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News Brief: Robert Mueller, Border Crisis, Presidential Debate


Many years ago, a government spokesman, in a moment of candor, drew a distinction for me. He said to me, I did not answer your question. I gave you my response.


That kind of distinction might be on Robert Mueller's mind. He's agreed to face questions before two House committees, but now he has to decide what questions he's really willing to answer. After he presented his report on Russian interference, Mueller appealed not to go before Congress at all.


ROBERT MUELLER: I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further about the investigation or to comment on the actions of the Justice Department or Congress.

KING: Now, that didn't stop Democrats from issuing a subpoena, which has led to his scheduled testimony on July 17.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ryan Lucas has covered the Mueller probe from the start and is in our studios once again.

Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I imagine Democrats have plenty of questions they would like to add - they'd like to throw at Robert Mueller.

LUCAS: Absolutely. The question, I suppose, though, is, you know, what can we expect to learn from this? And that's not entirely clear. Mueller is, of course, a man known for his by-the-book approach, plays by the rules, not someone who wants to be in the middle of a political fight - said as much in May, said he didn't want to testify. He also said that anything he did say wouldn't go beyond the information in the report.

Negotiations between House Democrats and Mueller to get him up on the Hill to speak publicly about this took a very long time. Mueller's reluctance, and even possible reticence, hangs over all of this. But here's how House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler explained the Democrats' task last night on CNN.


JERRY NADLER: I think he'll answer the questions. And it's up to us to ask questions that'll elicit the information.

LUCAS: Democrats have talked about wanting to get Mueller to speak about matters that are outside the four corners of the report. But as Nadler just said, they have to ask the right questions to get there.

INSKEEP: Suppose they don't get anything outside the four corners of the report. Is this still a worthwhile exercise from the Democrats' perspective?

LUCAS: From the Democrats' perspective, absolutely. This is a big deal for them. This gives them what they've wanted - a blockbuster set of hearings broadcast, of course, we can expect, live on national radio and live on national TV...

INSKEEP: I can think of a network that people could tune into...

LUCAS: (Laughter) Great.

INSKEEP: ...But anyway, go on, go on.

LUCAS: This could help Democrats build a case against Trump. Some Democrats talk impeachment. Others feel that this may be a way to hamper his chances in 2020. Remember, Democrats have struggled to get anywhere on this so far. Investigations on the Hill have been stymied by the White House. President has blocked key witnesses from testifying. Democrats want to get Mueller up in public, in front of a national TV audience. Even if he doesn't say anything outside the four corners of the report, having him speak publicly can grab the American public's attention in a way that his 448-page report perhaps did not.

INSKEEP: What do Republicans on these House committees make of all this?

LUCAS: Some Republicans who are ardent allies of the president on Capitol Hill are likely to use this as a way to chip away at the investigation. There are a lot of concerns that they have raised over the past two years about how the investigation was conducted. They have raised allegations of potential surveillance abuses by the FBI and the Justice Department. The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins, said that he hopes that this hearing, as he put it, will give Democrats closure.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK. Any response from the White House?

LUCAS: The president took to Twitter, tweeted overnight. Presidential harassment - that's how he put it. That has been his line for quite some time. One of the president's private attorneys, Jay Sekulow, told our colleague Tamara Keith that he's not concerned. Mueller said he'll stick to the report. And they feel that the report helps them.

INSKEEP: Ryan, we'll be listening for your reporting on the report and the testimony about the report.

NPR's Ryan Lucas, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.


INSKEEP: Horrifying conditions reported for migrant children have heightened the sense of crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

KING: Yeah. Immigration attorney Taylor Levy has been talking to clients who spent time in U.S. custody.


TAYLOR LEVY: I have worked with asylum seekers for 10 years. I have never seen people as scared - as just, like, viscerally terrified while they're begging me, please don't let me get sent back. Please don't let me get sent back.

KING: Now, after intense criticism, the head of Customs and Border Protection has resigned. And then, last night, the House passed border legislation that would address some parts of this crisis.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett has covered the border for many years. He's in Texas this morning. John, hi.


INSKEEP: What kinds of conditions are we learning about for migrant children?

BURNETT: Well, there's been quite a bit of drama in the last 48 hours surrounding the fate of those 350 children, who were being held in cells with room for a hundred at a Border Patrol station in West Texas. By now, we've all heard about the conditions. The children told lawyer advocates who visited them they weren't getting enough to eat. They were filthy and inconsolably sad. And the older kids were taking care of the tiny ones.

Yesterday, there was some movement. Two hundred and forty-nine of the kids were transferred from the Clint Border Patrol station to the custody of Health and Human Services. There, they'll live in youth shelters that are a giant improvement over Border Patrol cells. But a senior CBP official told reporters yesterday that a hundred of them will stay at Clint because there's simply nowhere else to put them. The whole immigration detention system is maxed out by this historic surge of families and children crossing the border seeking asylum.

Now the action shifts to Washington. As you said, Congress is debating that $4 1/2 billion aid package that would provide for more humane treatment of migrants at the border. And the House passed it last night. Now it goes to the Senate.

INSKEEP: John, I got to tell you - regardless of anybody's views on immigration policy, when you describe the conditions for children, it's just - it's hard to listen to. It's hard to take. And now we have the resignation of John Sanders, acting head of the CBP. Why did he quit?

BURNETT: Right. Sanders sent out a message to his agency yesterday, but he didn't give a reason for leaving. There are two theories among border bureaucracy watchers. One is that he wasn't enough of a pit bull. Trump likes firebrands leading his immigration agencies. Sanders is known as a competent, dedicated, somewhat mild-mannered policy guy.

INSKEEP: Is that anything you would say about Mark Morgan, his acting replacement?

BURNETT: Well, there are multiple reports out there that Sanders' replacement at CBP will be Mark Morgan, but there's been no official announcement. He's had an unlikely trajectory. Morgan was head of the Border Patrol at the end of the Obama administration. He was not popular in the ranks. He was the first head of the agency who'd never been a border agent wearing the distinctive green uniform. One agent told me, we bleed green, and Morgan didn't fit in. And Trump fired him as soon as he took office.

But after that, Morgan sort of reinvented himself as a conservative commentator on Fox, saying things like this to host Tucker Carlson about unaccompanied migrant children.


MARK MORGAN: I've been to the detention facilities, where I've walked up to these individuals that are so-called minors, 17 or under. And I've looked at them. And I've looked at their eyes, Tucker. And I said, that is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member. It's unequivocal.

BURNETT: So Trump brought on Morgan a little over two months ago as acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So now, the head of every immigration agency is acting and unconfirmed by the Senate, including an acting secretary over Homeland Security. Representative Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, described DHS as chaos.

INSKEEP: Really appreciate the clarification that we don't know for sure that Morgan is moving into this new job because the president has sometimes talked about a replacement or even announced a replacement for various jobs, and then that person doesn't end up in the position.

John, thanks so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett.


INSKEEP: OK. Tonight, 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls take the stage in Miami, Fla.

KING: That's right. It's the first of two prime-time debates that are going to air on NBC. And tonight's lineup includes...


BRIAN WILLIAMS: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Tim Ryan, Elizabeth Warren.

KING: And then tomorrow, another debate, another 10 Democrats.

INSKEEP: Shouldn't Brian Williams have gotten a little more announcer?

KING: (Laughter) It is exciting.

INSKEEP: Beto O'Rourke. Right? He did. OK. Go on. Go on.

KING: For a lot of people watching who are not like us, it will be their first time really seeing some of these candidates.

INSKEEP: NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro will be watching and joins us now.

Good morning.


INSKEEP: So what key questions do Democrats need to answer before this national audience?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, the thing that we keep hearing about on the campaign trail and, you know, have talked about this plenty on the air and what we've seen in polling is that electability is No. 1 with Democratic voters by far this year. I mean, sure, they're going to be asked about policy. They have to speak to immigration, like we've been talking about, health care, climate change, student loan debt, income inequality. But these debates are really the first chance for millions of voters across the country to look on that stage and see who they think up there is a president.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that most of the leading candidates, according to the early polls, aren't on until the second night. And so I guess this first night is an opportunity for people to look at the other ones they haven't really heard much about yet.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, I'd say that Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke are three people who have been leading in the polls. You know, if you go by that, that they're fairly big names. But everybody - you're right - wanted to be on stage with Joe Biden because he's been, you know, the so-called frontrunner for so long in this race since he's gotten in and because so many of them are making cases against him because they have a fundamental different view on how the country should be governed.

You know, but tonight is an opportunity, I mean, for a lot of these candidates, for some of the ones you mentioned, you know, especially Elizabeth Warren, to stand out on their own. I mean, Warren has hustled. She's been substantive and has started to pass by Bernie Sanders in a lot of polls. So, you know, for tomorrow night, as Sanders is looking to square off against Biden, Warren is really somebody he's got a lot to worry about with. And, you know, she is going to try to command that stage tonight.

INSKEEP: Do you have the impression that Democratic voters are being given a truly wide range of choices here, or is it more a difference in tone? Joe Biden has tried to seem a little more congenial, a little more moderate, perhaps, than some of the other candidates and yet also insists no one should question my progressive credentials. Are they standing for fundamentally different approaches to the country, fundamentally different challenges to the president?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, one of the frames in this - you know, in this campaign so far has been this progressive versus pragmatic approach, you know. In this Democratic primary, they're going to have to try to go after people who are going to get them the nomination first, but they also can't really alienate the middle. And we're so polarized, it's highly unlikely that, of course, many Trump voters would be open to voting for any of these candidates. But striking that balance is really difficult and a thing that is important to do when you have this talk of unity versus, you know, the more progressive approach.


INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks as always.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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