Morning News Brief
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It was supposed to be a meeting about the U.S. response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
But when he let reporters into the room with the start of that meeting, President Trump had something else on his mind. He led off the discussion by declaring, so I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys. He spoke for several minutes about an FBI raid. Agents with a search warrant obtained documents from lawyer Michael Cohen.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Here we are talking about Syria. We're talking about a lot of serious things with the greatest fighting force ever. And I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now.
INSKEEP: Now, Michael Cohen has worked as Donald Trump's attorney for years. And he's closely connected with his personal and business dealings.
By Cohen's own account, he is the person who paid adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the election. She says it was to keep quiet about an affair. Cohen says he also once spoke with Russians about a Trump Tower in Moscow. And he has generally portrayed himself as the man whose job is to solve Donald Trump's problems.
MARTIN: All right. Joining us in the studio now, NPR's Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department.
So, Ryan, sounds like investigators might have several reasons to want information from Michael Cohen. Do we know exactly what they were looking for in not just his office, also a hotel room he uses, right?
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: We don't know exactly what it is that they were looking for. There's not a ton of clarity on what the FBI swept up in these raids. Cohen's lawyer says that the feds got documents in what he called privileged communications. So Cohen is an attorney himself, of course, so that would be Cohen's communications with his client. We do know, of course, that President Trump is one of his clients.
It's not clear what all of this relates to. There is the question of whether any communications related to the president may have been swept up in this. But at this point, we don't know.
MARTIN: This raid came because of a referral from Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. Does this have anything to do with that?
LUCAS: There's - well, it's not clear. There's no official word on what this is related to. The U.S. Attorney's Office in New York, the FBI Special Counsel's Office have all declined to comment.
But according to the regulations of the special counsel, if Mueller's team comes across evidence of a possible crime during the course of its investigation, Mueller is supposed to concert - consult with the attorney general. In this case, that would be the deputy attorney general overseeing his investigation, who will then decide whether it stays within Mueller's probe or whether it should be kicked somewhere else...
MARTIN: And this is...
LUCAS: ...In this case.
MARTIN: ...That example.
MARTIN: They kicked it to the New York investigators...
MARTIN: ...Who actually conducted the investigation.
It is really hard to get a search warrant for a lawyer's office, isn't it?
LUCAS: It's unusual, but it's not unheard of. A former U.S. attorney told me that investigators decide on a step like this. To do so, they would want to have very persuasive evidence to present it to a judge because judges are wary of doing something like this.
It's also something that - within the Justice Department and the FBI, this is going to have to be signed off on at a very high level. Most likely, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, would be involved in this. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, might know.
And then, also, since this is going to this southern district of New York, you would have the U.S. attorney there, man by the name of Geoffrey Berman who would be involved as well.
MARTIN: Who was tapped by President Trump.
LUCAS: Worth noting, these are all Trump appointees - Wray, Rosenstein and Berman.
Now, while it's rare to get something like this, what it suggests is that, one, investigators had reason to believe that Cohen possessed possible evidence of a crime and, two, that they were likely concerned about possible destruction of evidence.
INSKEEP: And, also, presumably that Mueller thought this is something significant, knowing the difficulty of getting this kind of order in the first place and surely thinking also about the political aftereffects...
INSKEEP: ...Of doing something like this.
MARTIN: Things they couldn't necessarily get from a subpoena.
OK. NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.
LUCAS: Thank you.
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MARTIN: All right. So at that meeting with military advisers last night, President Trump did move on from talking about the FBI raid.
INSKEEP: He eventually focused on a chemical attack in Syria, the purpose of the meeting that he'd called.
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TRUMP: We can't let that happen. In our world, we can't let that happen, especially when we're able to - because of the power of United States, because the power of our country, we're able to stop it.
INSKEEP: Aid organizations say that at least 43 people, including women and children, have died from what appear to be chemical agent symptoms.
MARTIN: NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon. He's with us now.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: What do we know about the choices the administration is mulling over right now?
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, it seems that the president is intent on doing something. He said we have some very good clarity on who is responsible for the attack. And he told reporters we'll be letting you know pretty soon, probably after the fact.
MARTIN: And something means military response.
BOWMAN: Some sort of military action.
BOWMAN: That's what he was hinting at. Now, the likeliest form of military action would be similar to what he did last year, almost exactly a year ago, when the Syrian regime was found to use chemical weapons against its own people. U.S. warships fired dozens of cruise missiles at an airfield outside Damascus. And they destroyed a number of fighter jets and shelters, storage areas, radar systems. And the Syrian government said six were killed in those strikes.
Now - so it's possible you could see something like that happen again. And, meanwhile, an American warship, the USS Donald Cook has just left a port visit in Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. And that ship carries Tomahawk cruise missiles. So, again, we could see something similar to what we saw almost exactly a year ago.
MARTIN: But it would need to be somewhat different, I imagine, because clearly the previous strike didn't work. If the effort was to deter Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons, that didn't happen.
BOWMAN: It did not happen. So you could see little - you know, a more intensive airstrike than you saw last year. You could see him go after command and control centers, headquarters. And you also could possibly see an allied nation help out in this effort. The president - President Trump spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron about this on two occasions just in the last couple of days.
So - and the French want a very tough response to these alleged chemical attacks as well. So that's possible you could see some French participation in any sort of military action.
MARTIN: So not just U.S. going it alone.
BOWMAN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Rachel, you raised the biggest question yesterday in an interview with Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador. The question is not just what does the United States do but how, if at all, does it fit into a larger, longer-term strategy to accomplish specific goals in Syria?
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tom Bowman.
Thanks so much for your time, Tom. We appreciate it.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK. Silicon Valley is going to be paying far more attention to the goings-on on Capitol Hill today than they usually do.
INSKEEP: Oh, gosh. It's true. Remember in years past, Silicon Valley firms thought they could just kind of ignore the government because they were moving into a new world. Well, now Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees this afternoon.
It starts two days of hearings about the revelations that the political data firm Cambridge Analytica scooped up private information of tens of millions of Facebook users. Two different committees - so more than 40 senators will be crowded into the hearing room. And each, we're told, get four minutes to question Mark Zuckerberg.
MARTIN: It's going to be a scene, isn't it? NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is with us. And she's going to cover these hearings.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: What specific questions are lawmakers going to put to Mark Zuckerberg today?
SNELL: It kind of depends on which side of the aisle they're on and what they're most concerned about here. I talked to a lot of senators yesterday in the lead-up to this who said they want to know exactly when Facebook knew about Cambridge Analytica and how many other firms there are just like them. We saw it just yesterday Facebook announced that they had suspended the account of another firm similar to Cambridge Analytica. And that's sparking a lot of questions about how widespread this kind of data breach really is.
MARTIN: I mean, Steve, you actually interviewed Sheryl Sandberg last week...
MARTIN: ...At Facebook headquarters and asked her that question, right?
INSKEEP: We said, are there other firms that did the same thing? And at that time, she said the answer was, we don't know. But within a couple of days, they'd suspended this other firm. So who knows how many...
MARTIN: That clearly changed.
INSKEEP: ...Others might be out there.
MARTIN: Right. So lawmakers will want to know that.
It is worth noting, Mark Zuckerberg does have this long history of apologizing after the fact when it comes to privacy concerns. His line this time seems to be - hey, we just didn't understand that it - Facebook is so influential. Is that something lawmakers are going to seize on?
SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. They - I've talked to several people who said that they think that he is probably very genuine in that feeling but that he also knows that regulation is the thing that is coming down the line if they don't get in control of things. And it may be coming down the line either way.
There is a huge public outcry in this moment of people wanting to see their data protected and their privacy protected. It's the first time that people are really noticing how much their personal information can be used. It's something people have known for a long time. But I had one lawmaker describe this as the tip of the spear of a much, much bigger problem.
And, you know, Congress isn't really well-equipped for understanding how they manage this. But a big hearing like this is kind of a way to tell the public that they are paying attention, that they care about this and they want to do something.
MARTIN: So this is potentially just the beginning. I mean, we think of these things as being a whole lot of political theater where lawmakers get to posture as if they care about something. I mean, maybe they do, maybe they don't. But are you suggesting this real - real change could come from these hearings about how Facebook operates in the world?
SNELL: Probably not immediately because the climate right now isn't really positive towards regulation. But we often see that this takes a while and that Congress may, over the next many years, decide that they have figured out how they want to address Facebook and they want to address social media.
So this could be the start of a much longer, many years process of regulation talks.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Kelsey Snell for us this morning. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, going to the Hill today for two days of hearings.
Hey, Kelsey, thanks so much.
SNELL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRENT REZNOR AND ATTICUS ROSS' "PAINTED SUN IN ABSTRACT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.