News Brief: Michael Cohen, Nuclear Summit, India-Pakistan Tensions

Feb 27, 2019
Originally published on February 27, 2019 11:09 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, a man who used to be one of President Trump's closest confidants will testify before Congress, and he will testify that President Trump committed a crime - not just during the campaign, but after he was inaugurated.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The crime here would be an illegal campaign contribution. Michael Cohen paid off an adult film star before the election, he says. Well, after the election, when Trump was in office, Cohen says the president reimbursed him - by check. Cohen also makes a statement relating to the investigation of Russia's support for Trump's election. You will recall the United States blames Russia for the hacking of Democratic Party emails. Well, Cohen says he was present for a 2016 phone call in which Trump was told in advance that a leak of emails was coming.

MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak covers national security in politics, and he is covering Michael Cohen's testimony. And he is in the studio. Good morning, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's start with this alleged crime. We knew before that Michael Cohen had said President Trump reimbursed him for hush money. Now Cohen is expected to say, in his testimony before Congress, that this reimbursement happened while the president was in office.

MAK: Right. And he's got documents to show for it. In his prepared testimony, Michael Cohen is expected to say that President Trump personally signed a check from his personal bank account to reimburse money to Michael Cohen for this hush money. That's hush money that Cohen later pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations for. So in his prepared testimony, he lists several documents, including copies of checks and financial statements that he says supports his testimony. One of these checks is from Trump's personal bank account, written after he became president, as late as August of 2017, paid to Cohen to reimburse him for those hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels.

Cohen also is expected to go into great detail about these payments made to Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair with Trump before he was president. He said the president - or is expected to say that the president directed him to make these payments and describes it as a, quote, "criminal scheme."

MARTIN: So Cohen is going to present other documents that don't paint the president in a good light, in particular related to WikiLeaks, right?

MAK: Yeah. One of the big questions during the campaign and ever since has been what foreknowledge, if any, did Donald Trump have about the WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee emails? Michael Cohen is expected to say that when he was a presidential candidate, he knew that Roger Stone was talking to Julian Assange about a possible WikiLeaks drop of DNC emails.

MARTIN: Roger Stone, longtime friend of President Trump.

MAK: Absolutely. And Michael Cohen is also expected to say and testify before Congress that Trump knew about that release of hacked DNC emails ahead of time. He's going to - he's expected to have documents to support a lot of these allegations, including those talks about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. He's expected to say that Trump knew of and directed the Trump Moscow negotiations through the campaign and lied about it. He's also expected to comment on Donald Trump's character. He's going to call him a racist. He's going to say that he's heard Donald Trump say all sorts of nasty and bigoted things.

MARTIN: So all of that is going to be shocking to absorb today during this testimony. But this public hearing comes after a closed-door Senate panel yesterday, right? What did we learn from that, if anything?

MAK: So the nature of the Senate intelligence committee is that it is generally very secretive. But here's what Senator Mark Warner - he's the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee - here's what he had to say yesterday.

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MARK WARNER: Two years ago, when this investigation started, I said it may be the most important thing I'm involved in in my public life in the Senate, and nothing I've heard today dissuades me from that view.

MAK: Yeah, but beyond these general statements, lawmakers have been pretty tight-lipped about what they learned in hours of marathon testimony.

MARTIN: So he's going to face grilling by Democrats and Republicans today. Any sense of what specific questions he's going to have to tackle?

MAK: Well, he's going to be largely asked about questions about the Trump business, the Trump charities and the Trump campaign. But Republicans are going to be pushing back very strongly against Michael Cohen. They're going to argue he's a liar, he's lied before Congress...

MARTIN: He's admitted to lying. Yeah.

MAK: Admitted to that. And he shouldn't be trusted here. He's not credible.

MARTIN: Which is the line from the White House and the president himself this morning. NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much, Tim.

MAK: Thank you.

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MARTIN: So while Michael Cohen is testifying on the Hill about President Trump, President Trump is very far away in Vietnam.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: On behalf of the United States, I want to thank you very much for hosting, and hopefully great things will happen later on with our meeting.

INSKEEP: That was the president, ahead of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The negotiating teams are expected to discuss progress toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, although they've had a little bit of trouble defining what that would really mean. In return, North Korea would get the lifting of economic sanctions.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Hanoi covering the summit. Good morning, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, Rachel.

MARTIN: So you were in Singapore covering the first summit. And you remember, there was all this pomp and circumstance to the actual moment, the moment these two leaders met. Are we going to see that again?

KUHN: Well, you're going to see a similar sort of media circus, that's for sure. There are an awful lot of journalists here in a massive press center. They're staked out in front of hotels and stuff like that. And we've had some really made-for-TV moments. President Trump's arrival here was what you would expect - the usual motorcades and stuff. Kim Jong Un went through a 60-hour marathon by train, all the way the length of China, to get to Vietnam, and that was full of interesting made-for-TV moments, like him catching a smoke break on the platform on his way here.

So in terms of media, yes, it's a big spectacle. But you know, I think the results of Singapore were less than what a lot of people were looking for, so expectations have come down a bit in terms of the actual deliverables.

MARTIN: Right. But, you know, Singapore, you can kind of get away with just the historic nature of it, right? It was a big deal that these two were in a room together.

KUHN: Yeah.

MARTIN: They're not going to be able to lean so much on the theater this time. I mean, after Singapore, Trump said North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat, even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that's not true. So what are the realistic expectations here for the Trump delegation?

KUHN: Yeah, well, they're lower. You know, the first time, what the U.S. would have liked to have is a declaration of all of North Korea's nuclear assets. It wouldn't give those. North Korea says, look, you know, we've done things since the summit. We've - you know, last year, they've frozen their nuclear tests. They've dismantled some nuclear and missile facilities, and now they want something in return. So the U.S. has lowered - it appears to have lowered its expectations and is willing to take some sort of measures to lock in the freeze, to verify what's already happened and to get some sort of roadmap for the process ahead, which they know is going to be long and complicated.

MARTIN: Is there any anticipation that - there had been some speculation that the president, President Trump, might try to broker a so-called peace deal that would end the Korean War. Is that on the table?

KUHN: It's been raised by a lot of sides. The South Koreans said that could be an outcome. People, of course, are just very concerned that, you know, we don't strike a bad deal. Even a small deal would be better than a bad one - giving away too much just to look good on camera.

MARTIN: Right. And of course, South Korea would have to be substantively involved in that. NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Hanoi covering the summit. Thanks so much.

KUHN: You bet, Rachel.

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MARTIN: OK. So while President Trump is talking about denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, two other nuclear powers remain at odds.

INSKEEP: To say the least. Pakistan says it shot down two Indian aircraft inside its airspace, and Pakistan also says it launched strikes on Indian-controlled Kashmir today. The Pakistanis say they've captured a couple of Indian pilots who were shot down. All this comes after India says its fighter jets did cross over into Pakistani-controlled territory and killed a very large number of terrorists. Pakistan says the Indian jet struck nothing. We should emphasize we don't have any independent confirmation of what has been destroyed. But both sides are shooting, and there are fears that tensions between these nuclear-armed neighbors could escalate.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer has been reporting all this from India. Lauren, can you just get us up to speed on what we know in this moment and what the situation is on the ground?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Sure. So Pakistan says its air force shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace. It says they fell out of the sky on opposite sides of the Line of Control - that's the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani areas of Kashmir. Kashmir's a divided territory that the two countries have long fought over.

MARTIN: Right.

FRAYER: Pakistan says Indian pilots of those aircraft have been arrested. Now, that's what Pakistan says. We're getting a very different story from the Indian government.

MARTIN: What are they saying?

FRAYER: So after hours of silence, the Indian government just made its first statement on this two minutes ago. A government spokesman came out and said it was the Indian Air Force that shot down a Pakistani plane, and that ground forces confirmed that, that he saw it falling from the sky. He also confirmed that one Indian pilot is missing in action, and he did not elaborate how that pilot went missing. So these are obviously different stories.

I also want to tell you about some video, pretty dramatic video. Both Pakistani and Indian media are showing video of a man who says he is an Indian pilot blindfolded in custody. Now, we can't verify the nature - we can't verify that this video is legitimate. But he says his name and his service number on tape. And this video is circulating widely in both countries.

MARTIN: I mean, it is worth just for a couple moments, Lauren, just backing up and explaining how entrenched this conflict is, right?

FRAYER: It really is. So India and Pakistan have fought a number of wars since their independence from Britain in 1947. But the latest tension really started just shy of two weeks ago with a suicide car bomb that killed 40 Indian troops on the Indian side of Kashmir. Now, the bomber was a local Kashmiri man, but a Pakistan-based group claimed responsibility.

India was very angry, and yesterday it says it retaliated with these airstrikes on a militant training camp inside Pakistan. It says it killed fighters there. Now, Pakistan denied any damage or casualties, but we've already seen Pakistan responding today, saying it's shot down these Indian planes. So there are - long been tensions. Now it's turned violent, and you got to wonder when these tit-for-tat retaliations will stop.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Assam, India, reporting on this for us. Lauren, thanks so much we appreciate it.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Rachel.

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