Morning News Brief

Mar 19, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 7:38 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, rarely a dull moment if you were following President Trump's Twitter feed, right?

NOEL KING, HOST:

Absolutely.

GREENE: His latest tweets over the weekend were very focused on the special counsel's Russia investigation, and this is raising some questions about whether we're seeing a shift here in this probe.

KING: Yeah. The president in his tweets used familiar terms like witch hunt and no collusion to attack the special counsel probe led by Robert Mueller. And then the president's defense lawyer, John Dowd, says he hopes that the Justice Department will just shut the special counsel probe down. Now, that has sparked speculation that the president might move to fire Mueller. And the question is is that speculation actually warranted?

GREENE: Well, let's talk to Tamara Keith about this. She's NPR's White House correspondent. She also hosts the NPR Politics podcast. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: All right. So we've got these tweets. We also have what is actually being said or has been said by the president's legal team, which seems very important. But they can't seem to get on the same page, it sounds like.

KEITH: Well - and I think it is really important to point out that these tweets move into new territory. President Trump, up until this point, hasn't called out Mueller by name. He's sort of amorphously talked about a witch hunt. But now, President Trump is directly talking about Special Counsel Robert Mueller. And yes, as you say, John Dowd, the outside lawyer, is saying he hopes that the investigation is just shut down on its own merits. And then you have Ty Cobb, who's the lawyer inside the White House who is tasked with dealing with the special counsel investigation. He's not, strictly speaking, President Trump's lawyer. And what he is saying is that President Trump is not considering or talking about firing Mueller. And he blamed the speculation on the media, though the speculation could have been caused by the president and his outside lawyer.

GREENE: Maybe it was the president tweeting, yeah. I mean - and tweeting. OK. So we have this speculation. The president causes some of it with his tweets. And then you have Ty Cobb saying to ignore it. But obviously, some lawmakers are not ignoring the speculation. I just want to play Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy here from Fox News on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

TREY GOWDY: If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it. Russia attacked our country. Let Special Counsel Mueller figure that out. And if you believe, as we found, there's no evidence of collusion, you should want Special Counsel Mueller to take all the time and have all the independence he needs to do his job.

GREENE: I mean, this is not a small thing, right, Tam? This is a Republican lawmaker telling the White House to back off.

KEITH: Yes, a Republican lawmaker - R asterisks (ph) - retiring to be able to speak more freely but, yes, exactly. And you also have Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who is saying that it would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency if Robert Mueller were to be pressured into ending the investigation or fired.

GREENE: Well, what is - what do we know about the special counsel investigation right now? I mean, the president had seemed to get assurances from his lawyers that it would be over by now. It doesn't seem to be happening.

KEITH: Yeah. It turns out the president's lawyers don't decide. And Mueller's investigation is ongoing. We - it's sort of a black box. We don't know exactly where he's headed or where he - or we do know where he's been. And we don't know what comes next. And that keeps it interesting, certainly. And President Trump is - we know that there is some negotiation happening between Trump's legal team and Mueller, but they aren't saying exactly where that's leading.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Tamara Keith, who host the NPR Politics podcast. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Al right. Facebook has found itself at the center of yet another controversy here.

KING: Yeah, that's right. The New York Times and the British paper The Observer report that the tech firm Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from millions of Facebook users. Those reports also say the Trump campaign then used some of this information to influence voters in 2016. Here's where we stand. Facebook has suspended Cambridge Analytica. The firm says it did not misuse data, and lawmakers are calling for an investigation.

GREENE: OK. Let's bring in NPR's Aarti Shahani, who's been covering this. And, Aarti, I guess we have to go back - what? - to 2015 to really understand how this story developed.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Yes, that's right. A Russian-American professor made an app that he built as a personality predictor. Give us your Facebook feed, your likes, your posts, and we'll tell you about yourself. Well, about 270,000 people downloaded, but because of how Facebook set up its system, the app didn't just get their profile. It sucked in friends' profiles too, so that's up to 50 million users...

GREENE: Oh, wow.

SHAHANI: ...The vast majority of whom - right? - they didn't opt in. Then the guy turns around and passes the data onto Cambridge Analytica, which is against Facebook's terms. Now, fast-forward to just this past Friday. Out of the blue, a Facebook lawyer posts a blog saying, hey, back in 2015, we learned about this. We told the parties to delete the data, and we've discovered maybe it didn't listen to us. What the lawyer failed to say was The New York Times and Observer are about to publish an explosive report.

GREENE: It's amazing. It all goes back to something that seemed so innocent. You're just saying like, hey, I want to learn more about myself. Let me sign up for this thing.

SHAHANI: Yeah, who doesn't?

GREENE: So there's outrage here, some of it being directed at the president's campaign, President Trump's campaign, that they exploited Facebook data. Is that - is that a fair accusation?

SHAHANI: Well, you got to be really careful here. First of all, Cambridge Analytica got the data and that's before Trump became the Republican nominee. And second, there's just not compelling evidence out there to prove the data even matters, OK? I mean, lots of experts say the Facebook data is garbage, and it's not useful for political targeting. But, you know, all the outrage is great for the company. It's free marketing for a shaky, unproven product.

GREENE: Oh, that's interesting. All this news could actually be marketing for the company, which is a part of the story I hadn't even thought about. Well, is - can we just ask about Facebook? I mean, are they - have they been victimized here, or are they somehow an accomplice or somewhere in between?

SHAHANI: (Laughter) They cannot play the victim card here, OK? Fact is Facebook has built pretty much a completely unregulated data market. They get to harvest user profiles and sell or share as they please. And, you know, they basically lost control of the system that they built. Insiders in Facebook know it, and they're scrambling, OK? One top Facebook executive canceled meetings in Washington, D.C., this week, including a meeting with NPR. A rep said it's because they are conducting a comprehensive internal and external review. And another employee, a senior data scientist, told me that, yeah, Facebook's had historically weak enforcement of the terms. You know, so now it's a race to clean up the mess before lawmakers try to regulate.

GREENE: And lawmakers seem very ready to try and regulate as we've been hearing from them.

SHAHANI: Well, let's see about that, yeah.

GREENE: Yeah. All right. NPR's Aarti Shahani talking to us about a pretty extraordinary story involving potentially millions of Facebook users. Aarti, thanks.

SHAHANI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: So over the course of the next couple weeks, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia may be coming to a city near you.

KING: Yeah. His name is Mohammed bin Salman. Bin means son. He is the son of the Saudi king, Salman. And King Salman has given the prince immense power even though he is only 32 years old. Mohammed bin Salman is taking an international tour. He's stopping in London and Cairo, and now he's in the U.S. He'll be visiting East Coast cities. He'll be visiting Houston, Seattle, Silicon Valley. He is looking for investment, and he's promoting Saudi Arabia's reforms, but he's also trailed by protests because he got Saudi Arabia involved in a civil war in Yemen.

GREENE: That is a civil war that we're going to hear much more about because our co-host Steve Inskeep has been traveling to examine that war in Yemen. He is with us now from just across the water in Djibouti. Hi, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey there, Dave.

GREENE: So how bad is this war?

INSKEEP: It is a humanitarian disaster. Saudis and other nations backed by the United States, by the way, have taken one side in a civil war. It's been moving along for several years, largely beneath our attention because of all this other news you've just been discussing.

GREENE: Right.

INSKEEP: So to get a picture, we traveled into Yemen. We also came to meet refugees who have fled here to Djibouti. I'm beside the harbor of this East African nation. Just yesterday, we met a guy who put his wife and his three small kids on a small fishing boat in the middle of the night and floated over the Gulf of Aden. And when he got here, he met us and he said we have no state. We have no government. He describes lawlessness, rebels walking around with Kalashnikov rifles, taxing the people. They don't provide security. And all the time, planes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are flying over and dropping bombs, some of which killed civilians that he knew. It's a disastrous situation.

GREENE: Well, it sounds like it. And can you explain to us why the United States is involved? I mean, this is the U.S. backing Saudi Arabia, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah. This is the U.S. backing one of its long-standing allies. The Saudis say they want to end chaos on the border. They're battling a rebel group called the Houthis, which have fired into Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also allege the Houthis are backed by Iran. That's a big rivalry, you know, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It becomes a complicated war. It's even more complicated because al-Qaida has had bases in Yemen. The United States has an interest there. And the United States has been supportive largely of the Saudi efforts despite the international criticism of the human cost.

GREENE: I mean, it sounds so much like Syria. I'm sure there are a lot of differences, but with a lot of different countries with different interests, is there an end in sight?

INSKEEP: That's a great analogy, and that's the problem. There are reports of peace talks that have been very quietly underway, but there are multiple nations like Syria that are involved with multiple interests. Iran is in there, Saudi Arabia is in there, the United States, the UAE - we could go on for some time. And it is hard to pay attention to the Yemenis themselves because so many outside powers are involved, and their interests would have to be dealt with in any peace settlement.

GREENE: It sounds like such an important story. I'm so happy you're there, and we're going to be hearing about it.

INSKEEP: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That is Steve Inskeep, reporting from Djibouti. He has been in Yemen looking at a war that is beneath many of the headlines. The U.N. calls it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "DO WE CARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.