News Brief: Disaster Package, Assange Charges, India Election Results

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 24, 2019 5:05 pm
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NOEL KING, HOST:

States that have been hit by natural disasters are likely to get some relief from the government. These are parts of the country that have been waiting months and, in some cases, years for help.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senate lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a long-delayed disaster aid package late yesterday. The $19 billion will provide much-needed help to states that are trying to recover from a whole range of natural disasters - flooding, wildfires, hurricanes. And the deal comes after months of fighting between the president and Democrats over sending additional money to Puerto Rico, which was devastated after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit nearly two years ago.

There's another reason for the delay, though - they couldn't agree on funding for the president's border security measures. That includes the wall. This bill contains no funding for that wall. President Trump says he'll sign it anyway.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, we're going to get the immigration money later, according to everybody. I have to take care of my farmers with the disaster relief.

KING: NPR's Domenico Montanaro is on the line. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Noel.

KING: So what's in the bill? What did the Senate manage to officially agree on?

MONTANARO: Well, as you all - excuse me - as you all noted, it's $19.1 billion for disaster relief. That includes a billion dollars for Puerto Rico. That's for food stamps, housing and infrastructure. But the hang-up here had been that the president was hotly opposed to more money for Puerto Rico, and that went on for months. I mean, in the end, Democrats got exactly the amount that they wanted, passed the Senate 85 to eight, still has to pass the House. But that's really a formality, and they are expected to do so as early as today.

KING: These relief bills used to be really easy bipartisan wins. This one took a long time to get passed. Was it just the president? What else was going on?

MONTANARO: Well, it was the president. I mean, they are typically easy to pass. These are usually bipartisan. But again, President Trump didn't want this money for Puerto Rico, feels like the island has been mismanaged. He wanted this border wall funding. And Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tried to put a wedge between the president and Senate Republicans. Let's take a listen to him here.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: I think it means that Republicans are learning that they're going to have to break from the president to get anything done because the president, just as he was yesterday, has been an obstructionist force.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, the fact is, for months, the president was against this bill. You know, I don't know that it was exactly as Schumer puts it, where you have Republicans breaking from him. But, you know, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, was keeping this on the shelf until the president would sign off. And he finally did.

KING: And this time the president - right? - said he intends to sign it despite not getting the money for his border wall. Do we have any sense of what changed in his mind?

MONTANARO: You know, that's a hard thing to try to understand. But Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who's the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had been shepherding this and met with the president and some administration officials earlier this week and apparently got the president to commit to pursuing the increased immigration funding separately. There was lots of pressure, you know, on Republicans...

KING: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...And the president. The president went to Florida Panhandle, for example, a couple months ago. And they wanted this funding passed, and the president, you know, again simply gave in after this lengthy delay.

KING: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

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KING: All right. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is facing new charges.

MARTIN: The Justice Department is charging Assange with violating the Espionage Act. This is for obtaining and publishing secret documents, which is what he's accused of doing. Assistant Attorney General John Demers told reporters that the published documents put the American military and others at risk.

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JOHN DEMERS: Documents relating to these disclosures were even found in the Osama bin Laden compound. This release made our adversaries stronger and more knowledgeable and the United States less secure.

MARTIN: So that's one side. Press freedom advocates say the indictment threatens the First Amendment rights of journalists.

KING: NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following this story for many years. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So what are these new charges? Lay them out for us.

JOHNSON: These are 17 new charges under the Espionage Act, very, very serious escalation of the case against Julian Assange. The charges include conspiracy to obtain, receive and disclose national defense information, basically soliciting former Army Private Chelsea Manning to leak sensitive materials to WikiLeaks. Remember, she gave State Department cables, war logs and assessments of detainees at Guantanamo, among other things, to WikiLeaks, prompting this entire scandal to explode.

KING: Well, as Rachel said, advocates for press freedom are really troubled by these charges. They say that this could set a precedent where journalists, especially those who cover national security and intelligence, could themselves end up facing these type of charges. Now, Julian Assange is not a traditional journalist, as we understand the term. So what is the concern here?

JOHNSON: Assange may not be a traditional journalist, but some of the activities he's accused of in this new superseding indictment mirror things that reporters do every day asking sources to share sensitive information with them. In fact, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says these charges pose a dire threat to news-gathering. The ACLU calls them unprecedented and basically says that they could lay down a marker to put other reporters on notice inside the U.S. that they could be charged with wrongdoing.

Now, to hear the Justice Department tell it, Julian Assange is different in part because he ignored warnings from the State Department, went ahead and published some of these materials with the names of the intelligence community and the State Department's confidential human sources in them. Here's Assistant Attorney General John Demers talking about that.

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DEMERS: No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposely publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in war zone.

JOHNSON: Now, no others - no evidence that anyone died as a result of these publications. But DOJ says all they have to prove in court is that there was a potential for serious harm to someone.

KING: Assange is in the - is in prison in the U.K. right now for skipping bail. Is it likely that he's going to be extradited to the U.S.?

JOHNSON: You know, these new charges in this new superseding indictment do raise a new question for me. There is an exception to the extradition treaty between the U.K. and the U.S. that talks about political offenses. It's not clear to me and to some of the lawyers with whom I've been in touch whether some of these new Espionage Act charges for publication of information could be considered political by British authorities.

KING: Carrie, before I let you go, let me just switch gears here quickly. Last night, we learned that President Trump has given Attorney General William Barr new powers to review the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. What is this about?

JOHNSON: This is all about investigating the investigators who were looking into President Trump's campaign in 2016. Remember, Attorney General Bill Barr raised a firestorm when he said he believed there was spying on the Trump campaign even though the FBI says it didn't think it did anything wrong in that era. Now Bill Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney to look into this. The president has given Bill Barr the power to decide what information becomes public or not.

Noel, Adam King (ph), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says this is weaponizing intelligence information, and he calls it un-American. Some former CIA veterans are raising questions about whether the attorney general could selectively disclose some of this government - some of these government secrets to try to help the president. They say there's a parallel here to the way Bill Barr handled the quotes in the Mueller report, the special counsel's report, into Russian interference in the election.

KING: NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

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KING: All right. Now over to India, where nearly six weeks of voting in the world's biggest democracy have ended in a landslide victory.

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MARTIN: That's the sound of celebrations that happened last night, supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has secured another five-year term. Hundreds of millions of people turned out to vote in an election that was widely seen as a referendum on Modi's Hindu nationalist politics.

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: That's Modi in a victory speech saying he dedicates his win to the people of India.

KING: NPR's Lauren Frayer has been reporting on the election. She's on the line from Mumbai. Lauren, before we get into it, let's talk about the logistics of this election because they are staggering - 900 million people eligible to vote.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Yeah, it's amazing. And a - and around two-thirds of them did vote, so that's a really high turnout. Indian law says that no one should have to walk more than about a mile and a quarter to vote. So in Indian elections, you literally have more than a million polling stations coming to the voters rather than the other way around. And voting is all done electronically on machines the size of these small suitcases. So we saw election workers, you know, carrying these suitcases, traveling to tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, to villages in the Himalaya Mountains. Voting happened in seven stages over nearly six weeks, and the votes were just counted last night.

KING: Absolutely extraordinary. What were the big issues in this campaign?

FRAYER: So Modi's campaign was really about national security and religion, Hinduism. He ordered airstrikes on Pakistan in February after a suicide bombing linked to Pakistan-based militants. He offered himself during that conflict as this strong pair of hands to lead the country. He also campaigned to his hardline Hindu base. He promised to build a Hindu temple in a very incendiary spot where a mosque was turned - torn down and Muslims were killed.

What Modi did not campaign on as much was the economy. When he was elected five years ago, he promised to create jobs. But unemployment is at a four-decade high. India, you know, is going to soon overtake China as the most populous country in the world. It's also getting richer? And so you've got tens of millions of young Indians joining the labor force for the first time. And here's one first time voter, an 18-year-old named Ayushi (ph).

AYUSHI: I'm happy, actually. I - my family also supported Modi. And I wish they will do better than last five years and give more chance to youth and more job vacancies.

FRAYER: So she's doing an internship, wondering if she'll get a job. And she thinks five more years for Modi to come through with job growth.

KING: And what does this big win for Modi mean for the rest of the government in India? Just quickly.

FRAYER: So it means Modi's Hindu Nationalist Party will able - will be able to rule alone. It won't have to have coalition partners. It also means Modi's 2014 victory wasn't a one-off. His brand of Hindu nationalist, populist politics is really here to stay. You know, India was created 70-plus years ago as a secular, pluralistic democracy. Modi last night called secularism an old fad. He wants to bring the country's majority-Hindu faith into politics in unprecedented ways.

KING: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Thanks, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAMU THE FUDGEMUNK'S "THIS ADVICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.