News Brief: William Barr, 'National Enquirer,' India's General Election

Apr 11, 2019
Originally published on April 11, 2019 11:26 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As soon as the Mueller report came out, President Trump was quick to go on offense, saying it's time to investigate the investigators. Now his attorney general is following suit.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. William Barr told lawmakers yesterday that he's going to launch his own inquiry about the origins of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia. The attorney general said he was interested in determining whether what he called spying by American intelligence agencies was properly carried out. And that led to this exchange with Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

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JEANNE SHAHEEN: You're not suggesting, though, that spying occurred?

WILLIAM BARR: I don't - well, I guess you could - I think there was - spying did occur. Yes, I think spying did occur.

GREENE: Although, we should say, the attorney general did not provide any evidence to back up that claim.

MARTIN: Oh, and that was sort of an excruciating pause. I am joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Barr makes this claim about spying against the Trump campaign. Did he give any more specifics? I mean, who allegedly did the spying?

LIASSON: Well, he didn't give any more specifics. But we know that the president and the president's allies in Congress have been saying for quite some time that they believe that the FBI opened its surveillance of a former Trump campaign official, Carter Page, in an inappropriate manner. That's their charge. And they say that this whole investigation, which led to the Mueller report, was done because of animus towards Donald Trump on the part of the FBI. And they have been clamoring for an investigation of the investigators.

And that's what was so significant about Barr's comments. It sounds like he wants to start one even though the Department of Justice's own inspector general is looking into this already. So that was what was significant about yesterday. What Barr is saying is he knows there was surveillance - or spying, as he put it. He wants to find out if the spying was appropriate. And he says, I feel an obligation to make sure government power is not abused.

MARTIN: So I mean, how is Congress responding to the idea that there would be yet another investigation into the origins of the investigation?

LIASSON: Well, Democrats were hopping mad about this. What they feel is that after, as you said, three years of investigating the president's campaign and Russia, now the Justice Department is going to focus in the direction that Donald Trump has wanted it to, which is to investigate the investigators. And they were quite infuriated because they feel that the suggestions about an abuse of power or illegal surveillance have already been put to rest. Here's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

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NANCY PELOSI: I'm very concerned about the statements made by Attorney General Barr. I think that they undermine our Constitution. They undermine the role of the attorney general. He is not the attorney general of Donald Trump. He is the attorney general of the United States.

LIASSON: And what's interesting is, the day before, when Barr testified in the House, he didn't talk about spying. He just said that the inspector general is going to finish his work. But moments before Barr made his spying comments yesterday, the president himself had gone on the attack again against the investigation, calling it an attempted coup, an attempted takedown of the president and an illegal investigation.

MARTIN: Right. Even though he uses it repeatedly to claim that he's been exonerated, which the report doesn't do. But he wraps himself up and uses the report to his own advantage - at the same time, undercutting it.

LIASSON: Right. Well, he's making two contradictory arguments. One, it exonerates me. The other is it's totally incredible and illegal and a witch hunt.

MARTIN: Right. NPR senior political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right. You've seen the headlines on the National Enquirer at the grocery store. Maybe you don't want to admit it, but I bet they caught your eye, which is the point. The National Enquirer is all about sensational news, sensational headlines.

GREENE: Right. And in recent months, those headlines haven't always appeared on its own front pages. The headlines have tended to be about their own alleged controversial operations. The tabloid reportedly paid a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, for claims that she had an affair with President Trump. They never published that story, a practice that's known as catch and kill.

The CEO of the National Enquirer's parent company, American Media, is David Pecker. He's a Trump ally. And yesterday, he confirmed that they are now exploring a possible sale of the publication.

MARTIN: So who wants to buy the National Enquirer? I'm joined by NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, do you want to buy the National Enquirer?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I'm going to look around in my couch to see if I have enough coins to do it at the moment.

MARTIN: Right. I bet it's expensive.

So the Karen McDougal story wasn't the only scandal, right? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos accused the publication of blackmail earlier this year. Talk us through these controversies.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the McDougal case was fascinating because, as you said, it introduced us to the phrase catch and kill and showed you the lengths to which the tabloid could go to harm the celebrities it writes about, or to boost them, in this case pocketing that story after helping arrange a $150,000 payout to McDougal to make sure that that story never saw the light of day, particularly before the November 2016 elections.

In the case of Jeff Bezos, he took to Medium this year, posting an essay and said, hey, these guys are trying to blackmail me. They're trying to report on my extramarital affair with my girlfriend. And Bezos has subsequently announced he's divorcing. Bezos said they were going - threatened to post intimate pictures of me that we exchanged - that he exchanged with his girlfriend in order to try to elicit from him a statement that its reporting was not in any way politically motivated.

And Bezos, of course, is not only the richest person on earth, not only the founder and controlling owner of Amazon, but the owner of The Washington Post, which has done aggressive reporting on President Trump and been a target of President Trump. And Bezos said, hey, I think I am being targeted because this friendship, and I'm not going to sit for it.

MARTIN: So why is the Enquirer up for sale right now?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, if you look at the statement, it would seem as though, corporately, they're trying to refocus on their more upscale lifestyle brands. You got Us Weekly and Men's Journal among them, which they bought in 2017.

There is significant debt hanging over this company. It did, after all - American Media Inc., the parent company, did declare bankruptcy back in 2010. And so there are financial reasons. But I got to tell you, it is hard to disassociate this decision from not only the fact that the company was in deep legal trouble over the McDougal payments...

MARTIN: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: ...That it had to essentially negotiate with federal prosecutors to - collaboration or to avoid charges, but the Bezos accusations of blackmail landed them back square in the sights of the prosecutors again.

MARTIN: Who's going to buy it?

FOLKENFLIK: You know...

MARTIN: Not you.

FOLKENFLIK: I don't know. I don't know who's going to do it in this day and age. You know, you've got TMZ, which is owned by WarnerMedia, now an offshoot of AT&T. You'd think that, in a rational world, might be it. There's gossip on Twitter and every digital site immediately now. It's hard to know who would do it. But it's such a strong brand. It's such a great vanity play for somebody who might want to do it. The funny twist would be if Jeff Bezos decided to buy it...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: ...To put it out of his distance.

MARTIN: That'd be amazing. NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks. We appreciate it.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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MARTIN: Voting begins today in the world's largest general election.

GREENE: That's right. India is home to 900 million eligible voters. And because of the sheer vastness of the country, and with so many people to reach, the election is going to be carried out in several stages, meaning it will be six weeks before all the votes are in and counting can actually begin. More than 500 parliamentary seats are up for grabs, including that of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is running for a second term.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer is watching this unprecedented democratic exercise get underway. She's with us from a polling station in northern India. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, guys.

MARTIN: Where exactly are you? What are you seeing?

FRAYER: I'm in the northern town of Haridwar. And I'm in the courtyard of a school. There are no classes because voting is going on. And people are streaming out with these inked fingers to signify that they've voted. This is one of 1 million polling stations across the country. When I say polling station, sometimes it's literally a handful of people with an electronic voting machine.

The rules say no voter should have to travel more than 2 kilometers - that's less than a mile and a half - to vote. And so election officials have trucked across glaciers, through jungles to get this voting infrastructure out to every last Indian citizen.

It's all electronic voting, so it's on these machines that fit in a small suitcase. And we've seen these election commission workers, you know, wading across rivers with these machines overhead to get in place for this polling.

MARTIN: So you've been out talking to voters. I mean, the big question in this election is whether or not they're going to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi another term, right?

FRAYER: Yeah, that's right. So for many, this is really a referendum on Prime Minister Modi's last five years. He was elected with this historic majority in 2014. He made a lot of promises. People are evaluating his performance. The economy is booming, but Indian unemployment has actually hit a four-decade high. Crop prices are low, which means food is cheap. That's great. But it also means that farmers are struggling - low profits for them.

Where I am in Haridwar, this is a place where Modi's party has done really well before. This is the Hindi heartland, Modi's base. And I met a group of elderly gentleman - retirees - hanging out on the banks of the Ganges River, talking about Prime Minister Modi.

SHASHI PRAKASH SHARMA: He's doing his best for the country.

FRAYER: And you think five more years?

SHARMA: Yes, I want that. He belongs to a poor family.

MOHAN LAL: We like him as a person. Policies - we are not that into politics. We are normal people.

FRAYER: So that was Shashi Prakash Sharma and Mohan Lal. And they say, you know, we like Modi, the man, a former tea seller, self-made man. And they say his policies, for them, are really secondary, except for national security. And that's something that really comes up a lot talking to voters. Violence broke out this winter, if you recall, between India and its neighbor, Pakistan - airstrikes. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. It was pretty scary.

MARTIN: Right.

FRAYER: And Modi cast himself as this sort of safe pair of hands through all of that.

MARTIN: I do love the image of those guys hanging on the bank of the Ganges talking about international security issues.

FRAYER: They were really sweet.

MARTIN: So we should talk about Modi's challenger, though, right? Who is it? And what kind of chance do they have of defeating him?

FRAYER: So the main opposition party is the Congress Party. It's a center-left party. It's sort of dominated Indian politics, really, since independence from the British in 1947. It's run by descendants of India's first prime minister. Polls show Modi's Hindu nationalist party with a slight lead, so he could actually lose seats but still manage to govern.

MARTIN: Broader implications of the outcome of this, Lauren, when you think about India and its alliances, its trade interests, its relationship with the U.S.?

FRAYER: Yeah. So one more thing that Modi has done is he's brought Hinduism, the country's majority faith, into politics in unprecedented ways. Now, India's Constitution defines it as a secular state.

MARTIN: Right.

FRAYER: This election could be a turning point.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer for us.

Thanks so much, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "RAIN FALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.