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News Brief: Status Of Special Counsel, Qatar Under Economic Blockade


Robert Mueller is the man in charge of investigating possible links between Russia and President Trump's campaign associates.


He is a former director of the FBI. When he was named special counsel, he was praised - right? - as America's straightest arrow, someone who is well-respected, nonpartisan. Now, weeks later, a friend of President Trump's says the president is thinking of firing Mueller. Christopher Ruddy spoke with "PBS NewsHour" last night.


CHRISTOPHER RUDDY: Well, I think he's considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he's weighing that option. I think it's pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake.

MARTIN: Ruddy runs the conservative news site Newsmax, and he spoke to PBS just after visiting the White House. But Press Secretary Sean Spicer tells NPR, quote, "Chris was speaking for himself and did not speak to the president regarding this issue."

INSKEEP: Also speaking for himself, NPR congressional reporter Geoff Bennett, who's in our studios to talk about this. Good morning, Jeff.


INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. Where did the idea come from to fire Robert Mueller?

BENNETT: (Laughter) The idea. Well, you know, this is a tried and true tactic of President Trump's, this attempt to discredit his opponents or his perceived opponents. You know, I think what we're seeing here is Trump's allies testing the waters on how forcefully to discredit this Russia probe and, frankly, its chief investigator.

INSKEEP: You said allies plural. It's more than Christopher Ruddy?

BENNETT: It's folks like Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich. I think one of the things that points to this being a trial balloon is that less than a month ago, Gingrich tweeted that Robert Mueller is the superb choice to be special counsel. His reputation is impeccable for honesty and integrity. Now we have Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, saying that Republicans are delusional if they think the special counsel is going to be fair.

INSKEEP: OK. Now we should be clear that Christopher Ruddy, unlike some of the others you named, has actually said, as we just heard, that firing the special counsel's a really bad idea. But then in this interview, he mentions that the president is thinking about it and then starts tossing out ideas for why Mueller shouldn't be special counsel. Let's listen.


RUDDY: I mean, Robert Mueller, there's some real conflicts. He comes from a law firm that represent members of the Trump family. He interviewed the day before - a few days before he was appointed special counsel with the president, who was looking at him potentially to become the next FBI director.

INSKEEP: OK. So those are the reasons that Ruddy tosses out. But just mechanically on a basic level, can the president fire Robert Mueller if he should actually decide to do so?

BENNETT: It's not something that he could do on his own. The president would have to order the attorney general to do it. The attorney general, of course, in this instance is recused, so it would be up to Rod Rosenstein, who would either do it or just quit. There's a real question as to whether anyone at the Department of Justice would actually take these steps or quit.

INSKEEP: Rosenstein, we should mention, gave testimony the other day, very strictly questioned by Kamala Harris, California senator, saying, will you guarantee me you won't fire the special counsel? He wouldn't, but he said, my integrity is your guarantee.

BENNETT: That's right. And if Rosenstein refused, Trump could then fire Rosenstein. And that's led to all sorts of comparisons between, you know, that and the Saturday Night Massacre during Watergate when President Richard Nixon tried to dismiss the special prosecutor at the time, Archibald Cox.

MARTIN: So speaking of the attorney general who had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Jeff Sessions is testifying before the Senate intelligence committee. So we are likely to hear more about this particular story, Chris Ruddy and what he said about Mueller today.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Geoff Bennett will stay on it. Geoff, thanks for coming by.

BENNETT: Sure thing.


INSKEEP: And we turn next to the Gulf country of Qatar. Its neighbors have cut off diplomatic relations and even some trade.

MARTIN: Its Arab neighbors accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. It is awkward for the United States, though President Trump seemed to take credit for the move against Qatar. The country is home to a major U.S. military base in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has sought to ease these tensions.


REX TILLERSON: We've called for calm and thoughtful dialogue with clear expectations and accountability among the parties. We asked that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region.

INSKEEP: Well, let's go to the center of this dispute, Qatar itself. Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post is on the line from the capital city, Doha. Welcome back to the program.


INSKEEP: What's the conversation like when you arrive in Doha? Do people talk about anything else?

RAGHAVAN: (Laughter) Well, this is the topic. The number one topic of everyone here in Qatar is, you know, you talk to anyone on the streets here, they will discuss all the problems that they're facing, as well as all their - basically their sense of unity. They need to stand up. They need to be resilient to all the pressures they're facing.

INSKEEP: I want to ask, Sudarsan, about the basic charge against Qatar which is that Qatari money - very wealthy country, lots of natural gas and so forth - that the Qatari money has been used to support extremist groups elsewhere in the region. Do Qataris acknowledge that that basic accusation is on some level true?

RAGHAVAN: No, they don't. I mean, they've, you know, they've come out with numerous statements basically saying that all of these allegations are baseless. Even when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist group that Saudi Arabia and its allies consider a terrorist group, the Qataris say that this is a political movement.

And they're actually now supporting the group itself, but they had supported the countries in which the group was. For example, when Egypt was run by the Islamist-led government of the Muslim Brotherhood. So no, they're completely denying these charges.

INSKEEP: And I'm trying to understand also where the United States is coming down on this, given that President Trump did suggest that he deserves some credit for the move against Qatar. But his secretary of state is trying to fix things up, and the U.S. military is right there. Do the Qataris feel supported or oppressed by the United States at the moment?

RAGHAVAN: Well, the Qataris are facing, like most of the world, are facing conflicting signs from the U.S. government. The Pentagon in particular is worried, and it expressed so that the crisis could impede the ability to fight the Islamic State and wants to resolve soon.

But at the same time, you have these, you know, the tweets coming from President Trump which many people here believe that the part of the reason for their crisis is that it was triggered in part by President Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia last month, where he publicly embraced the Saudis as a leading counterterrorism partner. And this, they believe, emboldened the Saudis to take this action.

MARTIN: You know, it's also worth noting Iran has decided to interfere - intervene, rather and is delivering all kinds of food into Qatar which just illustrates the significant geopolitical tensions that this crisis is about.

INSKEEP: Iran seizing its moment, also Russia reaching out in different ways to Qatar. And Qatar is where we have found Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post. Good to talk with you again. Thanks very much.

RAGHAVAN: Thank you.


INSKEEP: Some other news now. A jury will reconvene today to decide the fate of Bill Cosby.

MARTIN: Yeah. That jury will have to determine whether Bill Cosby is guilty of drugging and assaulting a woman more than a decade ago. If he's convicted, Bill Cosby could go to prison for the rest of his life.

INSKEEP: Laura Benshoff of member station WHYY in Philadelphia has been at the trial. She's on the line. Good morning.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So having sat through this trial, do you feel you understand better what the case is against Bill Cosby?

BENSHOFF: Well, I do and I don't. I mean, a lot of the arguments came up during the 18 months of hearings we had preceding the trial. And a lot of the documents that drove the trial to begin with, including a civil deposition testimony that Cosby gave back in 2005, those were all known entities. But there were some pretty fiery moments during closing arguments today - or sorry, yesterday...


BENSHOFF: ...That really helped paint the picture. They're trying to, you know, put a picture in jurors' minds about how to view these facts, what light to view these facts in. And the defense attorney in particular was doing some banging of his hand on the table and, you know, imploring the jurors not to take away an old man's tomorrow.

So you can really see how forcefully they're trying to frame the facts of the case which have been known for a while. There's no disagreement about what actually happened on that night.

INSKEEP: And the sheer number of women, the sheer number of accusers is known to the public, even if not every single case is being adjudicated here, which then raises the next question. You just gave an emotional defense for Bill Cosby, don't take away an old man's last few years. What about a factual defense? How much of a factual defense was Cosby's side able to mount?

BENSHOFF: You know, they only called one witness. And they asked him - he's a detective in a local township police department - you know, whether or not he knew that Cosby was losing his vision about 10 years ago.

So they really did most of their work on cross-examination, picking apart the facts that the prosecutors brought into the case. But it really is - it's about what light you view those facts. And they're really trying to forcefully impose their spotlight on them, you know, that this was a romantic relationship between Cosby and a much younger woman who he also happened to be mentoring.

So a lot of their, you know, facts, if you will, were from before and after the night of the alleged assault. They really didn't touch on the alleged assault too much because those facts aren't really in dispute.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how did it affect the atmosphere at the trial when Bill Cosby's wife Camille showed up yesterday?

BENSHOFF: It definitely added some gravitas. She hasn't been here at all. She's a presence in the courtroom. She came in on his arm. And it really, I think, lets people know the seriousness in a way that we haven't seen when he's on the arm of or commiserating with some comedians who haven't made a movie in 30 years. I mean, it really kind of adds to the - what the sentence is really about for the jury.

INSKEEP: OK. All right. Well, it'll be up to the jury now. And we'll continue to listen to reports from Laura Benshoff from our member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks very much.

BENSHOFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEACE OF MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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