: They felt that it was incremental, and it's not enough. In 2010, the annual rate of sexual assault of servicewomen was 4.4 percent, and by 2016, it was 4.3 percent. So they say there is a very long road ahead.
GREENE: All right. Claudia Grisales is a reporter covering Congress for the military publication Stars and Stripes. Thanks a lot.
GRISALES: Thank you.
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