News Brief: Britain No Confidence Vote, Government Shutdown Threat, Cohen Sentencing

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

British Prime Minister Theresa May faces a vote of no confidence.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Members of Parliament in May's own party will vote on her leadership today. If she loses, she is out of a job. This can only happen when 48 lawmakers from her Conservative Party demand it in writing. And they have. May's been trying to push through a Brexit plan for slowly leaving the European Union. But this plan is fiercely opposed. The prime minister, though, is warning if she is unseated - if she loses her job - the U.K.'s crisis is only going to get worse.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: A leadership election risks handing control of the Brexit negotiations to opposition MPs in Parliament.

INKSEEP: The Labour Party. Well, Frank Langfitt, NPR's London correspondent, has been following this dramatic story. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INKSEEP: So now that the no confidence vote is upon us, how does it work?

LANGFITT: Well, it's actually going to happen today at 6 p.m. London time is when it begins - 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's going to be done by secret ballot. And the results are expected later in the evening here, around late afternoon U.S. East Coast time. Now, as you said, the prime minister was pretty defiant in her speech this morning at 10 Downing Street. She needs to get just over 50 percent of the vote from members of Parliament in her own party to stay in the job.

Normally, if there's a tight - if she won by a tight margin, she might feel pressure to resign. But, you know, Steve, as we've been talking for a long time, this is the biggest crisis in U.K. politics in decades. And traditional rules just don't apply anymore. Now, if she wins, she gets to stay on for a year with no challenge from her own party. If she loses, that triggers a leadership contest in the party which she can't participate in. And the winner - winner would expected to eventually become the prime minister.

INKSEEP: And it has happened before in recent decades. The prime minister has been unseated.

LANGFITT: Oh, it has. And certainly in the Conservative Party not all that long ago, a man named Iain Duncan Smith, he - he lost the Conservative Party leadership through a vote like this.

INKSEEP: Margaret Thatcher got thrown out like this, if I'm not mistaken. So how did we - how did we get here, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, as Rachel was saying earlier, this withdrawal agreement that she's crafted with the European Union has very little support here in Parliament. And the reason for that is, as we've discussed, is it would put Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, in this closer customs arrangement for a while with the EU. Many people here in Parliament feel that's a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom, could go on for a long time.

The problem is the EU has been saying, we're not negotiating any new deals. We've been at this for a really long time. We're ready to move forward. So the prime minister finds herself stuck between her own Parliament and the European Union. And this is how European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put it.

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JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: The deal we have achieved is the best deal possible. It's the only deal possible.

INKSEEP: OK, not really eager to negotiate.

LANGFITT: No, not a lot of wiggle room.

INKSEEP: No, but how would the - how would a change in leadership in Britain affect the British trying to get this deal done?

LANGFITT: Well, it increases the possibility of something that was once unthinkable, Steve, and that's walking away from the European Union with no deal at all. Economists here say that could do a lot of damage to the United Kingdom economy. May, of course, was warning about this just this morning when she was speaking. She - she was saying changing leaders wouldn't make it any easier to get a Brexit deal through Parliament. Here's what she said.

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MAY: And a leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the parliamentary arithmetic. Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division, just as we should be standing together to serve our country.

INKSEEP: Frank, is it obvious at all who would replace her if she was pushed aside?

LANGFITT: No, and that's what makes this - that's what makes this politically quite risky. You know, the party is the - the Conservative Party, as the rest of the House of Commons, is very divided. It's likely that she would be replaced by a Brexiteer, but there's no obvious candidate.

Boris Johnson is a figure that many in America might know, a former foreign secretary, hardcore Brexiteer. But he's very divisive in the party. Other names you hear kicked about, Dominic Raab, former Brexit secretary, people like that.

INKSEEP: We'll keep following this, Frank. Thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INKSEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt.

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INKSEEP: OK, we got a glimpse yesterday of three leaders who will have much to argue about over the next two years.

MARTIN: Right. We saw a lot of arguing yesterday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer went to the White House. They went to the Oval Office to meet with President Trump. They were there to talk about a compromise on border security to prevent a government shutdown.

Pelosi and Schumer say they believed the TV cameras were there in that meeting just for a photo op. But President Trump never told them to go away, so they just rolled on the whole meeting. It got very intense very quickly. And we saw it all unfold in real time.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we don't get what we want one way or the other, whether it's through you, through a military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government.

CHUCK SCHUMER: OK, absolutely not. We disagree.

TRUMP: And I am proud...

SCHUMER: We disagree.

TRUMP: And I'll tell you what. I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.

MARTIN: You will not be surprised to learn the meeting ended without resolution.

INKSEEP: Really? OK, well, NPR's Ayesha Rascoe covers the White House. Hi there, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INKSEEP: Where do they stand, if it's not a resolution?

RASCOE: Right now it's at a stalemate. The president wants $5 billion for the border wall. Democrats don't want to give him money for an actual physical wall. They want to give money for border security in general. And they're offering much less money than what he's asked for. They urged the president to accept current spending levels, or about $1.3 billion a year.

About a week and a half - they have about a week and a half to avoid this partial government shutdown. And during that meeting and afterward, Trump said he doesn't have a problem, as you said, taking responsibility for a government shutdown over border security.

INKSEEP: Well, he said, at least, I'll take the mantle in what seemed, in a sense, like an episode of a reality show.

RASCOE: Yeah, this was not a friendly meeting with Chuck and Nancy. And it put Trump in a new position where he was actively being challenged to his face. And Schumer and Pelosi were using kind of these in-your-face tactics, kind of like someone we know, kind of like President Trump.

Both sides really aren't speaking to each other. They're kind of delivering messages to their supporters. But right now Trump seems to believe that a fight over border security will help him politically. When Trump did try to bring up Pelosi's fight for the speaker position, Pelosi pushed back. Here's what she said.

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NANCY PELOSI: Mr. President, please don't characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.

RASCOE: So she's throwing that in his face. And the question is, who blinks first? In the past, Trump has given in when it comes to getting his full amount that he's asking on border funding. But he's faced intense criticism from his base for doing that. So right now he's going to have to consider whether he feels like he can kind of kick that can down the road again.

INKSEEP: Well...

RASCOE: When it's just going to get harder in January, when Democrats take control of the House.

INKSEEP: Listening to the bluster yesterday, I actually thought I heard the president getting ready to compromise. He said, I will do terrible things in the future. But he often says he will do things that don't happen. And then he says, if we don't get what we want one way or another, which just sounded like a compromise to me.

RASCOE: It did open - he did open the door to that, saying - and talking about border security. So he opened the door to some type of compromise.

INKSEEP: OK, Ayesha, thanks so much for the update.

RASCOE: Thank you.

INKSEEP: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.

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INKSEEP: What is the right sentence - prison sentence - for lying to the FBI?

MARTIN: Lawyers for Michael Flynn say that he should be spared prison time. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week. Now, remember Flynn. He was this very public supporter of President Trump. He led lock-her-up chants against Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention, no less. He was then tapped to be national security adviser in the Trump administration, a role he held for only 24 days.

Since then, he has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians. His lawyers say he has worked since then to set things right and that his sentencing should also consider his decades of military service.

INKSEEP: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been reading more deeply into that document put out by Flynn's lawyers. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INKSEEP: What are they saying - the lawyers saying - about the FBI?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, in many ways this is a normal, typical sentencing document. They talk about 62 hours of cooperation Michael Flynn gave the special counsel and other Justice Department investigators. They also say he accepted responsibility in that he was wrong to lie. But they complicated that message a little bit, Steve, by saying that Flynn lied under weird circumstances in their view.

He got a call in January, 2017, from then-Deputy FBI Director Andy McCabe, said - McCabe said, we got to have a couple of FBI agents come over there, ask you some questions about Russia. You can have a lawyer. It'll take a while if you get a lawyer. What do you think? And Flynn said, no, no, come on over. And Flynn also reports that he was not warned about the penalties for lying to the FBI. But then he went ahead and did lie to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, so...

INKSEEP: I'm trying to figure this out. He's saying it's their fault that he didn't bring a lawyer, and he didn't understand his rights - like he wasn't read his rights, in a sense?

JOHNSON: You know, the message is a subtle one. But he seems to be leaving some room for interpretation by the judge who is going to be sentencing him. It's not clear though, as a longtime government official, 33 years in the military, whether Flynn should have known that lying to the FBI was wrong already and that he would be punished for it in some fashion.

INKSEEP: Haven't the prosecutors already cited Flynn's decades in government in a positive way? There's a line in one of the earlier court filings about how, unlike many other people they've had to deal with, Flynn has decades of meritorious service.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. He has four Bronze Stars. Former retired General Jack Keane talked in a letter to the court last night about how Flynn helped revolutionize the way intelligence is gathered and used on the battlefield post-September 11. And he has a number of other commendations. Flynn also was extraordinarily cooperative with the special counsel probe, giving firsthand accounts of what it was like in the transition and who else in the transition was talking with Russians.

We don't know the full extent of his cooperation. But prosecutors have already recommended that it's OK with them if he serves little or no prison time. And Flynn's lawyers say he should just get one year of probation, 200 hours of community service and go on with his life.

INKSEEP: OK, so that sentencing memo is out. We're still waiting for the sentencing there. And then today, if I'm not mistaken, there is a sentencing for Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer. What do we expect there?

JOHNSON: Yeah, prosecutors in New York say Michael Cohen, on the other hand, deserves substantial prison time. They say he did not fully come clean with them. And he did a lot of bad things, including campaign finance violations and other frauds. He could be facing four or five years in prison.

INKSEEP: Carrie, always grateful for your reporting, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

INKSEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOW DANCING SOCIETY'S "AS NIGHT TAKES THE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.