News Brief: Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings, Woodward's Book

Sep 5, 2018
Originally published on September 5, 2018 8:14 am
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BRETT KAVANAUGH: If confirmed to the Supreme Court, I will keep an open mind in every case. I will do equal right to the poor and to the rich. I will always strive to preserve the Constitution of the United States and the American rule of law.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And that is the voice of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, making his opening statement late yesterday at his confirmation hearing. And if that was all you heard from the hearing, you'd think it was pretty pro forma. It definitely did not start out that way, though.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

No, it did not. As soon as Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley began the hearing - as soon as it started - Democrats on the committee interrupted, claiming they did not have enough information to fully vet Kavanaugh. Grassley let Democrats say their piece, but he rejected their motion to delay. Today, committee members will get a chance to question Kavanaugh directly about his judicial record.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Scott Detrow was following the hearing yesterday, will be doing so, I assume, today and joins us now in the studio.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So Democrats, as David noted, tried valiantly to get this delayed from their opinion. Chuck Grassley, though, wasn't having it - was he?

DETROW: He was not. And it really depends on what your definition of success was here. Did the Democrats delay the hearing? No, they did not. What they did do was spend close to two hours at the beginning of this hearing highlighting an issue that has really frustrated them all summer. And that's - they say they just haven't had a chance to look at Kavanaugh's full track record in the Bush White House, which was a key period in his career.

MARTIN: There was some posturing by some potential presidential candidates as well. Right?

DETROW: Yeah, I don't think it was an accident that the very first Democrat to cut in was California Democrat Kamala Harris followed closely by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota - all viewed as possible 2020 presidential candidates. Their concerns were certainly legitimate from their point of view, but they were certainly aware that this is the rare Senate hearing that's being covered wall-to-wall.

MARTIN: I mean - they say they haven't had the documents to vet Kavanaugh. But would anything in those documents convince these Democrats to vote for Kavanaugh?

DETROW: Probably not. A lot of these Democrats have already said they're not going to vote for him at all. But I think one thing that you're probably going to hear about today is an issue that Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin flagged in 2006, when Kavanaugh was nominated for the federal bench for the first time. Durbin asked him at a hearing whether Kavanaugh had played a role in the Bush White House in any conversations about those enhanced interrogation techniques, as they were called at the time. Kavanaugh said no. Later, it came out that he had had some of those conversations. Durbin's certainly going to focus on that today. He feels like he was lied to in that 2006 hearing. And Democrats say that's a perfect example of why they need to see everything Kavanaugh was doing in the White House.

MARTIN: What else did those opening statements yesterday tell us about the kinds of questions Kavanaugh is going to face today?

DETROW: I think you're going to hear a lot about policies like like abortion rights. Kavanaugh would be replacing Justice Kennedy, who was the swing vote on abortion rights cases for decades. Health care is going to come up a lot as well. You're going to also hear a lot about executive power. Kavanaugh has written in some legal journals that he thinks that a sitting president shouldn't have to deal with subpoenas, criminal investigations - which is quite the view for someone who worked on Ken Starr's investigation of President Bill Clinton. But Kavanaugh said his mind had changed. That's certainly a very relevant topic right now as President Trump and the White House are being investigated by Robert Mueller.

MARTIN: Which is what Dick Durbin also pointed out. It was almost - as Durbin was painting it, didn't matter who was sitting there as the nominee. The fact that this person has been tapped by this president, who is currently under investigation - it creates some baggage for this particular Supreme Court nominee.

DETROW: That's right. Many Democrats were saying - if the president's under investigation, if this White House is under investigation, if there's a good chance that some sort of question about the scope of that ends up before the Supreme Court, that should be taken into consideration. And some Democrats were arguing Trump shouldn't even be making a pick under those circumstances.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Scott Detrow for us, who will be looking at Day 2 of the Kavanaugh confirmations that come up today.

Thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right, it's one thing when a former staffer with an ax to grind writes a tell-all book. But when half of the reporting duo that broke the Watergate story turns his focus on you - well, it's a different and perhaps more damning story.

GREENE: That's right. This is Bob Woodward. And the first excerpts from his new book about the Trump White House began to circulate yesterday. Woodward paints this picture of a factional West Wing but one more or less united by a low opinion of their boss. Over hundreds of pages, Woodward reportedly documents efforts by senior officials to subvert or delay the president's wishes if they see them as politically damaging or threatening to national security.

Now, Woodward spoke to President Trump after he had finished the manuscript of the book. He recorded that phone call, and here's just a bit of their exchange.

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BOB WOODWARD: You know, it's a tough look at the world and your administration and you.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Right. Well, I assume that means it's going to be a negative book. But you know, I'm some - I'm sort of 50 percent used to that. That's all right. Some are good, and some of are bad. Sounds like this is going to be a bad one.

MARTIN: All right, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here. Mara, the through-line, as David noted - at least in these excerpts - is that top staffers have been trying to work around this president, trying to blunt some of his more extreme decisions. Right?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: That's right. That's one of the things that really stands out in the book. The book does echo similar stories of dysfunction and chaos, disparagement by top officials. But also, it shows top officials trying to protect Trump from himself or trying to protect the country from him. And it's deeply reported. It has these vivid scenes. And it seems to really corroborate what we've been hearing all along about the Trump White House.

MARTIN: Can you walk us through at least one of these specific examples?

LIASSON: Well, for example, top White House officials removed paper - Gary Cohn, top economic adviser, removed a piece of paper off of Trump's desk because he thought that if Trump signed it and removed the United States from an agreement with South Korea, it would be bad for national security.

MARTIN: There's also another anecdote of Trump's lawyers running kind of a mock Q&A with him to imitate what a Mueller investigation interview would be like and those lawyers then saying the president essentially failed that experiment.

LIASSON: Right. And it quotes John Dowd, the president's former lawyer, as telling the president that he should not testify - he should not be interviewed by Robert Mueller because "it's either that or an orange jumpsuit."

MARTIN: How's the White House responding to this, if at all?

LIASSON: Well, John Dowd actually denied saying that. White House chief of staff John Kelly denied calling the president an idiot. That's also in the book. The secretary of defense, Mattis, said that he never uttered the words that were attributed to him in the book. The president denied having any papers taken off his desk.

But what really struck me about the White House response was how it seemed less intense than the way they responded to Michael Wolff who wrote "Fire And Fury" or Omarosa Manigault Newman. It's harder for the White House to undermine the credibility of Bob Woodward, someone who's won two Pulitzer Prizes and has never had his reporting debunked.

MARTIN: One more thing to get to with you, Mara - the New York Times reported last night that special counsel Mueller has informed the president's legal team that he would accept some answers in writing from the president on whether or not his campaign conspired with Russia in the 2016 election. What can you tell us there?

LIASSON: Well, several news organizations are reporting that Bob Mueller has said, yes, he would accept written answers about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. What we don't know are the conditions under which Mueller would accept answers relating to questions of obstruction of justice. And we know this big tension about whether the president should sit down with Mueller figured in the Woodward book. And we don't know...

MARTIN: Whether or not that's been decided.

LIASSON: ...What is going to be the resolution of these negotiations.

MARTIN: Right. NPR's Mara Liasson.

Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: OK, David - just down the hall from the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill today, another big hearing is going down with some equally big names.

GREENE: Yeah, really big names. You're going to have Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. They're going to be appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. They have come to Washington to address how their companies have responded to the threat of hacking and foreign influence campaigns ahead of the all-important midterm elections - and whether their response has evolved over time.

MARTIN: All right. We are joined by NPR's Tim Mak in the studio. So Tim, as David said, these people have answered these questions before. What have not - what haven't they answered yet? I mean, what are the questions lawmakers still have to put forward?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Yeah. They're going to be answering questions on how seriously they're actually taking the threat of foreign influence operations on social media. And there is an increasing sense of seriousness amongst a lot of big tech firms about how their platform could actually be used against American democracy. Facebook, for example, is going to emphasize how they're doubling the number of people that they're hiring and employing to work on safety and security issues.

But there's one big firm that won't be there at all. And that's Google, which has declined to send founder Larry Page or its CEO to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee. And there's a bipartisan consensus from Republican Chairman Richard Burr and Democratic Co-chairman Mark Warner that Google's offer to send its chief legal officer was actually insufficient. So during today's hearing, we're actually expecting an empty chair to be placed in the room to represent Google's absence.

MARTIN: Oh, wow - a little theater there. So I mean, do you get the sense that these companies are taking this threat more seriously. I mean, it requires admitting a vulnerability - right? - or requires them admitting, oh, we weren't doing it all right before.

MAK: Yeah. Facebook in particular is trying to make a good faith effort towards transparency in addressing some of these concerns. And some of this is driven by the nature of the threat. There's no sign it's actually diminishing. This past month, we had Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter - all announced they discovered new foreign influence operations. Iran was revealed to have created a worldwide disinformation campaign. And on top of that, we saw new Russian disinformation campaigns and apparent hacking attempts. People are on red alert.

MARTIN: So what is Congress's role here? I mean, they have suggested that there might be some kind of regulation they could put in place to help these companies, to hold them account. Is that really in the offing?

MAK: They're considering everything from new online ad disclosures or tougher automatic sanctions on foreign actors like Russia. But the big question is whether or not this is the kind of thing that could be solved by legislation. The threat is super multidimensional, everything from hacking to bot networks to disinformation campaigns to election infrastructure security. And some of this can be solved by people using things like multifactor security on their emails and being just more judicious about what they read online and what they believe.

MARTIN: Right. The onus is on us, the users...

MAK: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...To some degree.

All right, NPR's Tim Mak for us this morning on those Facebook and Twitter hearings happening on Capitol Hill today.

Thanks so much, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

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